Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
I. Notre Dame
ASSUREDLY the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Paris is, to this day, a majestic and sublime edifice. But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last.
On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior, which I would be inclined to translate: Time is blind, but man is senseless.
Had we, with the reader, the leisure to examine, one by one, the traces of the destruction wrought on this ancient church, we should have to impute the smallest share to Time, the largest to men, and more especially to those whom we must perforce call artists, since, during the last two centuries, there have been individuals among them who assumed the title of architect.
And first of all, to cite only a few prominent examples, there are surely few such wonderful pages in the book of Architecture as the façades of the Cathedral. Here unfold themselves to the eye, successively and at one glance, the three deep Gothic doorways; the richly traced and sculptured band of twenty-eight royal niches; the immense central rose-window, flanked by its two lateral windows, like a priest by the deacon and subdeacon; the lofty and fragile gallery of trifoliated arches supporting a heavy platform on its slender columns; finally, the two dark and massive towers with their projecting slate roofsharmonious parts of one magnificent whole, rising one above another in five gigantic storeys, massed yet unconfused, their innumerable details of statuary, sculpture, and carving boldly allied to the impassive grandeur of the whole. A vast symphony in stone, as it were; the colossal achievement of a man and a nationone and yet complexlike the Iliades and the Romances to which it is sisterprodigious result of the union of all the resources of an epoch, where on every stone is displayed in a hundred variations the fancy of the craftsman controlled by the genius of the artist; in a word, a sort of human Creation, mighty and prolific, like the divine Creation, of which it seems to have caught the double characteristicsvariety and eternity.
To return to the façade of Notre Dame, as we see it to-day, when we stand lost in pious admiration of the mighty and awe-inspiring Cathedral, which, according to the chroniclers, strikes the beholder with terrorquæ mole sua terrorem incutit spectantibus.
Three important things are now missing in that façade: the flight of eleven steps which raised it above the level of the ground; the lower row of statues occupying the niches of the three doorways; and the upper series of twenty-eight, which filled the gallery of the first story and represented the earliest Kings of France, from Childebert to Philip Augustus, each holding in his hand the imperial orb.
The disappearance of the steps is due to Time, which by slow and irresistible degrees has raised the level of the soil of the city. But Time, though permitting these eleven steps, which added to the stately elevation of the pile, to be swallowed by the rising tide of the Paris pavement, has given to the Cathedral more perhaps than he took away; for it was the hand of Time that steeped its façade in those rich and sombre tints by which the old age of monuments becomes their period of beauty.
But who has overthrown the two rows of statues? Who has left the niches empty? Who has scooped out, in the very middle of the central door, that new and bastard-pointed arch? Who has dared to hang in it, cheek by jowl with Biscornettes arabesques, that tasteless and clumsy wooden door with Louis XV carvings? Manthe architectsthe artists of our own day!
And, if we enter the interior of the edifice, who has overthrown the colossal St. Christopher, proverbial among statues as the Grande Salle of the Palais among Halls, as the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral among steeples? And the countless figureskneeling, standing, equestrian, men, women, children, kings, bishops, knights, of stone, marble, gold, silver, brass, even waxwhich peopled all the spaces between the columns of the nave and the choirwhat brutal hand has swept them away? Not that of Time.
And who replaced the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly charged with shrines and reliquaries, by that ponderous marble sarcophagus with its stone clouds and cherubs heads, which looks like an odd piece out of the Val de Grâce or of the Invalides?
And who put cold white glass in the place of those richly coloured panes which caused the dazzled eyes of our fore-fathers to wander undecided from the rose-window over the great doorway to the pointed ones of the chancel and back again? And what would a priest of the sixteenth century say to the fine yellow wash with which the vandal Arch-bishops have smeared the walls of their Cathedral? He would recollect that this was the colour the hangman painted over houses of evil-fame; he would recall the Hôtel de Petit-Bourbon plastered all over with yellow because of the treason of its owner, the Connétablea yellow of so permanent a dye, says Sauval, and so well laid on, that the passage of more than a century has not succeeded in dimming its colour. He would think that the Holy Place had become infamous and would flee from it.
And if we ascend the Cathedral, passing over a thousand barbarisms of every descriptionwhat has become of the charming little belfry, fretted, slender, pointed, sonorous, which rose from the point of intersection of the transept, and every whit as delicate and as bold as its neighbour the spire (likewise destroyed) of the Sainte-Chapelle, soared into the blue, farther even than the towers? An architect of taste (1787) had it amputated, and deemed it sufficient reparation to hide the wound under the great lead plaster which looks like the lid of a sauce-pen.
First of all, Time, which has gradually made breaches here and there and gnawed its whole surface; next, religious and political revolutions, which, in the blind fury natural to them, wreaked their tempestuous passions upon it, rent its rich garment of sculpture and carving, burst in its rose-windows, broke its necklets of arabesques and figurines, tore down its statues, one time for their mitres, another time for their crowns; and finally, the various fashions, growing ever more grotesque and senseless, which, from the anarchical yet splendid deviations of the Renaissance onwards, have succeeded one another in the inevitable decadence of Architecture. Fashion has committed more crimes than revolution. It has cut to the quick, it has attacked the very bone and framework of the art; has mangled, pared, dislocated, destroyed the edificein its form as in its symbolism, in its coherence as in its beauty. This achieved, it set about renewinga thing which Time and Revolution, at least, never had the presumption to do. With unblushing effrontery, in the interests of good taste, it has plastered over the wounds of Gothic architecture with its trumpery knick-knacks, its marble ribbons and knots, its metal rosettesa perfect eruption of ovolos, scrolls, and scallops; of draperies, garlands, fringes; of marble flames and brazen clouds; of blowzy cupids and inflated cherubs, which began by devouring the face of art in the oratory of Catherine de Medicis, and ended by causing it to expire, tortured and grimacing, two centuries later, in the boudoir of Mme. Dubarry.
Thus, to sum up the points we have just discussed, the ravages that now disfigure Gothic architecture are of three distinct kinds: furrows and blotches wrought by the hand of Time; practical violencebrutalities, bruises, fracturesthe outcome of revolution, from Luther down to Mirabeau; mutilations, amputations, dislocation of members, restorations, the result of the laboursGreek, Roman, and barbarianof the professors following out the rules of Vitruvius and Vignola. That magnificent art which the Goths created has been murdered by the Academies.
To the devastations of Time and of Revolutionscarried out at least with impartiality and grandeurhave been added those of a swarm of school-trained architects, duly licensed and incorporated, degrading their art deliberately and, with all the discernment of bad taste, substituting the Louis XV fussiness for Gothic simplicity, and all to the greater glory of the Parthenon. This is the kick of the ass to the dying lion; it is the ancient oak, dead already above, gnawed at the roots by worms and vermin.
How remote is this from the time when Robert Cenalis, comparing Notre Dame at Paris with the far-famed Temple of Diana at Ephesus, so much vaunted by the ancient pagans, which immortalized Erostratus, considered the Gallican Cathedral more excellent in length, breadth, height, and structure.1
For the rest, Notre Dame cannot, from the architectural point of view, be called complete, definite, classified. It is not a Roman church, neither is it a Gothic church. It is not typical of any style of architecture. Notre Dame has not, like the Abbey of Tournus, the grave and massive squareness, the round, wide, vaulted roof, the frigid nudity, the majestic simplicity of the edifices which have their origin in the Roman arch. Nor is it like the Cathedral of Bourges, the splendid, airy, multiform, foliated, pinnacled, efflorescent product of the Gothic arch. Impossible, either, to rank it among that antique family of churchessombre, mysterious, low-pitched, cowering, as it were, under the weight of the round arch; half Egyptian, wholly hieroglyphical, wholly sacerdotal, wholly symbolical; as regards ornament, rather overloaded with lozenges and zigzags than with flowers, with flowers than animals, with animals than human figures; less the work of the architect than the Bishop, the first transformation of the art still deeply imbued with theocratic and military discipline, having its root in the Byzantine Empire, and stopping short at William the Conqueror. Nor, again, can the Cathedral be ranked with that other order of lofty, aerial churches, with their wealth of painted windows and sculptured work, with their sharp pinnacles and bold outlines; communal and citizenregarded as political symbols; free, capricious, untrammelledregarded as works of art. This is the second transformation of architectureno longer cryptic, sacerdotal, inevitable, but artistic, progressive, popularbeginning with the return from the Crusades and ending with Louis XI.
Notre Dame is neither pure Roman, like the first, nor pure Gothic, like the second; it is an edifice of the transition period. The Saxon architect had just finished erecting the first pillars of the nave when the pointed arch, brought back by the Crusaders, arrived and planted itself victorious on the broad Roman capitals which were intended only to support round arches. Master, henceforth, of the situation, the pointed arch determined the construction of the rest of the building. Inexperienced and timid at its commencement, it remains wide and low, restraining itself, as it were, not daring to soar up into the arrows and lancets of the marvellous cathedrals of the later period. It would almost seem that it was affected by the proximity of the heavy Roman pillars.
Not that these edifices showing the transition from Roman to Gothic are less worthy of study than the pure models. They express a gradation of the art which would else be lost. It is the grafting of the pointed arch on to the circular arch.
Notre Dame de Paris, in particular, is a curious specimen of this variety. Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and of art. Thusto mention here only a few of the chief detailswhereas the small Porte Rouge almost touches the limits of fifteenth century Gothic delicacy, the pillars of the nave, by their massiveness and great girth, reach back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One would imagine that six centuries lay between that door and those pillars. Not even the Hermetics fail to find in the symbols of the grand doorway a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus the Roman Abbeythe Church of the MysticsGothic artSaxon artthe ponderous round pillar reminiscent of Gregory VII, the alchemistic symbolism by which Nicolas Flamel paved the way for Lutherpapal unityschismSaint-Germain-des-PrésSaint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherieall are blended, combined, amalgamated in Notre Dame. This generative Mother-Church is, among the other ancient churches of Paris, a sort of Chimera: she has the head of one, the limbs of another, the body of a thirdsomething of all.
These hybrid edifices are, we repeat, by no means the least interesting to the artist, the antiquary, and the historian. They let us realize to how great a degree architecture is a primitive matter, in that they demonstrate, as do the Cyclopean remains, the Pyramids of Egypt, the gigantic Hindu pagodas, that the greatest productions of architecture are not so much the work of individuals as of a community; are rather the offspring of a nations labour than the out-come of individual genius; the deposit of a whole people; the heaped-up treasure of centuries; the residuum left by the successive evaporations of human society; in a word, a species of formations. Each wave of time leaves its coating of alluvium, each race deposits its layer on the monuments, each individual contributes his stone to it. Thus do the beavers work, thus the bees, thus man. Babel, that great symbol of architecture, is a bee-hive.
Great edifices, like the great mountains, are the work of ages. Often art undergoes a transformation while they are waiting pending completionpendent opera interruptathey then proceed imperturbably in conformity with the new order of things. The new art takes possession of the monument at the point at which it finds it, absorbs itself into it, develops it after its own idea, and completes it if it can. The matter is accomplished without disturbance, without effort, without reaction, in obedience to an undeviating, peaceful law of naturea shoot is grafted on, the sap circulates, a fresh vegetation is in progress. Truly, there is matter for mighty volumes; often, indeed, for a universal history of mankind, in these successive layers of different periods of art, on different levels of the same edifice. The man, the artist, the individual, are lost sight of in these massive piles that have no record of authorship; they are an epitome, a totalization of human intelligence. Time is the architecta nation is the builder.
Reviewing here only Christo-European architecture, that younger sister of the great Masonic movements of the East, it presents the aspect of a huge formation divided into three sharply defined superincumbent zones: the Roman,2 the Greek, and that of the Renaissance, which we would prefer to call the Greco-Romanesque. The Roman stratum, the oldest and the lowest of the three, is occupied by the circular arch, which reappears, supported by the Greek column, in the modern and upper stratum of the Renaissance. Between the two comes the pointed arch. The edifices which belong exclusively to one or other of these three strata are perfectly distinct, uniform, and complete in themselves. The Abbey of Jumièges is one, the Cathedral of Reims another, the Sainte-Croix of Orleans is a third. But the three zones mingle and overlap one another at the edges, like the colours of the solar spectrum; hence these complex buildings, these edifices of the gradational, transitional period. One of them will be Roman as to its feet, Greek as to its body, and Greco-Romanesque as to its head. That happens when it has taken six hundred years in the building. But that variety is rare: the castle-keep of Etampes is a specimen. Edifices of two styles are more frequent. Such is Notre Dame of Paris, a Gothic structure, rooted by its earliest pillars in that Roman zone in which the portal of Saint-Denis and the nave of Saint-Germain-des-Prés are entirely sunk. Such again is the semi-Gothic Chapter Hall of Bocherville, in which the Roman layer reaches half-way up. Such is the Cathedral at Rouen, which would be wholly Gothic had not the point of its central spire reached up into the Renaissance.3
For the rest, all these gradations, these differences, do but affect the surface of the building. Art has changed its skin, but the actual conformation of the Christian Church has remained untouched. It has ever the same internal structure, the same logical disposition of the parts. Be the sculptured and decorated envelope of a cathedral as it will, underneath, at least, as germ or rudiment, we invariably find the Roman basilica. It develops itself unswervingly on this foundation and following the same rules. There are invariably two naves crossing each other at right angles, the upper end of which, rounded off in a half circle, forms the choir; there are always two lower-pitched side-aisles for the processionsthe chapelssort of lateral passages communicating with the nave by its intercolumnar spaces. These conditions once fulfilled, the number of chapels, doorways, steeples, spires, may be varied to infinity, according to the fancy of the age, the nation, or the art. The proper observances of worship once provided for and insured, architecture is free to do as she pleases. Statues, stained glass, rose-windows, arabesques, flutings, capitals, bas-reliefsall these flowers of fancy she distributes as best suits her particular scheme of the moment. Hence the prodigious variety in the exterior of these edifices, in the underlying structure of which there rules so much order and uniformity. The trunk of the tree is unchanging; its vegetation only is variable.
Note 1.Histoire Gallicane, Book ii, period ii, fol. 130, p. 4.AUTHORSOTE. [back]
Note 2. vThis is also known, according to situation, race, or style, as Lombard, Saxon, or Byzantine: four sister and parallel architectures, each having its own peculiar characteristics, but all deriving from the same principlethe circular arch. Facies non omnibus una, non diversa tamen, qualem, etc.AUTHORS NOTE. [back]
Note 3. This part of the spire, which was of timber, was destroyed by lightning in 1823.AUTHORS NOTE. [back]