1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Gothic Architecture in France

Architecture
(Part 96)



Gothic Architecture in France

The remarks which have already been made as to the variation in style visible in various parts of the same country, apply with more force, perhaps, in what we now call France than to any other part of Europe.

For the purposes of complete study it would be necessary to keep entirely distinct from each other in the mind the following important divisions: - (1.) Provence and Auvergne; (2.) Aquitaine; (3.) Burgundy; (4.) Anjou and Poitou; (5.) Brittany; (6.) Normandy; (7.) the Ile de France and Picardy; (8.) Champagne; and, finally, (9.) the eastern border-land (neither quite German nor quite French in its character), the meeting-point of the two very different developments of French and German art.

Speaking generally, it is safe to say that Gothic architecture was never brought to its highest perfection in any portion of the south of France. Aquitaine, Auvergne, and Provence were too wedded to classic traditions to excel in an art which seems to have required for its perfection no sort of looking back to such a past. Hence there is no Gothic work in the south for which it is possible to feel the same admiration and enthusiasm as must be felt by every artist in presence of the great works of the north.

In Anjou this is less the case; but even there the art is extremely inferior to that which is seen in Normandy and the Ile de France. Brittany may be dismissed from consideration, as being like our own Cornwall, so provincial and so cut off from neighbours, that its art could not fail to be very local, and without much influence outside its own borders.

The interest felt by the student of the history of the art need not, however, be less in the south than in the north. The Romanesque churches of Aquitaine and the south had immense influence. The church of St. Front at Perigueux was built by a Venetian colony, in imitation (as far as its plan and section) of St Mark’s at Venice. Its plan, a simple Greek cross, covered with four cupolas, is as essentially Venetian and Byzantine as it was possible to be; and the Venetian church was essentially Byzantine as opposed to Romanesque. This Byzantine or Venetian example spread far and wide over the great province of Aquitaine, and beyond its limits. A long series of churches might be named in all of which the domical character of the roofing is remarkable; and it need hardly be said that such a system of roofing cannot be adopted without a great influence on the form of the ground-plan. Sometimes these domes were treated, as at Loches, like great cones; and nearly always one of the objects of their constructors was to finish them with masonry, inside and out, in what might be held to be an indestructible manner.

At the same time that these churches were rising, we see that in the valley of the Rhone churches were being built, strictly Romanesque in style, founded on the Roman traditions developed from the basilica, and without any evidence whatever of Byzantine influence. Ere long each of those two schools reacted on the other, and the result is seen in the extraordinarily interesting churches of the Puy de Dome and of Auvergne, where the Romanesque plan is adopted, with the addition of domical vaults at the crossings, and domically roofed chapels round the domical apses. But in these examples the plan is not that of the Greek, but distinctly that of the Latin cross.

The architects of Aquitaine, again influenced those of Poitou and Anjou. The church at Fontevrault, for instance, has a nave covered with a series of domes, but it of the long form of the Latin cross; and the churches of the Gothic period along the banks of the Loire, as at Saumur and elsewhere, have domical vaults entirely unlike the Gothic vaults which were being constructed at the same time to the north of them. So, too, the cathedral at Angers, where the domes are carried on pointed arches, and date from the 13th century. And it is not a little strange, considering the connection which existed between this part of France and England for so considerable a period, that absolutely no architectural influence should be traceable of one upon the other.

In plain, in detail, and, above all, in systems of vaulting, the English and the Angevine schools are as distinct and as unlike each other as they well could be. The mode of roofing adopted by the Romanesque architects of France was generally quite different from the Byzantine plans just referred to. Their favourite mode was to cover the nave with a waggon vault, and to support this by a quadrant vault over the aisles, which gave, in fact, a continuous flying buttress along the whole length of the vault. These vaults were covered with flat stone roofs; there was no timber in their construction, and they have generally been preserved perfect to the present day. In all these churches the distinguishing feature is the plan of the eastern arm of the cross, a circular-ended apse with an aisle round it, and small apsidal chapels at intervals projecting beyond the aisle.

What the exact origin of this beautiful termination was it is difficult to say certainly. But it is obvious that such a plan as that of the temple of Minerva Medica at Rome -- a decagon surrounded by apsidal recesses --- led naturally to that of the Christian church of San Vitale, Ravena, and this to the almost similarly planned termination of the great abbey church at Cluny in Burgundy. But in whatever way these early chevets (as French term them) grew up, there is no doubt that they contained the germ of the magnificent chevets of the complete Gothic churches of the north of France.

A point to be noticed, in comparing these buildings with those in England, is the much greater frequency of stone vaults all over France from the first. The wooden roof to the nave, so common in England, was very rare in France; and the variety of early stone roofs was much greater there than here. As has been seen, the earliest forms were the waggon vault and the dome; the former constructed on aisled churches, the later upon aisles buildings.

One of the earliest examples of a quadripartite vault (i.e one formed by the intersection of two barrel vaults at right angles to each other), is that over the nave of the grand abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy. This was erected in the middle of the 12th century; it was a hazardous experiment, and though it still stands, the wonder of all who see it for its magnificent size and architectural character, its construction was not satisfactory, and the thrust of its vaults had to be met by the erection of rude flying buttresses soon after its foundation. But the covering of so vast a building with such a vault was an achievement sure to be imitated, and it is easy to see how the influence of such an example could be felt all over the country at the time that the pointed arch was coming into use, with all its convenient aids for the construction of such vast vaults. At Vézeley there is no triforium; the space against which the roof of the aisles abuts is a plain wall, and the example of many Romanesque churches, in which the double aisles of Roman buildings (e.g. St Agnese) were imitated, soon suggested the introduction of the triforium gallery between the arcades and the clerestory; whilst the necessity for light in northern climates developed necessity the lofty clerestory.





Here, therefore, the French architects found themselves in possession of all the elements of design, out of which they developed their magnificent Gothic works. There were difficulties, however, with their ground-plans, which were hardly ever quite surmounted; but as English architects were wedded to the square east end, Frenchmen were devoted to the apsidal.

And it was in the planning of the apse, with its surrounding aisles and chapels, that all their ingenuity ad science were displayed. A simple apse is easy enough of construction, but directly it is surrounded by an aisle or aisles, with chapels again beyond them, the difficulties are great. The bays of the circular aisle, instead of being square, are very much wider on one side than the other, and it is most difficult to fit the vaulting to the unequal space. In order to get over this various plans were tried.

At Notre Dame, Paris, the vaulting bays were all triangular on plan, so that the points of support might be twice as many on the outside line of the circle as on the inside. But this was rather an unsightly contrivance, and was not often repeated, though at Bourges there is something of the same sort.

At Le Mans the aisle vaulting bays are alternately triangular and square, and this is, perhaps, the best arrangement of all, as the latter are true and square, and none of the lines of the vault are twisted or distorted in the slightest degree. The arrangement of the chapels round the apse was equally varied.

Usually they are too crowded in effect; and, perhaps, the most beautiful plans is that of Rouen Cathedral, where there are only three chapels with unoccupied bays between, affording much greater relief and variety of lighting than the commoner plan which provided a chapel to every bay.

Space will not admit of carrying this point farther, but it has been necessary to say thus much, because the planning and design of the chevet is the great glory of the French mediaeval school. When the same thing was attempted, as by us at Westminster, or by the Germans at Cologne, it was evidently a copy, and usually an inferior copy, of French work. No English works led up to Westminster Abbey, and no German works to the cathedral at Cologne.

When once the Gothic style was well established, the zeal with which the work of building was pursued in France was almost incredibly great. A series of churches exists there within short distances of each other, so superb in all their features, that it is impossible to contest their superiority to any corresponding group of buildings.

The old Domaine Royale is that in which French art is seen in its perfection.

Notre Dame, Paris, is a monument second to nothing in the world; but for completeness in all its parts it would be better to cite the cathedral of Chartres, a short description of which must suffice as an explanation of what French art at its zenith was. The plan has a nave aisles, transepts with aisles on each side, a choir with two aisles all round it, and chapels beyond them. there are two immense steeples at the west end, two towers to each transept, and two towers at the junction of the choir with its apse. The doorways are triple at the west end, whilst to each transept is a vast triple porch in front of the three doorways. The whole of these doorways are covered with sculpture, much of it refined, spirited, and interesting in the highest degree. You enter and find the interior surpassing even the interior. The order of the columns and arches, and all of the details is so noble and simple that no fault can be found with it. The whole is admirably executive, and, finally, every window throughout its vast interior is full of the richest glass coeval with the fabric.

This is a French cathedral at its best, Amiens and Bourges, and Rheims and Laon, and Caen, Troyes, Le Mans and a host of other churches, might be named only inferior to this. As compared with English churches of the same class, there are striking differences. The French architects aimed at greater height, greater size, but much less effect of length. Their roofs were so lofty that it was almost impossible for them to build steeples which should have the sort of effect that ours have. The turret on Amiens Cathedral is nearly as lofty as Salisbury spire, but it only a turret; and so throughout. Few French churches afford the exquisite complete views of the exterior which English churches do; but, on the other hand, their interiors are more majestic, and man feels himself smaller and more insignificant in them than in ours. The palm must certainly be given to them above all others.

Later French architecture ran a very similar course to that which has been already described in England. The 13th century was that in which it was seen at its best. In the 14th the same sort of change took place as elsewhere; the art was beautiful, but it was too much an evidence of skillfulness and adroitness. It was harder and colder also than English work of the same age; and when it fell, it did so before the inroads of a taste for what has been called Flamboyant architecture, -- a gay and meretricious style which trusted to ornament for all its effect, and, in spite of many beauties, had none of the sturdy magnificence of much of our English Perpendicular style.

There is no country richer in examples of architecture than France. It has been seen how infinitely varied they are in the different provinces; but the student who wishes to understand what it was possible for a country to do in the way of creating monuments of its grandeur, would find in almost every part of the country, at every turn and in great profusion works of the rarest interest and beauty. The 19th century may be the consummation of all, but the evidence of its existence to posterity will not be one-tenth in number of those which such a reign as that of Philip Augustus has left us, whilst none of them will come up to the high standard which in his time was invariably reached.






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