Paris – Vistas Under The Cathedral

NOTRE-DAME, from whatever angle one may take it, reveals itself with a certain magnificent surprise to which one never grows stale. Its Gothic grandeur, rising from the smooth surface of the Parvis, presents the substantial, enduring bulk, as if in sum total, of the primary factors of the medieval city reared upon the foundations of the remoter Roman city, molded into indomitable relation to the modern city, which it dwarfs and minimizes, the while protecting, and supremely holds at bay.

As characterizing Paris, compare it with what you will, it never yields a jot of its importance. The willowy Eiffel Tower, which from the western extremity of the Champ de Mars spans lightly prodigious spaces and lifts its head to vertiginous heights as the emblem of a frivolous experiment, is no more marvelous a feat of engineering than are these flying buttresses which support the apse of the XIIth century construction of the cathedral; the white towers of the basilica crowning Montmartre reflect indeed a spectacular image of Paris in pretty despair over her sins; but Notre-Dame, and Notre-Dame only, clutches and holds the vitals of the past, the present, and the future, sinks its roots deep into the history of the soil, reflects the temper of the people, embodies the power, and the impotence, of kings and bishops, dominates the mob, and succors the masses.

The blood of revolutions has stained its portails, profane hands have pillaged and restored its sculpture, have broken its ornaments, have cast away its glass, have sacked its sanctuary ; these things are but incidents. The silhouette is maintained; so, by a miracle, are most of the salient features, the more important details; so, by its powerful dimensions, the eloquence of its ensemble, its Gothic mystery and imagery, does the great facade inspire awe, if not a sense of terror, a terror of the gravity of life and death and eternity, an emotion as if in the awful presence of religion made manifest. And this, though, upon inspection, carried out in the literal stories of the embrasures and tympanums and piers of the great doors, not at all the effect of such puerile devices, whose quaintness touches one in quite another way, but as the sublime effect of the architecture itself.

Ah, but this first aspect of the great cathedral is a thing to conjure with. To one who loves it and who loves Paris, there are whole mornings, afternoons, and evenings to be devoted to nothing more than giving one’s self the ever new thrill of coming upon it, as it were, unawares. Approaching it squarely from the remotest spot along the Seine from which its blunt towers and its delicate fleche are visible, until one comes full upon its glory from the Place Saint-Michel, or, crossing the Pont de la cite, steps out upon the Place du Parvis—that is fine enough, impressive enough in all conscience. But there are twenty secret routes by which one may steal upon it, circuitous ways through shabby quarters and narrow old streets, where light scarcely filters and air is a dispensable luxury, where, suddenly, through a rift in the close-packed dwellings, the great Gothic bulk bursts upon the view.

The most favourable promenade leading to such a climax is through that ancient section on the left bank of the Seine, lying between the Boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain and along the quais, taking by preference the Rue Saint-Severin, which leaves. on the right hand a charming bit of architecture to be taken up later, and continuing a few steps through the Rue Galande one finds, on the left, a mere narrow passage leading, through the debris of recent demolition and roughly boarded through most of its length, to the Quai de Montebello, a little street of very ancient flavour called the Rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. From the opening of this ” ruelle ” is perhaps the most striking vista in all Paris—the contrast between the poverty of the neighbour-hood and the splendour of the Gothic structure, and at the same time the affinity between them is fraught with material for reflection.

We are here, suddenly, all within the epoch; there is nothing between us and the XIIIth century, while there is much that is earlier. Just here, perhaps, more than anywhere else, may one absorb the spirit of the antiquity of Paris, else-where blotted out by the intensity of its elan vital. It tells, with a conviction born of the actual visual proof, of things in a process of evolution. Through a gateway which might lead to a disused stable, so shabby and neglected it is, one enters a paved courtyard with an old well, the whole dilapidated and in the possession of heed-less tenants, partly enclosed by an unkempt fragmerit of the rampart of Philippe Auguste.

We are here, then, on the border of the XIIth century town, before the desecrated, but still treasured, wreck of a church contemporary with the cathedral, and probably finished first—the church Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre from which the ruelle takes its name. A church brilliant in the Middle Ages, degraded, denuded, abbreviated in the successive centuries, but still conserving an unique message for archaeologists as representing the precise moment when Gothic architecture succeeded Roman. We shall come back to it after a study of Notre-Dame shall have whetted the appetite for such abstractions, but for the moment it serves as another point of vantage from which the great cathedral looms majestic. The sacristan is always ready to open the north door, in the side of the little church, which used to communicate with the old Hotel Dieu when Saint-Julienle-Pauvre degenerated into a mere chapel for the inmates of that institution, and from which Notre-Dame is again superbly seen across the river—’radiant as some glorious flower.

The Seine widens above the ile de la cite, and from both banks, coming back from the direction of the Gare de Lyon, the magnificent apse of the cathedral is boldly drawn against the sky. There is a viewpoint from the Pont Sully, which crosses the extreme end of the ile Saint-Louis, and forms a link between the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Boulevard Henri IV, which leads on to the Bastille, from which the full force of the choir and apse with their flying buttresses is deeply impressive.

But there is more charm in a quiet prowl along the northern side of the peaceful ile Saint-Louis, the Quai de Bourbon, and the Quai d’Anjou, lost in contemplative reverie before those exquisite XVIIth century hotels—Lauzun and Lambert—when, rounding the end of the smaller island and passing along the Quai de Bethune, one comes suddenly and directly upon the round point of the apse, from the length of the Quai d’Orleans, looking across an arm of the river which separates the two islands. Again there are no disturbing elements, there is nothing to subtract from the perfection of the presentment. But I assure you it takes the breath away.

There are times of day and seasons more favourable than others to a study of effects upon the character of Notre-Dame. At mid-day by a fine summer sun, its outlines are accentuated by strong shadows, and the great western portail assumes the depth and vigour of a masterly litho-graph. Through the enveloping gray of an Indian summer morning the majesty of its forms and the abundance of its detail melt and flow together with the sympathy of a charcoal rendering. Or by moonlight, in the solitary Parvis, when all detail is lost and only the great general masses are discernible as deeper, softer notes in the vast silhouette, one can best submit to the power of its architecture.

Of the Gothic cathedrals of France each has its special beauty and originality. Le Mans is celebrated for its prodigious choir, Rouen for the immense variety of its accessories, Chartres for its glass, its belfrys, its porches, and the originality of its details, Bourges for its unique crypt, Amiens for its unequalled nave, while the splendid portails and marvellous sculpture made the reputation of Rheims and of Notre-Dame.

The great cathedral, such as we see it to-day, dates in part from the reign of Louis VII, le Jeune, or what is more important, from the time of Maurice de Sully, the seventy-third bishop of Paris, or, in other words, from about the middle of the XIIth century. Pope Alexander III is said to have laid the first stone, in 1163, during the time that he was a refugee in France. To substantiate the truth of the contemporary ac-count, written by Robert of Auxerre, we know that on April 21, of the same year, this pontiff consecrated the apse of Saint-Germain-des-Pres ” with the assistance of twelve cardinals.”

As early as the IVth century, however, the Christians, before the reign of Clovis, the founder of the monarchy of the Francs, and the first of the Merovingien kings, had erected a basilica. Through the Life of Saint-Marcel we know that a church existed before the end of the Vlth century, on the banks of the Seine, near the point of the island. But the solid ground of the present ile de la cite, one must remember, is composed of the amalgamation of three islands, for in earlier times two islets lay in the bed of the Seine, before the point of the principal island of Lutece, the cradle of Paris. The ” point of the island then, upon which existed this first cathedral, was, roughly speaking, at about where is now the Petit Pont.

This church built, as it appears, by Prudentius, the eighth bishop of Paris, is reputed to have been restored by Childebert, the third son of Clovis, who figures in the annals of the time as the king of Paris, and the most prominent of the reigning monarchs of the Francs.

The obscurity of the narrations of this period of the history of that delightful territory known to the ancients as Gallia, the remoteness and variety of the sources of available information, leave the reader much agreeable scope for imagination—written also as are these old chronicles with a naivete altogether delicious.

Bounded by the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the ocean, the country was exposed to perpetual invasions and colonized by numerous tribes and peoples. Fabulous as are the contemporary narratives, it becomes clear that amongst the usurpers who struggled for possession of Gallia, the Francs, albeit not the most civilized, became in time a powerful race, established themselves in a large territory extending from Gallia Belgica to the river Somme, and made the city of Treves their capital.

Under the rule of the succession from a more or less mythical common ancestor, called Merovee —or Meerwig, or Meerwings (warrior of the sea) —the Francs had extended their conquests to the banks of the Loire at the time (about 481) that Clovis, at the age of fifteen years, became king, succeeding his father, Childeric, expulsed by his subjects, the Salle Francs camped in and about Tournai, the old Civitas Nerviorum of Caesar.

Childeric upon expulsion had fled to Thuringia, and in his place his former subjects had adopted as their ruler Siagre, or Syagrius, son of Gilles, the last of the Roman governors. In the fifth year of his reign, Clovis, a youth of twenty, aided by a kinsman prince, made war upon his father’s former possessions, put to death Syagrius, and conquered his people, thereby laying the corner-stone of the realm over which he was soon to become sole ruler. It was in thus uniting the scattered petty kingdoms of the Francs and making himself their king, that Clovis founded the Merovingien Dynasty—the name derived from that of the common ancestor.

Christianity was brought into Paris in the IIIrd century—or thereabouts. But until Clovis the rulers of the Francs were still pagans, or heretics, mostly Arians, who denied the consubstantiality of Christ. Clovis, in the eyes at least of Gregoire de Tours, our chief authority, owed much of his successful domination of the Francs to the support of the clergy, who at the time held supreme moral influence over the people. The bishops preferred Clovis, who as it appears was without strong convictions, to the Arian princes, his rivals, who presented to’ the doctrines of Christianity an invincible opposition.

Gregoire de Tours would have us believe that it was the bishops and the clergy placed under their orders who nationalized this prince of the Salic Francs and his family. This would explain the intimate alliance which existed between the successors of Clovis and the ministers of the church. Though the murders, pillages, and ex-actions of all kinds practised and instigated by these bellicose kings of the Merovingien Dynasty often bruised the harmony of their relations with the bishops, the damage was never irreparable. Long penances, or even the moments which preceded the death of a monarch, expiated the violence and rapine of a lifetime of libertinage.

Clovis’ conversion to Christianity resulted from his marriage to Clotilde, a Burgundian princess. Though of a line of Arians Clotilde was a Christian. She was a granddaughter of Gondioche, king of the Burgundians. At the death of this monarch, following the custom of the times by which an elder son had no material advantage over a younger, his realm was divided amongst his four sons, whereupon Gondebaud, the eldest, in order to simplify the succession and augment his own power and possessions in Burgundy, killed his brother Chilperic—Clotilde’s father—drowned his wife—Clotilde’s mother—and exiled the two daughters, of whom the elder, Crone, became a nun. Later Clotilde, despite the outrage she had suffered at his hands, was received into the household of Gondebaud, who, by an in-difference which seems only natural in view of what had already transpired, left her free to pursue the religion of her choice.

It was to Gondebaud, then, that Clovis, acting upon the advices of his ambassadors, applied for the hand of his niece. This favour the king, more from fear than inclination (” plutot par crainte que par inclination”) says Gregoire de Tours, granted, and the young princess, whom the ambassadors, had reported ” aussi sage que belle,” was escorted to the kingdom of her future husband, where she became his wife, notwithstanding the fact, says the chronicler, that Clovis had al-ready, by a concubine, a son, whose name was Thierry.

The narrative now becomes exceedingly naive. Clotilde’s sole concern in this marriage, we are told, was the conversion of her husband to the true faith. Their union was soon blessed with a son, Ingomen, whom, in defiance of all tradition to the contrary in the house of the Merovingiens, Clotilde had baptised. As the infant died soon after baptism, Clovis attributed his death to that ceremony, and reproached the queen, who nevertheless, nothing daunted, baptised their second son, Clodomir, upon his arrival on the scene. History threatened to repeat itself. The child fell ill and Clovis ” groaned and cried,” but the queen, ” foreseeing the bad effects of a second loss of this nature ” upon the cause to which she was devoted—more as a matter of policy than from any interest in her baby, the narration almost implies—” prayed to God, and He reestablished his health.”

Clovis, upon this proof of Divine power, was expected to turn Christian, but he resisted and it was not until a full three years after his marriage that his conversion was accomplished. Clovis at this time (496) was engaged in a war against the Germans at Tolbiac. At first the Francs were badly beaten and there was great carnage. Clovis invoked his pagan gods in vain, and finally having proven their impotence (” ayant eprouve que ses Dieux’ n’avoient nulle puissance “) he, in his extremity, bethought him of Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, of whom Clotilde had so often spoken; he invoked him and asked his help, promising to become a Christian if he would grant him a victory. The pact was made. Clovis had scarcely finished speaking, says the chronicler, when Clovis died at Paris, in 511, he was interred in the basilica of Saint-Peter and Saint-Paul, which he and Clotilde had built as a monument to his victory over the Visigoths, upon the summit of a mount at whose base was the ancient palace of the Caesars—the Palais des Thermes.

Clovis, returning victor, related to the queen how her God had aided him in his peril, and she, profiting of the occasion, sent secretly to Remi, the bishop of Rheims, who presented himself at the court and effected the conversion. Clovis declared himself convinced but feared that his subjects would never willingly give up their idols. What was his surprise, says the narrative, when appearing before them he found that the miracle was accomplished, for they cried: ” Nous abandon-?Tons ces Dieux Mortels, o Roi pieux, & noes fommes prets de fuivre ce Dieu immortel que Remi annonce.”

The good news was carried to Remi, who, ” trembling with joy,” commanded that the sacred bath should be prepared. This was done with ceremony and magnificence. Clovis came to the baptismal font, and the sainted prelate said to him: ” Baiffer humblement la tete, o Sicambre! Adorez de que vous avez brute, et brulez ce que vous avez adore.” Thus was Clovis, the founder of the Merovingien Dynasty, baptised and anointed—thus were church and state united.

Besides the king more than three thousand of his army were baptised that day as well as Albo–flede and Lantilde, the sisters of Clovis.

When Clovis died at Paris, in 511, he was interred in the basilica of Saint-Peter and Saint-Paul, which he and Clotilde had built as a monument to his victory over the Visigoths, upon the summit of a mount at whose base was the ancient palace of the Caesars—the Palais des Thermes. Some centuries later this church became known as Sainte-Genevieve.

If Clotilde worked throughout her life with great singleness of purpose towards the establishment of her religion in the royal house to which she was allied, Clovis was no less constant to his dominating passion, that of becoming sole and absolute ruler of Gaul. It seems therefore almost a tragedy that upon his death the unity which he had established should have had to be disintegrated.

Clovis left four heirs: Theodoric or Thierry, the offspring of his concubine, and Clodomir, Childebert, and Clotaire, the fruit of his union with Clotilde. At this epoch, as indeed during the whole of the Middle Ages and much later, bastardy was looked upon neither as a blot nor as a reason for exclusion from inheritance. Clovis was himself a bastard, a fact which had not prevented him from succeeding to the paternal kingly rights. Thierry, then, shared in equal portions with his three brothers, and received, amongst other properties, Rouergue, Auvergne, Querci, ” et les deux Germanies,” and was also allotted the cities of Metz, Toul, Verdun, Rheims, and Chalonssur-Marne, choosing Metz for the capital of his estates. Clodomir established himself at Orleans, Clotaire at Soissons, while Childebert united in his portion Senlis and Meaux and, like his father, made Paris his place of residence. It is difficult to establish the boundaries of these four divisions of Clovis’ kingdom, but it is certain that the part including Paris had several prerogatives over the others.

The history of these Merovingien monarchs is but war and rapine, but Childebert, mingling with his crimes a certain piety, figures not only as the founder of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Presfirst dedicated to Saint-Vincent and Sainte-Croix—but also, in gratitude for his recovery from an illness, as some say, rebuilt the church of Prudentius to accord with the increase of the population of Paris and the consequent growth of the congregation.

Fortunat, who lived soon after, describes with the enthusiasm of an eyewitness the glories of this work of Childebert. His De Ecclesia Parisiaca tells in poetic fashion of a basilica whose walls were splendidly supported by columns of marble, of magnificent glass in the windows, of an altar facing the east, and of the effect of Aurora creeping through those eastern windows, waking the inward fires of the floor, the walls, and the roof, which shone by their own light before being visited by the sun. And it is Fortunat who tells us that the church was the gift of the pious king Childebert to a beloved people. “Devoted with his whole soul to the service of God,” his poetic fervour allows him thus to exaggerate, ” he has added new riches to the inexhaustible treasures of the church. Veritable Melchizedek of his time, at once priest and king, he shows himself a perfect servitor of religion.”

We learn by a deed of the year 860 that the cathedral of Paris bore the name of Saint-Etienne,1 the first martyr. The Abbe Lebeuf, who has left so careful an account of the churches of Paris, is certain that this church was composed, at some time later than the reign of Childebert, of two edifices, one the Basilica of Notre-Dame and the other the Basilica of Saint-Etienne. And Gregoire de Tours in speaking of a fire which, in 586, reduced all the houses of the ile de Paris to ashes, says that only the churches were excepted. This plurality of churches in the Cite can only mean those which formed the cathedral, and of which Saint-Etienne was the oldest, being often in these early records referred to as the Senior Ecclesia.

There is reason to believe that the Normans in their raid upon Paris, in 857, burned the church dedicated to the Virgin, but spared Saint-Etienne for its ancient dome, for the preservation of which they had been paid a sum. It was in Saint-Etienne that was held the famous Concile de Paris in 829.

The companion church, Notre-Dame, which stood beside Saint-Etienne on the north side, and which had been destroyed by the Normans, was rebuilt in a grander style to accord with the latter, and having thus been repaired lasted as long as the earlier edifice, which had suffered only trifling accidents. We read that Etienne de Garlande, an archdeacon of the XIIth century, made many restorations and that the Abbe Suger, the famous builder of Saint-Denis, gave to the church a beautiful glass window. Several bits of this stained glass given by Suger appear to have been preserved in the northern rose window of the transept, and other fragments existed until the middle of the XVIIIth century, when the glorious coloured windows were taken out and replaced by modern designs in transparent glass in order to lighten the church. (!)

The kings of the Capetien Dynasty, whose palace, replacing the dwelling of Julian the Apostate, stood upon the site of the present Palais de Justice, went often to this church, and called it the nova ecclesia, to distinguish it from Saint-Etienne. When the bishop of Senlis came to Paris in 1041 to have confirmed a charter, he found King Henri I at the grande messe of the Pentecost, and Louis le Jeune is known to have come frequently in the following century.

This nova ecclesia was the first to be sacrificed to the handsome construction contemplated by the bishop Maurice de Sully, when about the year 1160 he undertook to make the two churches one. Its foundations were preserved and upon them were raised the new sanctuary and choir. The senior ecclesia was allowed to exist some fifty years longer, until standing in the way of the aisles to the south it was also demolished, having stood about six hundred years. In its destruction important relics were uncovered: among others ” three teeth of John the Baptist, an arm of Saint-Andre, and several stones from the martyrdom of Saint-Etienne.”

When, in 1847, the Place du Parvis was dug up, to put down sewers, several substructures of the basilica of Childebert, buried perhaps for ten centuries, were discovered, their foundations con-fused with those of several houses of the Roman epoch, which had surely been razed to make way for the cathedral. At this time, giving substance to Fortunat’s verses, parts of mosaic in small cubes of different colored marbles, which one supposed had served as paving to the nave of Saint-Etienne, came to light, and more important still were exhumed the remains of three columns of marble from Aquitaine, a country of ancient Gaul, as well as a large Corinthian capital in white marble, which had all the character of Merovingien sculpture. These fragments have been erected in the large Salle des Thermes, joining the Hotel de Cluny, where they may be studied close at hand. The most perfect of the three columns has been finished by the placing, or perhaps the replacing of the Corinthian capital, and from this may be judged somewhat the size and importance of the ancient cathedral from which they come.