A Tour upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter VI)

posted by Stephen Channing on September 3, 2014 .

Chapter VI

The road from Laon to Rheims is all paved, so we were obliged to take the train. In the great champagne town we find broad streets and many cafes, while our hotel is exactly opposite the west portal of the cathedral. . To the modern traveller Rheims means champagne and biscuits; to the historian, it means the coronation of the kings of France. The cathedral, which is as interesting and as beautiful as any in France, recalls the coronation in every feature. For this great event Rheims woke up once in every generation or so, and then went fast to sleep again. The cathedral has gained and lost by the honour which has been thrown upon it. It owes to it the richness of its windows and of its portals, but it also owes to it perpetual restorations which have impaired its beauty, and disfigured the architect’s original idea. Some months before each coronation, an official came from Paris with the bustling determination to make everything in the dull little provincial town as smart as possible. houses were pulled down, streets widened, old decorations furbished up, and the only limits to this unwholesome zeal were set by the chapter of the cathedral of St Remi, who had some regard for their pockets. The roof of the cathedral is thus disfigured by the gold lilies on a blue ground, which were painted to harmonise with the draperies of Charles X’s coronation. The capitals of the columns still bear the yellow whitewash which was used as a cheap substitute for gold: on the other hand, the cathedral treasure has profited by the liberality of the last Bourbon king, and the crucifix and candlesticks which he presented to the high altar are really magnificent. The western porch of Rouen Cathedral is the finest work of its kind in Christendom. There are three entrances, each a masterpiece of carving, rich with innumerable statues. The design is carried up to the top of the highest pinnacle. The meaning of the devices cannot be learned without attentive study. There are angels in adoration at the entrance to the sanctuary, prophets and evangelists, priests and kings. There are the virtues and the vices, the liberal arts, the months and the seasons of the year. There is the baptism of Clovis, which first gave the city its renown, the history of the Virgin, of Christ, and of the last judgment. The effect of this wealth of allegory when once recognised is very impressive: but the portal of Rheims cannot be classed with the best Italian works of the same kind, such as the bell tower of Giotto or the shrine of Orcagna. The reason is, as far as we can see, that the French artist was content with producing a general effect. The long slim figures of the principal statues in the porch are admirable adjuncts to architecture, but are not in themselves high works of art. They do not “speak” and “march” like the St Mark and the St George of the Oy San Michele at Florence. So the little groups which represent the arts or the seasons could not be photographed with the same enhancement of beauty as is found in the similar designs of Giotto, or in the smallest details of Ghiberti’s gates. No French art1st has reached so high a level of concentration as to spend the whole of a long life in making four bronze doors. The interior of the cathedral is worthy of its entrance. It is not so massive as Laon, nor so lofty as Beauvais, but it is full of grace, charm, and dignity. No church in France has more beautiful stained glass. The rose-window above the west door is filled with glass of such intensity of colour that the eye cannot penetrate its depths, and the other windows are not far inferior. Will Rheims ever see another coronation? The sacristan told us that Louis Phillippe could not be crowned there because he was not legitimate, and was king of the French, not of France. Would the Comte de Paris pass this scrutiny, or would the holy oil be available for no one but Don Carlos? These are not questions of pressing importance. It is, however, ominous that Louis XV was the last king who was crowned on the ancient rood-screen; and that Louis XVI and Charles X.—who were both crowned on the same platform in the nave—both ended badly.

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