Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/On the Medieval Ecclesiastical Architecture of Paris (Part 2)

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Archaeological Journal, Volume 1  (1845) 
On the Medieval Ecclesiastical Architecture of Paris (Part 2)
By Harry Longueville Jones


[second period.]

There is always this difficulty attendant on any endeavour to classify the medieval buildings of Paris, that they have been so much altered and added to at various periods, as often to make it a work of impossibility to range a given edifice within a distinct chronological class. The same edifice may contain examples of every different style of the middle ages, and therefore a strict classification in order of time is not to be expected in an account like the present. In noticing, however, the second period of French Medieval Architecture,— that period which corresponds to the age of the early and the complete pointed with us,—we come upon a building nearly perfect in itself, and less spoiled by additions of later times than any other in the capital. We allude to

La Sainte Chapelle. This beautiful building, which has always been considered a master-work of the middle ages, was built by Pierre de Montereau, under order of St. Louis, was finished A.D. 1245, and was dedicated A.D. 1248. Since that period it has had a wheel-window of the fifteenth century inserted in the western gable, and some trifling additions have been made at the west end and on the south side, but, with these exceptions, it still remains a glorious monument of the piety of its founder and the skill of its architect. It stands in the middle of what was once the principal residence of the kings of Prance, and which is still called the Palais, though now appropriated only to the Courts of Judicature. Here St. Louis determined to erect a suitable building to receive the relics which he had purchased on his first crusade,—part of the true cross, the sacred napkin, &c.—and the monarch seems to have spared no expense in effecting his object. The edifice, built on the foundations of one that dated from the reign of Louis le Gros (A. D. 1108—1137), consists of a lower and an upper chapel, each with four bays[1] on either side, with an octagonal eastern end, a roof of high pitch, and a lofty spire. On the northern side stood a chapter-house and vestry, on the southern a sacristry and treasury: the entrance to the lower chapel was on a level with the ground of the court-yard, while that to the upper was by a flight of steps, over which a French prince once galloped his horse, and on which is laid part of the scene of Boileau's Lutrin. The lower chapel comprises a central and two side aisles, with short massive pillars, and very strong vaulting, intended to support the floor of the upper chapel. Some curious horizontal stone springers, going from the side walls to the piers of the central aisle, form a distinctive feature of this part of the building. In the upper chapel there are no aisles; it forms one exceedingly lofty room, in which (as in King's College Chapel, Cambridge) the walls may be said to have disappeared, and to have left only vast panels of the most gorgeously coloured glass. Beneath the windows runs a series of niches all round the chapel, and the vaulting, quadripartite and plain, but very bold, rises domically over head. Every internal space not occupied by glass was originally covered either with gold, colour, or glass enamel[2]; and the effect was splendid in the extreme. The glass filling all the windows still remains almost as perfect as when it was put up in the time of its founder; and, next to that of Chartres, it is the most splendid in France. At the eastern end of the chapel stood a grand shrine, and the whole was profusely decorated with sculpture. The style of the edifice is the purest and the most beautifully finished early-pointed throughout, although the western wheel-window is of the Flamboyant period: all the details are most carefully executed, and the building (which is now restoring, together with the whole of the Palais, at the joint expense of the government and the city) is well worthy of careful professional study.

There are several parts of the Palais de Justice, such as the towers of the Conciergerie and other portions of the inner courts, which are nearly of the same date as the Sainte Chapelle, but they are not of great architectural value. This period may be considered rich in illustration at Paris, when we include in it the Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame, and the portions of the other churches mentioned in the last number as belonging to it. The great model for the style in this part of France is the abbey church of St. Denis. There are also several exquisite churches of the same date in various parts of the surrounding country. A small church of this date, St. Pierre aux Bœufs, stood, till within six or seven years, in a street close to Nôtre Dame. It had been desecrated during the Revolution, and was taken down to allow of the street being widened. The best portions of the western front were then transferred to the western front of St. Séverin, which is in part of the same epoch, under the superintendance of one of the most able architects of France, M. Lassus. Before quitting this period we must again remind our readers that its principal existing specimens are in St. Denis, Nôtre Dame, and the Sainte Chapelle.

third period.

We now come to the buildings erected in the fourteenth century and the beginning of the following one, previously to the introduction of the flamboyant style. This period corresponds in date to that of the Decorated style with us,—that style which flourished under the second and third Edwards, but began, even so early as the reign of Richard II., to shew symptoms of perpendicular stiffness and ultimate decay. To the flowing osculating curve of our Decorated style, France, and Paris in particular, offers no contemporaneous analogy. The architecture of the fourteenth century was characterized there by a style differing but little from that of the thirteenth, though always tending to a gradual opening and softening down of mouldings, as well as ultimately to an interflowing and intersecting of tracery. The examples of the earlier portion of this century are hardly to be distinguished from those of the preceding, except by an experienced eye, and the period may be designated as one of comparative plainness and even poverty. The cause of this stop in the progress of French architecture may perhaps be found in the dreadful wars and civil troubles which desolated the country throughout that period, and exhausted the resources of the kings as well as the nobles. One of the earliest buildings of this style extant in Paris is

The Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, in the Collège de Beauvais. In plan it resembles the Sainte Chapelle, though it has no under chapel, and has not a vaulting of stone, but merely a king-post and coved roofing. The windows have lost their stained glass, and the building is at present desecrated. Its details and plan are pure, and it is a model that might well serve for a plain, and yet very effective, chapel for any collegiate edifice.

The Chapel of St. John Lateran, or the chapel of the Commandery of the order of Malta, is a small building of the same date, near the Collège de France. It has an aisle of nearly the same dimensions as itself added to its southern side, but of later date. A square tower, connected with this religious house, is still standing.

The Convent of the Bernardins is also of this date. It was founded as early as A.D. 1244, by Stephen of Lexington, an Englishman, abbot of Clairvaux, but the church, once attached to it, though now destroyed, was built A.D. 1338, and the grand refectory, which still remains, was apparently a contemporaneous building. This vast edifice consists of a crypt or cellar and two upper stories, with a loft of unusually high pitch above the whole. The cellar and refectory are vaulted, and divided down their length by two rows of seventeen columns each; the capitals are simple, and all of the same (a perfectly unique) design; the details plain, the workmanship exceedingly solid and good. In a building attached to the refectory, and as M. A. Lenoir supposes in the church also, the tracery of the windows is decidedly of the Decorated or flowing character, forming early examples of this style in the French capital.

The College de Navarre was of the date 1302, but few of the medieval parts now remain—two buildings, probably the chapel and refectory, being all now extant; and of these the exteriors only are to be made out, the interior and the details having been entirely altered. The edifice is now appropriated to the Ecole Polytechnique.

The College de Bayeux has a beautiful little gateway of this epoch, bearing on its front the date 1305, still standing in the Rue de la Harpe. Other portions of a later style are to be found in the cornet within.

The Conventual Church of the Celestins was a more important example of this style, and, though of small dimensions, was one of the richest in the capital in monumental erections. It consisted of a nave and two south aisles: one of the latter is destroyed, and the church itself desecrated, being used as a storehouse for a regiment of horse quartered in the conventual buildings. There was no clerestory nor triforium: the capitals of the shafts, as is common in this style, were ornamented with small crisped thistle-leaves delicately wrought, the mouldings very open, and producing little effect of light and shade. On either side of the western doorway stood statues of the founder of the church and his consort, Charles V. of France and Queen Jehanne de Bourbon. The cloister of this convent was a remarkably beautiful and chaste specimen of the latest epoch of the Rénaissance.

The Church of St. Leu and St. Gilles in the Rue St. Denis is of the fourteenth century, although the western doorway may be of the end of the thirteenth, and would be designated in England as early pointed. The building consists of a nave and side aisles with chapels, an octagonal eastern end, and a small recent crypt serving as a chapel of the Holy Sepulchre. There is a clerestory, but no triforium: parts of the church are of the Flamboyant style.

The Tower of St. Genevieve (the old church) is partly of this century, but the foundations are of the Romane epoch and the crowning battlements of the Flamboyant. In its proportions this is an excellent example of the style, although rather plain. It is now incorporated in the buildings of the Collège Henri IV. A few windows of one of the conventual buildings of the great abbey of St. Geneviève still remain, but they serve only to fix the date of their erection within the fourteenth century.

The College de Montaigu was also of this century, and some windows of a building that probably formed the chapel were till lately extant on the side facing St. Geneviève. The building was not in other respects of much architectural, though of high academical, interest.

The havoc of the two revolutions and their consequent periods of Vandalism, was made principally upon buildings of the fourteenth century, most of the Parisian convents having been either founded or re-endowed and enlarged during that period; and this is another cause why the capital is poor in ecclesiastical edifices of the time in question. A splendid military structure of that epoch still exists close to Paris,—we allude to the chateau of Vincennes,—and this, with the chapel of the chateau of St. Germain en Laye, form the best models of the style to be found near the French capital.

fourth period.

The great change from the geometrical spirit of the architecture of the fourteenth century to the flowing lines and fanciful combinations of the Flamboyant style, began to take place soon after the year 1400, but did not become fully developed until after the expulsion of the English from France, or towards the middle of the fifteenth century. In the state of comparative peace which ensued, the nation became wealthy; noble patrons and founders again enriched the Church; and Architecture took a new spring. As is well known, it is not in Paris that the great examples of this style are to be sought: they must be looked for in the provincial cities. Notwithstanding, Paris has several good edifices in this style, although of comparatively small size: and of these one of the best is the

Church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois. This building stands on the site of a chapel founded as early as the seventh century: but the only portion anterior to the thirteenth century is the tower, which is of the Romane style, probably of the eleventh century, and which is placed at the south-east junction of the south transept and choir. The western portal is of the thirteenth century, and still retains the figures of saints with which it was originally ornamented: the rest of the edifice is entirely of the fifteenth century. The church is cruciform, with side aisles and a polygonal apse: there is a lofty clerestory, but no triforium: elaborate wheel-windows at the ends of the nave and transepts, and a porch, with rooms in the upper story, covering the western end of the nave. The portals of the transepts are lofty, wide, and profusely decorated with niches in their mouldings. The aisles are accompanied by a complete series of chapels, some of which contain remarkable monuments and altar-frames. Some buildings of the seventeenth century, adjoining the western end of the nave, have been taken down during a complete reparation and restoration of the church, which has lately been effected under the superintendance of M. Lassus. The choir is not yet restored, but the building, as it now stands, is one of the most valuable, in an architectural point of view, which Paris possesses. It is needless to do more than allude to the historical associations connected with the name of this church. No portions remain of its cloister and the schools once dependent on it.

The Church of St. Mederic, or St. Mery, (as it is usually called,) is another excellent example of the flamboyant style. In plan it is similar to St. Germain l'Auxerrois, but it is smaller in dimensions. The character of the tracery is good, and the western front, above which the tower rises, possesses some sculptured decoration,—not original, unfortunately, but recently copied with several blunders from old models. Some of the original glass of this church remains; and the general character of the architecture is good. The tower is of the same date as the church, and is very plain without a spire.

The Church of St. Severin is the richest example of this style in the capital. It consists of a nave with double side aisles, triforium and clerestory, no transepts, and a complete series of chapels running all round the church, and giving almost the effect of triple lateral aisles. The western end of the church, the tower at the north-west angle of the nave, and the three western bays of the nave, are of the thirteenth century, although a Flamboyant window and gable have been added to this front, and the spire of the tower is of the same, if not a later, period: the rest is of the early and late Flamboyant styles. All the details of this building are peculiarly rich and well executed; the tracery of the windows elegant in design, the curves flowing freely without being too intricate. The chapels have externally a small gable over each, filled with admirable tracery of great variety in design: the vaulting throughout the church is good, and the bosses of beautiful workmanship. At the eastern end, in the centre of the apse and aisles, occurs a curious twisted column, from which the vaulting-ribs spring off with an elaborate intricacy of intersection hardly to be equalled elsewhere. This church, which has been placed, we believe, for restoration in the hands of M. Lassus, is one of the most important buildings to be studied by the architectural visitor of Paris.

The Church of St. Nicolas des Champs is another edifice of the fifteenth century, standing near the monastery of St. Martin des Champs before mentioned. It has an ample nave, with large side aisles, and a tower at the south-west angle of the church. In general character it closely resembles St. Méderic and St. Germain l'Auxerrois, but the aisles at their western ends have larger windows inserted. Some of the ancient glass preserved here is worthy of notice. The nave arches are lofty, and there is a good clerestory, but no triforium.

The Church of St. Medard is of the same epoch as the foregoing, but is not of so good a character in its details. Here there are no transepts, but the aisles have side chapels. The tower, on the northern side of the nave, has a late spire similar to that of St. Séverin. The orientation of this church (like that of several medieval churches of Paris) deviates widely from the usual direction, being nearly north-east and south-west[3].

The Church of St. Gervais is a late but very beautiful edifice of this period. It is cruciform, with single side aisles and lateral chapels, a lady chapel appended to a polygonal apse, and a tower at the northern side of the choir. The western front is of the time of Louis XIII. The arches of this edifice are peculiarly light and lofty—so is the clerestory above them—and the roof, which covers a bold vaulting, is of un- usually sharp pitch, to be equalled only at Rouen or St. Denis. much glass of excellent character remains here, especially in the lady chapel, where it has been all preserved, and is the best of its date in the capital. One of the most remarkable features of the church is a magnificent pendant crown in the lady chapel, coming down from the central boss, and connected with the side ribs of the vaulting, in a manner that to the professional eye gives great pleasure, and with the uninitiated passes as a miracle of architectural prowess. Its size is unusually large, and for depth we have not seen it equalled, except in a similar instance at Caudebec in Normandy.

The Tower or St. Jacques de la Boucherie is all that remains of one of the principal flamboyant churches of the metropolis, and it is still the finest edifice of the kind in Paris. Its spire has long been destroyed, but its other parts are in good preservation: and the panelling, with flowing tracery and crocketed pinnacles, covering the sides and buttresses, and running up among the lofty windows, gives it a peculiarly rich effect. Immense gargouilles and upright figures of animals at the upper corners add to its picturesque, if not to its architectural, value.

The Convent of the Brothers of the order of Charity of our Lady, (afterwards of Augustinian, and finally of reformed Carmelite monks,) still exists: and in its cloister, which is nearly perfect, offers a good example of the Flamboyant style. The dimensions of the cloister are very small, (suited however to the foundation); the arcades are open down to the level of the ground; the moulding of the ribs descend continuously along the piers, and their profiles, though open, are of good design. As the only medieval cloister extant in Paris, this, though rarely seen, should certainly be visited[4].

fifth period.

We come now to the closing style of the middle ages, that which in France has been termed the style of the Rénaissance des Arts,—a strange misnomer,—as if art had not existed in the most intense degree throughout many preceding centuries! A more appropriate appellation would have been that of the Franciscan style, as having derived its birth from the introduction of Italian art into France during the reign of Francis I.—just as we apply the terms Tudor and Elizabethan to its equivalents in England. The remains of this style in Paris are, however, to be found principally in secular buildings, such as the older portions of the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais de Justice, some of the colleges of the University, and numerous private mansions. Of ecclesiastical edifices we have only three that are of considerable note. The first of these is

The Church of St. Etienne du Mont. This, though a fantastic building, is one of great interest and architectural effect. It occupied all the sixteenth century in building, and therefore touches in some details on the Flamboyant style, while in others it passes into Franco-Italian. It consists of a central and side aisles with lateral chapels, pseudo-transepts, and a polygonal apse. A lofty and curiously elongated tower stands at the north-west angle of the nave, and various buildings connected with the edifice join on at the eastern end. A small tower of the thirteenth century is among the buildings. A splendid stone screen, or Jubé, of most elaborate workmanship and design, separates the choir from the nave; there is some good but late glass in the windows, and the edifice is peculiarly rich in pictorial decorations. In a chapel on the southern side of the choir stands the tomb of St. Geneviève, transferred hither from the ancient church, under her invocation, which used to touch the south side of this building. It is a plain monument of the twelfth century.

The Church of St. Laurent is another building of the fifteenth century. It is a pseudo-cruciform church, with a tower on the northern side of the choir. Parts of the building, especially on the northern side, are Flamboyant in their character, but the rest is of the Rénaissance. Among the more remarkable details of this edifice are deep pendants, proceeding from the bosses of the vaulting; and these, at the junction of the nave and choir, are sculptured most elaborately into groups of figures anything but ecclesiastical in their design. Their effect is rich and striking, and the character of the whole edifice is one of considerable lightness and elegance. The workmanship throughout is good, and all the sculptured portions are delicately finished. Its date is A. D. 1548—1595.

The Church of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet has a curious tower of this period, but the rest of the edifice is of the end of the seventeenth century. This tower is probably the latest erection of any in the capital containing pointed details.

The Church of St. Eustache, (A. D. 1532—1642,) the last ecclesiastical edifice in Paris to which the appellation of medieval can be applied,—if indeed the use of that term be allowable in speaking of it,—is the grandest instance extant of a church built on a medieval plan, and with medieval ideas, but entirely with Italianized details. There is not a trace of a medieval decoration in the building ; every ornament, every capital, every detail, is of semi-classical design; there is not a single part of it which, taken in itself, may not be called barbarous, and yet the effect as a whole is splendid in the extreme,—very harmonious, full of indescribable grandeur, bold in construction, good in workmanship, admirable in suitableness to its purpose, and, from its vast proportions, fit to be placed before the cathedral of Nôtre Dame. Of its size, and its capability of accommodating a congregation (of course there are neither pews nor seats, but only chairs in it), some idea may be formed, when we state that we have counted 3000 persons in the side aisles of the nave only. The church is cruciform, with double side aisles and lateral chapels all round, a circular apse and projecting lady-chapel annexed, two towers at the western end, and a truncated spire at the intersection of the nave and transepts. A triforium, and a clerestory with wide windows, run round the church. There are wheel-windows in each transept, and the clerestory windows of the choir are filled with fine stained glass of the epoch. The western front was once a grand specimen of the style, but has been long since spoiled by the introduction of Doric and Ionic orders, principally in consequence of a bequest made by the celebrated Colbert, who lies buried here. The portals of the transepts are gorgeously decorated with niches in their mouldings, and are admirable examples of the workmanship of that day. Within, the extreme elevation of the arches of the nave, giving the effect of great lightness to what are really massive piers, the consequently vast height of the vaulting, and the well-conceived interlacing of the curves of the various arches, as they come one behind the other on the eye, cause a mixed emotion of surprise and delight. The sensations produced by the interior of this edifice on some great day of solemn festival, such as the Nativity or the Assumption, when all the resources of architectural, pictorial, and musical art, combine to heighten the devotion of the thousands of worshippers there assembled, can never be forgotten by those who have experienced them.

In concluding this brief sketch of the medieval ecclesiastical architecture of Paris, we may observe that partly from previous alteration, partly from revolutionary fury, hardly any of the ancient stall-work of the churches has been allowed to remain, and wooden screens probably never existed in them. Nearly all the medieval tombs have disappeared, and we do not know of a single brass or incised slab in any church of the metropolis. All the old bells too have been lost, or if any remain (as at Nôtre Dame) they have been replaced there by some fortunate concurrence of events. The principal interest of these buildings lies in their walls, and we repeat, there is much to be seen in them which will gratify the curiosity of the antiquary or the architect.

h. longueville jones.

  1. The term "compartment" is perhaps more appropriate: for "bay" is more generally applicable to any curving portion of a building.
  2. In the Château of St. Germain en Laye there is still to be seen the chapel of the time of Charles V. (A. D. 1364—80), the inner walls of which are entirely covered with gold.
  3. The church of the famous abbey of St. Victor, a beautiful Flamboyant edifice, had the same orientation: so had those of the abbey of St. Antoine and the House of the Third Order of St. Francis. The Temple church was built a little to the south of the east: so also were the chapel of the Cordeliers, and the church of the Célestins. The Parisian churches of the seventeenth century followed no law of orientation: many were built north and south.
  4. If we were examining lay buildings, we might here notice the three magnificent hôtels of Paris, the Hôtel de Sens, the Hôtel de Cluny, and the Hôtel de La Tremoille: buildings of the greatest beauty and value in every sense of the word, and of a class to which we have no parallels in England: our domestic edifices indeed have seldom equalled those of France. The last of these three hotels has been demolished; but its sculptured details, with all its parts of value, (and great indeed is their worth,) have been preserved in order to be re-erected into a palace for the archbishop of Paris, the design for which has been accepted by the French government from the hands of M.Lassus. The second of the three, a building of the very latest period of the Flamboyant style, has been purchased by the French government, with the magnificent collection of medieval antiquities formed in it by the late M. Du Sommérard. It has been appropriated to the purposes of a national museum for medieval remains; an institution which England has either not the means, or else not the taste, to establish. The third, we are sorry to say, the municipality of Paris has not yet had the good sense to purchase, and thereby to save from farther destruction; an act of omission of the same nature, as if any one should neglect to purchase a genuine picture by Raffaelle when offered for a few pounds, if ever such an opportunity could occur.