The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy, and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry, colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its women were worth all the rest.
Mont-Saint-Michel, better than any other spot in the world, keeps the architectural record of that ferment, much as the Sicilian temples keep the record of the similar outburst of Greek energy, art, poetry, and thought, fifteen hundred years before. Of the eleventh century, it is true, nothing but the church remains at the Mount, and, if studied further, the century has got to be sought elsewhere, which is not difficult, since it is preserved in any number of churches in every path of tourist travel. Normandy is full of it; Bayeux and Caen contain little else. At the Mount, the eleventh-century work was antiquated before it was finished. In the year 1112, Abbot Roger II was obliged to plan and construct a new group in such haste that it is said to have been finished in 1122. It extends from what we have supposed to be the old refectory to the parvis, and abuts on the three lost spans of the church, covering about one hundred and twenty feet. As usual there were three levels; a crypt or gallery beneath, known as the Aquilon; a cloister or promenoir above; and on the level of the church a dormitory, now lost. The group is one of the most interesting in France, another pons seclorum, an antechamber to the west portal of Chartres, which bears the same date (i 110-25). It is the famous period of Transition, the glory of the twelfth century, the object of our pilgrimage.
Art is a fairly large field where no one need jostle his neighbour, and no one need shut himself up in a corner; but, if one insists on taking a corner of preference, one might offer some excuse for choosing the Gothic Transition. The quiet, restrained strength of the Romanesque married to the graceful curves and vaulting imagination of the Gothic makes a union nearer the ideal than is often allowed in marriage. The French, in their best days, loved it with a constancy that has thrown a sort of aureole over their fickleness since. They never tired of its possibilities. Sometimes they put the pointed arch within the round, or above it; sometimes they put the round within the pointed. Sometimes a Roman arch covered a cluster of pointed windows, as though protecting and caressing its children; sometimes a huge pointed arch covered a great rose-window spreading across the whole front of an enormous cathedral, with an arcade of Romanesque windows beneath. The French architects felt no discord, and there was none. Even the pure Gothic was put side by side with the pure Roman. You will see no later Gothic than the choir of the Abbey Church above (1450-1521), unless it is the north fleche of Chartres Cathedral (1507-13); and if you will look down the nave, through the triumphal arches, into the pointed choir four hundred years more modern, you can judge whether there is any real discord. For those who feel the art, there is none; the strength and the grace join hands; the man and woman love each other still.
The difference of sex is not imaginary. In 1058, when the triumphal columns were building, and Taillefer sang to William the Bastard and Harold the Saxon, Roland still prayed his “mea culpa” to God the Father and gave not a thought to Alda his betrothed. In the twelfth century Saint Bernard recited “Ave Stella Marts” in an ecstasy of miracle before the image of the Virgin, and the armies of France in battle cried, “Notre-Dame-Saint-Denis-Montjoie.” What the Roman could not express flowered into the Gothic; what the masculine mind could not idealize in the warrior, it idealized in the woman; no architecture that ever grew on earth, except the Gothic, gave this effect of flinging its passion against the sky.
When men no longer felt the passion, they fell back on themselves, or lower. The architect returned to the round arch, and even further to the flatness of the Greek colonnade; but this was not the fault of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. What they had to say they said; what they felt they expressed; and if the seventeenth century forgot it, the twentieth in turn has forgotten the seventeenth. History is only a catalogue of the forgotten. The eleventh century is no worse off than its neighbours. The twelfth is, in architecture, rather better off than the nineteenth. These two rooms, the Aquilon and promenoir, which mark the beginning of the Transition, are, on the whole, more modern than Saint-Sulpice, or Il Gesu at Rome. In the same situation, for the same purposes, any architect would be proud to repeat them to-day.
The Aquilon, though a hall or gallery of importance in its day, seems to be classed among crypts. M. Camille Enlart, in his “Manual of French Archaeology” (p. 252) gives a list of Romanesque and Transition crypts, about one hundred and twenty, to serve as examples for the study. The Aquilon is not one of them, but the crypt of Saint-Denis and that of Chartres Cathedral would serve to teach any over-curious tourist all that he should want to know about such matters.
Photographs such as those of the Monuments Historiques answer all the just purposes of underground travel. The Aquilon is one’s first lesson in Transition architecture because it is dated (1112); and the crypt of Saint-Denis serves almost equally well because the Abbe Suger must have begun his plans for it about 1122. Both have the same arcs doubleaux and arcs-formerets, though in opposite arrangement. Both show the first heavy hint at the broken arch. There are no nervures–no rib-vaulting,–and hardly a suggestion of the Gothic as one sees it in the splendid crypt of the Gros Fillers close at hand, except the elaborately intersecting vaults and the heavy columns; but the promenoir above is an astonishing leap in time and art. The promenoir has the same arrangement and columns as the Aquilon, but the vaults are beautifully arched and pointed, with ribs rising directly from the square capitals and intersecting the central spacings, in a spirit which neither you nor I know how to distinguish from the pure Gothic of the thirteenth century, unless it is that the arches are hardly pointed enough; they seem to the eye almost round. The height appears to be about fourteen feet.
The promenoir of Abbot Roger II has an interest to pilgrims who are going on to the shrine of the Virgin, because the date of the promenoir seems to be exactly the same as the date which the Abbe Bulteau assigns for the western portal of Chartres. Ordinarily a date is no great matter, but when one has to run forward and back, with the agility of an electric tram, between two or three fixed points, it is convenient to fix them once for all. The Transition is complete here in the promenoir, which was planned as early as 1115. The subject of vaulting is far too ambitious for summer travel; it is none too easy for a graduate of the Beaux Arts; and few architectural fields have been so earnestly discussed and disputed. We must not touch it. The age of the “Chanson de Roland” itself is not so dangerous a topic. Our vital needs are met, more or less sufficiently, by taking the promenoir at the Mount, the crypt at Saint-Denis, and the western portal at Chartres, as the trinity of our Transition, and roughly calling their date the years 1115-20, To overload the memory with dates is the vice of every schoolmaster and the passion of every second-rate scholar. Tourists want as few dates as possible; what they want is poetry. Yet a singular coincidence, with which every classroom is only too familiar, has made of the years–15 a curiously convenient group, and the year 1115 is as convenient as any for the beginning of the century of Transition. That was the year when Saint Bernard laid the foundations of his Abbey of Clairvaux. Perhaps 1115, or at latest 1117, was the year when Abelard sang love-songs to Heloise in Canon Fulbert’s house in the Rue des Chantres, beside the cloister of Notre Dame in Paris. The Abbe Suger, the Abbe Bernard, and the Abbe Abelard are the three interesting men of the French Transition.
The promenoir, then, shall pass for the year 1115, and, as such, is an exceedingly beautiful hall, uniting the splendid calm and seriousness of the Romanesque with the exquisite lines of the Gothic. You will hardly see its equal in the twelfth century. At Angers the great hall of the Bishop’s Palace survives to give a point of comparison, but commonly the halls of that date were not vaulted; they had timber roofs, and have perished. The promenoir is about sixty feet long, and divided into two aisles, ten feet wide, by a row of columns. If it were used on great occasions as a refectory, eighty or a hundred persons could have been seated at table, and perhaps this may have been about the scale of the Abbey’s needs, at that time. Whatever effort of fancy was needed to place Duke William and Harold in the old refectory of 1058, none whatever is required in order to see his successors in the halls of Roger II. With one exception they were not interesting persons. The exception was Henry II of England and Anjou, and his wife Eleanor of Guienne, who was for a while Regent of Normandy. One of their children was born at Domfront, just beyond Avranches, and the Abbot was asked to be godfather. In 1158, just one hundred years after Duke William’s visit, King Henry and his whole suite came to the Abbey, heard mass, and dined in the refectory. “Rex venit ad Montem Sancti Michaelis, audita missa ad magis altare, comedit in Refec-torio cum baronibus suis.” Abbot Robert of Torigny was his host, and very possibly William of Saint-Pair looked on. Perhaps he recited parts of his “Roman” before the King. One may be quite sure that when Queen Eleanor came to the Mount she asked the poet to recite his verses, for Eleanor gave law to poets.
One might linger over Abbot Robert of Torigny, who was a very great man in his day, and an especially great architect, but too ambitious. All his work, including the two towers, crumbled and fell for want of proper support. What would correspond to the cathedrals of Noyon and Soissons and the old clocher and fleche of Chartres is lost. We have no choice but to step down into the next century at once, and into the full and perfect Gothic of the great age when the new Chartres was building.
In the year 1203, Philip Augustus expelled the English from Normandy and conquered the province; but, in the course of the war the Duke of Brittany, who was naturally a party to any war that took place under his eyes, happened to burn the town beneath the Abbey, and in doing so, set fire unintentionally to the Abbey itself. The sacrilege shocked Philip Augustus, and the wish to conciliate so powerful a vassal as Saint Michel, or his abbot, led the King of France to give a large sum of money for repairing the buildings. The Abbot Jordan (1191-1212) at once undertook to outdo all his predecessors, and, with an immense ambition, planned the huge pile which covers the whole north face of the Mount, and which has always borne the expressive name of the Merveille.
The general motive of abbatial building was common to them all. Abbeys were large households. The church was the centre, and at Mont-Saint-Michel the summit, for the situation compelled the abbots there to pile one building on another instead of arranging them on a level in squares or parallelograms. The dormitory in any case had to be near a door of the church, because the Rule required constant services, day and night. The cloister was also hard-by the church door, and, at the Mount, had to be on the same level in order to be in open air. Naturally the refectory must be immediately beneath one or the other of these two principal structures, and the hall, or place of meeting for business with the outside world, or for internal administration, or for guests of importance, must be next the refectory. The kitchen and offices would be placed on the lowest stage, if for no other reason, because the magazines were two hundred feet below at the landing-place, and all supplies, including water, had to be hauled up an inclined plane by windlass. To administer such a society required the most efficient management. An abbot on this scale was a very great man, indeed, who enjoyed an establishment of his own, close by, with officers in no small number; for the monks alone numbered sixty, and even these were not enough for the regular church services at seasons of pilgrimage. The Abbot was obliged to entertain scores and hundreds of guests, and these, too, of the highest importance, with large suites. Every ounce of food must be brought from the mainland, or fished from the sea. All the tenants and their farms, their rents and contributions, must be looked after. No secular prince had a more serious task of administration, and none did it so well. Tenants always preferred an abbot or bishop for landlord. The Abbey was the highest administrative creation of the Middle Ages, and when one has made one’s pilgrimage to Chartres, one might well devote another summer to visiting what is left of Clairvaux, Citeaux, Cluny, and the other famous monasteries, with Viollet-le-Duc to guide, in order to satisfy one’s mind whether, on the whole, such a life may not have had activity as well as idleness.
This is a matter of economics, to be settled with the keepers of more modern hotels, but the art had to suit the conditions, and when Abbot Jordan decided to plaster this huge structure against the side of the Mount, the architect had a relatively simple task to handle. The engineering difficulties alone were very serious; The architectural plan was plain enough. As the Abbot laid his requirements before the architect, he seems to have begun by fixing the scale for a refectory capable of seating two hundred guests at table. Probably no king in Europe fed more persons at his table than this. According to M. Corroyer’s plan, the length of the new refectory is one hundred and twenty-three feet (37.5 metres). A row of columns down the centre divides it into two aisles, measuring twelve feet clear, from column to column, across the room. If tables were set the whole length of the two aisles, forty persons could have been easily seated, in four rows, or one hundred and sixty persons. Without crowding, the same space would give room for fifty guests, or two hundred in all.
Once the scale was fixed, the arrangement was easy. Beginning at the lowest possible level, one plain, very solidly built, vaulted room served as foundation for another, loftier and more delicately vaulted; and this again bore another which stood on the level of the church, and opened directly into the north transept. This arrangement was then doubled; and the second set of rooms, at the west end, contained the cellar on the lower level, another great room or hall above it, and the cloister at the church door, also entering into the north transept. Doorways, passages, and stairs unite them all. The two heavy halls on the lowest level are now called the almonry and the cellar, which is a distinction between administrative arrangements that does not concern us.
Architecturally the rooms might, to our untrained eyes, be of the same age with the Aquilon. They are earliest Transition, as far as a tourist can see, or at least they belong to the class of crypts which has an architecture of its own. The rooms that concern us are those immediately above: the so-called Salle des Chevaliers at the west end; and the so-called refectory at the east. Every writer gives these rooms different names, and assigns them different purposes, but whatever they were meant for, they are, as halls, the finest in France; the purest in thirteenth-century perfection.
The Salle des Chevaliers of the Order of Saint Michael created by Louis XI in 1469 was, or shall be for tourist purposes, the great hall that every palace and castle contained, and in which the life of the chateau centred. Planned at about the same time with the Cathedral of Chartres (1195-1210), and before the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, this hall and its neighbour the refectory, studied together with the cathedral and the abbey, are an exceedingly liberal education for anybody, tourist or engineer or architect, and would make the fortune of an intelligent historian, if such should happen to exist; but the last thing we ask from them is education or instruction. We want only their poetry, and shall have to look for it elsewhere. Here is only the shell–the dead art–and silence. The hall is about ninety feet long, and sixty feet in its greatest width. It has three ranges of columns making four vaulted aisles which seem to rise about twenty-two feet in height. It is warmed by two huge and heavy cheminees or fireplaces in the outside wall, between the windows. It is lighted beautifully, but mostly from above through round windows in the arching of the vaults. The vaulting is a study for wiser men than we can ever be. More than twenty strong round columns, free or engaged, with Romanesque capitals, support heavy ribs, or nervures, and while the two central aisles are eighteen feet wide, the outside aisle, into which the windows open, measures only ten feet in width, and has consequently one of the most sharply pointed vaults we shall ever meet. The whole design is as beautiful a bit of early Gothic as exists, but what would take most time to study, if time were to spare, would be the instinct of the Archangel’s presence which has animated his architecture. The masculine, military energy of Saint Michael lives still in every stone. The genius that realized this warlike emotion has stamped his power everywhere, on every centimetre of his work; in every ray of light; on the mass of every shadow; wherever the eye falls; still more strongly on all that the eye divines, and in the shadows that are felt like the lights. The architect intended it all. Any one who doubts has only to step through the doorway in the corner into the refectory. There the architect has undertaken to express the thirteenth-century idea of the Archangel; he has left the twelfth century behind him.
The refectory, which has already served for a measure of the Abbot’s scale, is, in feeling, as different as possible from the hall. Six charming columns run down the centre, dividing the room into two vaulted aisles, apparently about twenty-seven feet in height. Wherever the hall was heavy and serious, the refectory was made light and graceful. Hardly a trace of the Romanesque remains. Only the slight, round columns are not yet grooved or fluted, and their round capitals are still slightly severe. Every detail is lightened. The great fireplaces are removed to each end of the room. The most interesting change is in the windows. When you reach Chartres, the great book of architecture will open on the word “Fenestration,”– Fenestre,–a word as ugly as the thing was beautiful; and then, with pain and sorrow, you will have to toil till you see how the architects of 1200 subordinated every other problem to that of lighting their spaces. Without feeling their lights, you can never feel their shadows. These two halls at Mont-Saint-Michel are antechambers to the nave of Chartres; their fenestration, inside and out, controls the whole design. The lighting of the refectory is superb, but one feels its value in art only when it is taken in relation to the lighting of the hall, and both serve as a simple preamble to the romance of the Chartres windows.
The refectory shows what the architect did when, to lighten his effects, he wanted to use every possible square centimetre of light. He has made nine windows; six on the north, two on the east, and one on the south. They are nearly five feet wide, and about twenty feet high. They flood the room. Probably they were intended for glass, and M. Corroyer’s volume contains wood-cuts of a few fragments of thirteenth-century glass discovered in his various excavations; but one may take for granted that with so much light, colour was the object intended. The floors would be tiled in colour; the walls would be hung with colour; probably the vaults were painted in colour; one can see it all in scores of illuminated manuscripts. The thirteenth century had a passion for colour, and made a colour-world of its own which we have got to explore.
The two halls remain almost the only monuments of what must be called secular architecture of the early and perfect period of Gothic art (1200-10). Churches enough remain, with Chartres at their head, but all the great abbeys, palaces and chateaux of that day are ruins. Arques, Gaillard, Montargis, Coucy, the old Louvre, Chinon, Angers, as well as Cluny, Clairvaux, Citeaux, Jumieges, Vezelay, Saint-Denis, Poissy, Fontevrault, and a score of other residences, royal or semi-royal, have disappeared wholly, or have lost their residential buildings. When Viollet-le-Duc, under the Second Empire, was allowed to restore one great chateau, he chose the latest, Pierrefonds, built by Louis d’Orleans in 1390. Vestiges of Saint Louis’s palace remain at the Conciergerie, but the first great royal residence to be compared with the Merveille is Amboise, dating from about 1500, three centuries later. Civilization made almost a clean sweep of art. Only here, at Mont-Saint-Michel, one may still sit at ease on the stone benches in; the embrasures of the refectory windows, looking over the thirteenth-century ocean and watching the architect as he worked out the details which were to produce or accent his contrasts or harmonies, heighten his effects, or hide his show of effort, and all by means so true, simpler and apparently easy that one seems almost competent to follow him. One learns better in time. One gets to feel that these things were due in part to an instinct that the architect himself might not have been able to explain. The instinct vanishes as time creeps on. The halls at Rouen or at Blois are more easily understood; the Salle des Caryatides of Pierre Lescot at the Louvre, charming as it is, is simpler still; and one feels entirely at home in the Salle des Glaces which filled the ambition of Louis XIV at Versailles.
If any lingering doubt remains in regard to the professional cleverness of the architect and the thoroughness of his study, we had best return to the great hall, and pass through a low door in its extreme outer angle, up a few steps into a little room some thirteen feet square, beautifully vaulted, lighted, warmed by a large stone fireplace, and in the corner, a spiral staircase leading up to another square room above opening directly into the cloister. It is a little library or charter-house. The arrangement is almost too clever for gravity, as is the case with more than one arrangement in the Merveille. From the outside one can see that at this corner the architect had to provide a heavy buttress against a double strain, and he built up from the rock below a square corner tower as support, into which he worked a spiral staircase leading from the cellar up to the cloisters. Just above the level of the great hall he managed to construct this little room, a gem. The place was near and far; it was quiet and central; William of Saint- Pair, had he been still alive, might have written his “Roman” there; monks might have illuminated missals there. A few steps upward brought them to the cloisters for meditation; a few more brought them to the church for prayer. A few steps downward brought them to the great hall, for business, a few steps more led them into the refectory, for dinner. To contemplate the goodness of God was a simple joy when one had such a room to work in; such a spot as the great hall to walk in, when the storms blew; or the cloisters in which to meditate, when the sun shone; such a dining-room as the refectory; and such a view from one’s windows over the infinite ocean and the guiles of Satan’s quicksands. From the battlements of Heaven, William of Saint-Pair looked down on it with envy.
Of all parts of the Merveille, in summer, the most charming must always have been the cloisters. Only the Abbey of the Mount was rich and splendid enough to build a cloister like this, all in granite, carved in forms as light as though it were wood; with columns arranged in a peculiar triangular order that excited the admiration of Viollet-le-Duc. “One of the most curious and complete cloisters that we have in France,” he said; although in France there are many beautiful and curious cloisters. For another reason it has value. The architect meant it to reassert, with all the art and grace he could command, the mastery of love, of thought and poetry, in religion, over the masculine, military energy of the great hall below. The thirteenth century rarely let slip a chance to insist on this moral that love is law. Saint Francis was preaching to the birds in 1215 at Assisi, and the architect built this cloister in 1226 at Mont-Saint-Michel. Both sermons were saturated with the feeling of the time, and both are about equally worth noting, if one aspires to feel the art.
A conscientious student has yet to climb down the many steps, on the outside, and look up at the Merveille from below. Few buildings in France are better worth the trouble. The horizontal line at the roof measures two hundred and thirty-five feet. The vertical line of the buttresses measures in round numbers one hundred feet. To make walls of that height and length stand up at all was no easy matter, as Robert de Torigny had shown; and so the architect buttressed them from bottom to top with twelve long buttresses against the thrust of the interior arches, and three more, bearing against the interior walls. This gives, on the north front, fifteen strong vertical lines in a space of two hundred and thirty-five feet. Between these lines the windows tell their story; the seven long windows of the refectory on one side; the seven rounded windows of the hall on the other. Even the corner tower with the charter-house becomes as simple as the rest. The sum of this impossible wall, and its exaggerated vertical lines, is strength and intelligence at rest.
The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy, almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony. Even the discord of war is a detail on which the Abbey refuses to insist. Not till two centuries afterwards did the Mount take on the modern expression of war as a discord in God’s providence. Then, in the early years of the fifteenth century, Abbot Pierre le Roy plastered the gate of the chatelet, as you now see it, over the sunny thirteenth-century entrance called Belle Chaise, which had treated mere military construction with a sort of quiet contempt. You will know what a chatelet is when you meet another; it frowns in a spirit quite alien to the twelfth century; it jars on the religion of the place; it forebodes wars of religion; dissolution of society; loss of unity; the end of a world. Nothing is sadder than the catastrophe of Gothic art, religion, and hope.
One looks back on it all as a picture; a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed by other art; and when the idea is absorbed, accepted, and perhaps partially understood, one may move on.