William Morris Archive

The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine



Not long ago I saw for the first time some of the churches of North France; still more recently I saw them for the second time; and, remembering the love I have for them and the longing that was in me to see them, during the time that came between the first and second visit, I thought I should like to tell people of some of those things I felt when I was there;—there among those mighty tombs of the long-dead ages.

And I thought that even if I could say nothing else about these grand churches, I could at least tell men how much I loved them; so that though they might laugh at me for my foolish and confused words, they might yet be moved to see what there was that made me speak my love, though I could give no reason for it.

For I will say here that I think those same churches of North France the grandest, the most beautiful, the kindest and most loving of all the buildings that the earth has ever borne; and, thinking of their past-away builders, can I see through them, very faintly, dimly, some little of the mediæval times, else dead, and gone from me for ever—voiceless for ever.

[134] And those same builders, still surely living, still real men, and capable of receiving love, I love no less than the great men, poets and painters and such like, who are on earth now, no less than my breathing friends whom I can see looking kindly on me now.  Ah! do I not love them with just cause, who certainly loved me, thinking of me sometimes between the strokes of their chisels; and for this love of all men that they had, and moreover for the great love of God, which they certainly had too; for this, and for this work of theirs, the upraising of the great cathedral front with its beating heart of the thoughts of men, wrought into the leaves and flowers of the fair earth; wrought into the faces of good men and true, fighters against the wrong, of angels who upheld them, of God who rules all things; wrought through the lapse of years, and years, and years, by the dint of chisel, and stroke of hammer, into stories of life and death, the second life, the second death, stories of God’s dealing in love and wrath with the nations of the earth, stories of the faith and love of man that dies not: for their love, and the deeds through which it worked, I think they will not lose their reward.

So I will say what I can of their works, and I have to speak of Amiens first, and how it seemed to me in the hot August weather.

I know how wonderful it would look, if you were to mount one of the steeples of the town, or were even to mount up to the roof of one of the houses westward of the cathedral; for it rises up from the ground, grey from the paving of the street, the cavernous porches of the west front opening wide, and marvellous with the shadows of the carving you can only guess at; and above stand the kings, and above that you would see the twined mystery of the great flamboyant rose window with its thousand openings, and the shadows of the flower-work carved round it, then the grey towers and gable, grey against the blue of the August sky, and behind them all, rising high into the quivering air, the tall spire over the crossing.

But from the hot Place Royale here with its stunted pollard acacias, and statue of some one, I know not whom, but some citizen of Amiens I suppose, you can see nothing but the graceful spire; it is of wood covered over with lead, and was built quite at the end of the flamboyant times.  Once it was gilt all over, and used to shine out there, getting duller and duller, as the bad years grew worse and worse; but the gold is all gone now; when it finally disappeared I know not, but perhaps it was in 1771, when the chapter got them the inside of their cathedral whitewashed from vaulting to pavement.

The spire has two octagonal stages above the roof, formed of trefoiled arches, and slim buttresses capped by leaded figures; from these stages the sloping spire springs with crocketted ribs at the angles, the lead being arranged in a quaint herring-bone pattern; at the base of the spire too is a crown of open-work and figures, making a third stage; finally, near the top of the spire the crockets swell, till you come to the rose that holds the great spire-cross of metal-work, such metal-work as the French alone knew how to make; it is all beautiful, though so late.

From one of the streets leading out of the Place Royale you can see the cathedral, and as you come nearer you see that it is clear enough of houses or such like things; the great apse rises over you, with its belt of eastern chapels; first the long slim windows of these chapels, which are each of them little apses, the Lady Chapel projecting a good way beyond the rest, and then, running under the cornice of the chapels and outer aisles all round the church, a cornice of great noble leaves; then the parapets in changing flamboyant patterns, then the conical roofs of the chapels hiding the exterior tracery of the triforium, then the great clerestory windows, very long, of four lights, and stilted, the tracery beginning a long way below the springing of their arches; and the buttresses are so thick, and their arms spread so here, that each of the clerestory windows looks down its own space between them, as if between walls: above the windows rise their canopies running through the parapet, and above all the great mountainous roof, and all below it, and around the windows and walls of the choir and apse, stand the mighty army of the buttresses, holding up the weight of the stone roof within with their strong arms for ever.

We go round under their shadows, past the sacristies, past the southern transept, only glancing just now at the sculpture there, past the chapels of the nave, and enter the church by the small door hard by the west front, with that figure of huge St. Christopher quite close over our heads; thereby we enter the church, as I said, and are in its western bay.  I think I felt inclined to shout when I first entered Amiens cathedral; it is so free and vast and noble, I did not feel in the least awe-struck, or humbled by its size and grandeur.  I have not often felt thus when looking on architecture, but have felt, at all events, at first, intense exultation at the beauty of it; that, and a certain kind of satisfaction in looking on the geometrical tracery of the windows, on the sweeping of the huge arches, were, I think, my first feelings in Amiens Cathedral.

We go down the nave, glancing the while at the traceried windows of the chapels, which are later than the windows above them; we come to the transepts, and from either side the stained glass, in their huge windows, burns out on us; and, then, first we begin to appreciate somewhat the scale of the church, by looking up, along the ropes hanging from the vaulting to the pavement, for the tolling of the bells in the spire.

There is a hideous renaissance screen, of solid stone or marble, between choir and nave, with more hideous iron gates to it, through which, however, we, walking up the choir steps, can look and see the gorgeous carving of the canopied stalls; and then, alas! ‘the concentration of flattened sacks, rising forty feet above the altar;’ but, above that, the belt of the apse windows, rich with sweet mellowed stained glass, under the dome-like roof.

The stalls in the choir are very rich, as people know, carved in wood, in the early sixteenth century, with high twisted canopies, and histories, from the Old Testament mostly, wrought about them.  The history of Joseph I remember best among these.  Some of the scenes in it I thought very delightful; the story told in such a gloriously quaint, straightforward manner.  Pharaoh’s dream, how splendid that was! the king lying asleep on his elbow, and the kine coming up to him in two companies.  I think the lean kine was about the best bit of wood-carving I have seen yet.  There they were, a writhing heap, crushing and crowding one another, drooping heads and starting eyes, and strange angular bodies; altogether the most wonderful symbol of famine ever conceived.  I never fairly understood Pharaoh’s dream till I saw the stalls at Amiens.

There is nothing else to see in the choir; all the rest of the fittings being as bad as possible.  So we will go out again, and walk round the choir-aisles.  The screen round the choir is solid, the upper part of it carved (in the flamboyant times), with the history of St. John the Baptist, on the north side; with that of St. Firmin on the south.  I remember very little of the sculptures relative to St. John, but I know that I did not like them much.  Those about St. Firmin, who evangelised Picardy, I remember much better, and some of them especially I thought very beautiful; they are painted too, and at any rate one cannot help looking at them.

I do not remember, in the least, the order in which they come, but some of them are fixed well enough in my memory; and, principally, a bishop, (St. Firmin), preaching, rising out of a pulpit from the midst of the crowd, in his jewelled cope and mitre, and with a beautiful sweet face.  Then another, the baptising of the king and his lords, was very quaint and lifelike.  I remember, too, something about the finding of St. Firmin’s relics, and the translation of the same relics when found; the many bishops, with their earnest faces, in the first, and the priests, bearing the reliquaries, in the second; with their long vestments girded at the waist and falling over their feet, painted too, in light colours, with golden flowers on them.  I wish I remembered these carvings better, I liked them so much.  Just about this place, in the lower part of the screen, I remember the tomb of a priest, very gorgeous, with gold and colours; he lay in a deep niche, under a broad segmental arch, which is painted with angels; and, outside this niche, angels were drawing back painted curtains, I am sorry to say.  But the priest lay there in cope and alb, and the gentle colour lay over him, as his calm face gazed ever at the angels painted in his resting place.  I have dim recollection of seeing, when I was at Amiens before, not this last time, a tomb, which I liked much, a bishop, I think it was, lying under a small round arch, but I forget the figure now.  This was in a chapel on the other side of the choir.  It is very hard to describe the interior of a great church like this, especially since the whitewash (applied, as I said, on this scale in 1771) lies on everything so; before that time, some book says, the church was painted from end to end with patterns of flowers and stars, and histories: think—I might have been able to say something about it then, with that solemn glow of colour all about me, as I walked there from sunrise to sunset; and yet, perhaps, it would have filled my heart too full for speaking, all that beauty; I know not.

Up into the triforium, and other galleries, sometimes in the church, sometimes in narrow passages of close-fitting stone, sometimes out in the open air; up into the forest of beams between the slates and the real stone roof: one can look down through a hole in the vaulting and see the people walking and praying on the pavement below, looking very small from that height, and strangely foreshortened.  A strange sense of oppression came over me at that time, when, as we were in one of the galleries of the west front, we looked into the church, and found the vaulting but a foot or two (or it seemed so) above our heads; also, while I was in the galleries, now out of the church, now in it, the canons had begun to sing complines, and the sound of their singing floated dimly up the winding stair-cases and half-shut doors.

The sun was setting when we were in the roof, and a beam of it, striking through the small window up in the gable, fell in blood-red spots on the beams of the great dim roof.  We came out from the roof on to the parapet in the blaze of the sun, and then going to the crossing, mounted as high as we could into the spire, and stood there a while looking down on the beautiful country, with its many water-meadows, and feathering trees.

And here let me say something about the way in which I have taken this description upon me; for I did not write it at Amiens; moreover, if I had described it from the bare reminiscences of the church, I should have been able to say little enough about the most interesting part of all, the sculptures, namely; so, though remembering well enough the general effect of the whole, and, very distinctly, statues and faces, nay, leaves and flower-knots, here and there; yet, the external sculpture I am describing as well as I can from such photographs as I have; and these, as everybody knows, though very distinct and faithful, when they show anything at all, yet, in some places, where the shadows are deep, show simply nothing.  They tell me, too, nothing whatever of the colour of the building; in fact, their brown and yellow is as unlike as possible to the grey of Amiens.  So, for the facts of form, I have to look at my photographs; for facts of colour I have to try and remember the day or two I spent at Amiens, and the reference to the former has considerably dulled my memory of the latter.  I have something else to say, too; it will seem considerably ridiculous, no doubt, to many people who are well acquainted with the iconography of the French churches, when I talk about the stories of some of the carvings; both from my want of knowledge as to their meaning, and also from my telling people things which everybody may be supposed to know; for which I pray forgiveness, and so go on to speak of the carvings about the south transept door.

It is divided in the midst by a pillar, whereon stands the Virgin, holding our Lord.  She is crowned, and has a smile upon her face now for ever; and in the canopy above her head are three angels, bearing up the aureole there; and about these angels, and the aureole and head of the Virgin, there is still some gold and vermilion left.  The Holy Child, held in His mother’s left arm, is draped from His throat to His feet, and between His hands He holds the orb of the world.  About on a level with the Virgin, along the sides of the doorway, are four figures on each side, the innermost one on either side being an angel holding a censer; the others are ecclesiastics, and (some book says) benefactors to the church.  They have solemn faces, stern, with firm close-set lips, and eyes deep-set under their brows, almost frowning, and all but one or two are beardless, though evidently not young; the square door valves are carved with deep-twined leaf-mouldings, and the capitals of the door-shafts are carved with varying knots of leaves and flowers.  Above the Virgin, up in the tympanum of the doorway, are carved the Twelve Apostles, divided into two bands of six, by the canopy over the Virgin’s head.  They are standing in groups of two, but I do not know for certain which they are, except, I think, two, St. James and St. John; the two first in the eastern division.  James has the pilgrim’s hat and staff, and John is the only beardless one among them; his face is rather sad, and exceedingly lovely, as, indeed are all those faces, being somewhat alike; and all, in some degree like the type of face received as the likeness of Christ himself.  They have all long hair falling in rippled bands on each side of their faces, on to their shoulders.  Their drapery, too, is lovely; they are very beautiful and solemn.  Above their heads runs a cornice of trefoiled arches, one arch over the head of each apostle; from out of the deep shade of the trefoils flashes a grand leaf cornice, one leaf again to each apostle; and so we come to the next compartment, which contains three scenes from the life of St. Honoré, an early French bishop.  The first scene is, I think, the election of a bishop, the monks or priests talking the matter over in chapter first, then going to tell the bishop-elect.  Gloriously-draped figures the monks are, with genial faces full of good wisdom, drawn into quaint expressions by the joy of argument.  This one old, and has seen much of the world; he is trying, I think, to get his objections answered by the young man there, who is talking to him so earnestly; he is listening, with a half-smile on his face, as if he had made up his mind, after all.  These other two, one very energetic indeed, with his head and shoulders swung back a little, and his right arm forward, and the other listening to him, and but half-convinced yet.  Then the two next, turning to go with him who is bearing to the new-chosen bishop the book of the Gospels and pastoral staff; they look satisfied and happy.  Then comes he with the pastoral staff and Gospels; then, finally, the man who is announcing the news to the bishop himself, the most beautiful figure in the whole scene, perhaps, in the whole doorway; he is stooping down, lovingly, to the man they have chosen, with his left hand laid on his arm, and his long robe falls to his feet from his shoulder all along his left side, moulded a little to the shape of his body, but falling heavily and with scarce a fold in it, to the ground: the chosen one sitting there, with his book held between his two hands, looks up to him with his brave face, and he will be bishop, and rule well, I think.  So, by the next scene he is bishop, I suppose, and is sitting there ordering the building of a church; for he is sitting under a trefoiled canopy, with his mitre on his head, his right hand on a reading-desk by his side.  His book is lying open, his head turned toward what is going forwards.  It is a splendid head and face.  In the photograph I have of this subject, the mitre, short and simple, is in full light but for a little touch of shade on one side; the face is shaded, but the crown of short crisp curls hanging over it, about half in light, half in shade.  Beyond the trefoil canopy comes a wood of quaint conventional trees, full of stone, with a man working at it with a long pick: I cannot see his face, as it is altogether in shade, the light falling on his head however.  He is dressed in a long robe, quite down to his feet, not a very convenient dress, one would think, for working in.  I like the trees here very much; they are meant for hawthorns and oaks.  There are a very few leaves on each tree, but at the top they are all twisted about, and are thicker, as if the wind were blowing them.  The little capitals of the canopy, under which the bishop is sitting, are very delightful, and are common enough in larger work of this time (thirteenth century) in France.  Four bunches of leaves spring from long stiff stalks, and support the square abacus, one under each corner.  The next scene, in the division above, is some miracle or other, which took place at mass, it seems.  The bishop is saying mass before an altar; behind him are four assistants; and, as the bishop stands there with his hand raised, a hand coming from somewhere by the altar, holds down towards him the consecrated wafer.  The thing is gloriously carved, whatever it is.  The assistant immediately behind p. 148 the bishop, holding in his hands a candle-stick, somewhat slantwise towards the altar, is, especially in the drapery, one of the most beautiful in the upper part of this tympanum; his head is a little bent, and the line made from the back of it over the heavy hair, down along the heavy-swinging robe, is very beautiful.

The next scene is the shrine of some Saint.  This same bishop, I suppose, dead now, after all his building and ruling, and hard fighting, possibly, with the powers that be; often to be fought with righteously in those times.  Over the shrine sits the effigy of the bishop, with his hand raised to bless.  On the western side are two worshippers; on the eastern, a blind and a deaf man are being healed, by the touch of the dead bishop’s robe.  The deaf man is leaning forward, and the servant of the shrine holds to his ear the bishop’s robe.  The deaf man has a very deaf face, not very anxious though; not even showing very much hope, but faithful only.  The blind one is coming up behind him with a crutch in his right hand, and led by a dog; the face was either in its first estate, very ugly and crabbed, or by the action of the weather or some such thing, has been changed so.

So the bishop being dead and miracles being wrought at his tomb, in the division above comes the translation of his remains; a long procession taking up the whole of the division, which is shorter than the others, however, being higher up towards the top of the arch.  An acolyte bearing a cross, heads the procession, then two choristers; then priests bearing relics and books; long vestments they have, and stoles crossed underneath their girdles; then comes the reliquary borne by one at each end, the two finest figures in this division, the first especially; his head raised and his body leaning forward to the weight of the reliquary, as people nearly always do walk when they carry burdens and are going slowly; which this procession certainly is doing, for some of the figures are even turning round.  Three men are kneeling or bending down beneath the shrine as it passes; cripples, they are, all three have beautiful faces, the one who is apparently the worst cripple of the three, (his legs and feet are horribly twisted), has especially a wonderfully delicate face, timid and shrinking, though faithful: behind the shrine come the people, walking slowly together with reverent faces; a woman with a little child holding her hand are the last figures in this history of St. Honoré: they both have their faces turned full south, the woman has not a beautiful face, but a happy good-natured genial one.

The cornice below this division is of plain round-headed trefoils very wide, and the spandrel of each arch is pierced with a small round trefoil, very sharply cut, looking, in fact, as if it were cut with a punch: this cornice, simple though it is, I think, very beautiful, and in my photograph the broad trefoils of it throw sharp black shadows on the stone behind the worshipping figures, and square-cut altars.

In the triangular space at the top of the arch is a representation of our Lord on the cross; St. Mary and St. John standing on either side of him, and, kneeling on one knee under the sloping sides of the arch, two angels, one on each side.  I very much wish I could say something more about this piece of carving than I can do, because it seems to me that the French thirteenth century sculptors failed less in their representations of the crucifixion than almost any set of artists; though it was certainly an easier thing to do in stone than on canvas, especially in such a case as this where the representation is so highly abstract; nevertheless, I wish I could say something more about it; failing which, I will say something about my photograph of it.

I cannot see the Virgin’s face at all, it is in the shade so much; St. John’s I cannot see very well; I do not think it is a remarkable face, though there is sweet expression in it; our Lord’s face is very grand and solemn, as fine as I remember seeing it anywhere in sculpture.  The shadow of the body hanging on the cross there, falls strangely and weirdly on the stone behind—both the kneeling angels (who, by the way, are holding censers), are beautiful.  Did I say above that one of the faces of the twelve Apostles was the most beautiful in the tympanum? if I did, I retract that saying, certainly, looking on the westernmost of these two angels.  I keep using the word beautiful so often that I feel half inclined to apologise for it; but I cannot help it, though it is often quite inadequate to express the loveliness of some of the figures carved here; and so it happens surely with the face of this angel.  The face is not of a man, I should think; it is rather like a very fair woman’s face; but fairer than any woman’s face I ever saw or thought of: it is in profile and easy to be seen in the photograph, though somewhat in the shade.  I am utterly at a loss how to describe it, or to give any idea of the exquisite lines of the cheek and the rippled hair sweeping back from it, just faintly touched by the light from the south-east.  I cannot say more about it.  So I have gone through the carvings in the lower part of this doorway, and those of the tympanum.  Now, besides these, all the arching-over of the door is filled with figures under canopies, about which I can say little, partly from want of adequate photographs, partly from ignorance of their import.

But the first of the cavettos wherein these figures are, is at any rate filled with figures of angels, some swinging censers, some bearing crowns, and other things which I cannot distinguish.  Most of the niches in the next cavetto seem to hold subjects; but the square camera of the photographer clips some, many others are in shadow, in fact the niches throw heavy shadows over the faces of nearly all; and without the photograph I remember nothing but much fretted grey stone above the line of the capitals of the doorway shafts; grey stone with something carved in it, and the swallows flying in and out of it.  Yet now there are three niches I can say something about at all events.  A stately figure with a king’s crown on his head, and hair falling in three waves over his shoulders, a very kingly face looking straight onward; a great jewelled collar falling heavily to his elbows: his right hand holding a heavy sceptre formed of many budding flowers, and his left just touching in front the folds of his raiment that falls heavily, very heavily to the ground over his feet.  Saul, King of Israel.—A bending figure with covered head, pouring, with his right hand, oil on the head of a youth, not a child plainly, but dwarfed to a young child’s stature before the bending of the solemn figure with the covered head.  Samuel anointing David.—A king again, with face hidden in deep shade, holding a naked sword in his right hand, and a living infant in the other; and two women before him, one with a mocking smile on her face, the other with her head turned up in passionate entreaty, grown women they are plainly, but dwarfed to the stature of young girls before the hidden face of the King.  The judgment of Solomon.—An old man with drawn sword in right hand, with left hand on a fair youth dwarfed, though no child, to the stature of a child; the old man’s head is turned somewhat towards the presence of an angel behind him, who points downward to something unseen.  Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.—Noah too, working diligently that the ark may be finished before the flood comes.—Adam tilling the ground, and clothed in the skins of beasts.—There is Jacob’s stolen blessing, that was yet in some sort to be a blessing though it was stolen.—There is old Jacob whose pilgrimage is just finished now, after all his doings and sufferings, all those deceits inflicted upon him, that made him remember, perforce, the lie he said and acted long ago,—old Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph.  And many more which I remember not, know not, mingled too with other things which I dimly see have to do with the daily occupations of the men who lived in the dim, far-off thirteenth century.

I remember as I came out by the north door of the west front, how tremendous the porches seemed to me, which impression of greatness and solemnity, the photographs, square-cut and brown-coloured do not keep at all; still however I can recall whenever I please the wonder I felt before that great triple porch; I remember best in this way the porch into which I first entered, namely the northernmost, probably because I saw most of it, coming in and out often by it, yet perhaps the fact that I have seen no photograph of this doorway somewhat assists the impression.

Yet I do not remember even of this anything more than the fact that the tympanum represented the life and death of some early French bishop; it seemed very interesting.  I remember, too, that in the door-jambs were standing figures of bishops in two long rows, their mitred heads bowed forward solemnly, and I remember nothing further.

Concerning the southernmost porch of the west front.—The doorway of this porch also has on the centre pillar of it a statue of the Virgin standing, holding the Divine Child in her arms.  Both the faces of the Virgin Mother and of her Son, are very beautiful; I like them much better than those in the south transept already spoken of; indeed I think them the grandest of all the faces of the Madonna and Child that I have seen carved by the French architects.  I have seen many, the faces of which I do not like, though the drapery is always beautiful; their faces I do not like at all events, as faces of the Virgin and Child, though as faces of other people even if not beautiful they would be interesting.  The Child is, as in the transept, draped down to the feet; draped too, how exquisitely I know not how to say.  His right arm and hand is stretched out across His mother’s breast, His left hangs down so that His wrist as His hand is a little curved upwards, rests upon His knee; His mother holds Him slightly with her left arm, with her right she holds a fold of her robe on which His feet rest.  His figure is not by any means that of an infant, for it is slim and slender, too slender for even a young boy, yet too soft, too much rounded for a youth, and the head also is too large; I suppose some people would object to this way of carving One who is supposed to be an infant; yet I have no doubt that the old sculptors were right in doing so, and to my help in this matter comes the remembrance of Ruskin’s answer to what Lord Lindsay says concerning the inability of Giotto and his school to paint young children: for he says that it might very well happen that Giotto could paint children, but yet did not choose to in this instance, (the Presentation of the Virgin)1, for the sake of the much greater dignity to be obtained by using the more fully developed figure and face; and surely, whatever could be said about Giotto’s paintings, no one who was at all acquainted with Early French sculpture could doubt that the carvers of this figure here, could have carved an infant if they had thought fit so to do, men who again and again grasped eagerly common everyday things when in any way they would tell their story.  To return to the statues themselves.  The face of the young Christ is of the same character as His figure, such a face as Elizabeth Browning tells of, the face of One ‘who never sinned or smiled’; at least if the sculptor fell below his ideal somewhat, yet for all that, through that face which he failed in a little, we can see when we look, that his ideal was such an one.  The Virgin’s face is calm and very sweet, full of rest,—indeed the two figures are very full of rest; everything about them expresses it from the broad forehead of the Virgin, to the resting of the feet of the Child (who is almost self-balanced) in the fold of the robe that she holds gently, to the falling of the quiet lines of her robe over her feet, to the resting of its folds between them.

The square heads of the door-valves, and a flat moulding above them which runs up also into the first division of the tympanum, is covered with faintly cut diaper-work of four-leaved flowers.

Along the jambs of the doorway on the north side stand six kings, all bearded men but one, who is young apparently; I do not know who these are, but think they must be French kings; one, the farthest toward the outside of the porch, has taken his crown off, and holds it in his hand: the figures on the other side of the door-jambs are invisible in the photograph except one, the nearest to the door, young, sad, and earnest to look at—I know not who he is.  Five figures outside the porch, and on the angles of the door-jambs, are I suppose prophets, perhaps those who have prophesied of the birth of our Lord, as this door is apportioned to the Virgin.

The first division of the tympanum has six sitting figures in it; on each side of the canopy over the Virgin’s head, Moses and Aaron; Moses with the tables of the law, and Aaron with great blossomed staff: with them again, two on either side, sit the four greater prophets, their heads veiled, and a scroll lying along between them, over their knees; old they look, very old, old and passionate and fierce, sitting there for so long.

The next division has in it the death and burial of the Virgin,—the twelve Apostles clustering round the deathbed of the Virgin.  I wish my photograph were on a larger scale, for this indeed seems to me one of the most beautiful pieces of carving about this church, those earnest faces expressing so many things mingled with their regret that she will be no more with them; and she, the Virgin-Mother, in whom all those prophecies were fulfilled, lying so quiet there, with her hands crossed downwards, dead at last.  Ah! and where will she go now? whose face will she see always?  Oh! that we might be there too!  Oh! those faces so full of all tender regret, which even They must feel for Her; full of all yearning, and longing that they too might finish the long fight, that they might be with the happy dead: there is a wonder on their faces too, when they see what the mighty power of Death is.  The foremost is bending down, with his left hand laid upon her breast, and he is gazing there so long, so very long; one looking there too, over his shoulder, rests his hand on him; there is one at the head, one at the foot of the bed; and he at the head is turning round his head, that he may see her face, while he holds in his hands the long vestment on which her head rests.

In my photograph the shadow is so thick that I cannot see much of the burial of the Virgin, can see scarce anything of the faces, only just the forms, of the Virgin lying quiet and still there, of the bending angels, and their great wings that shadow everything there.

So also of the third and last division filling the top of the arch.  I only know that it represents the Virgin sitting glorified with Christ, crowned by angels, and with angels all about her.

The first row in the vaulting of the porch I has angels in it, holding censers and candlesticks; the next has in it the kings who sprung from Jesse, with a flowing bough twisted all among them; the third and last is hidden by a projecting moulding.

All the three porches of the west front have a fringe of cusps ending in flowers, hanging to their outermost arch, and above this a band of flower-work, consisting of a rose and three rose-leaves alternating with each other.

Concerning the central porch of the west front.—The pillar which divides the valves of the central porch carries a statue of Our Lord; his right hand raised to bless, his left hand holding the Book; along the jambs of the porch are the Apostles, but not the Apostles alone, I should think; those that are in the side that I can see have their distinctive emblems with them, some of them at least.  Their faces vary very much here, as also their figures and dress; the one I like best among them is one who I think is meant for St. James the Less, with a long club in his hands; but they are all grand faces, stern and indignant, for they have come to judgment.

For there above in the tympanum, in the midst over the head of Christ, stand three angels, and the midmost of them bears scales in his hands, wherein are the souls being weighed against the accusations of the Accuser, and on either side of him stands another angel, blowing a long trumpet, held downwards, and their long, long raiment, tight across the breast, falls down over their feet, heavy, vast, ungirt; and at the corners of this same division stand two other angels, and they also are blowing long trumpets held downwards, so that their blast goes round the world and through it; and the dead are rising between the robes of the angels with their hands many of them lifted to heaven; and above them and below them are deep bands of wrought flowers; and in the vaulting of the porch are eight bands of niches with many, many figures carved therein; and in the first row in the lowest niche Abraham stands with the saved souls in the folds of his raiment.  In the next row and in the rest of the niches are angels with their hands folded in prayer; and in the next row angels again, bearing the souls over, of which they had charge in life; and this is, I think, the most gloriously carved of all those in the vaulting.  Then martyrs come bearing their palm-boughs; then priests with the chalice, each of them; and others there are which I know not of.  But above the resurrection from the dead, in the tympanum, is the reward of the good, and the punishment of the bad.  Peter standing there at the gate, and the long line of the blessed entering one by one; each one crowned as he enters by an angel waiting there; and above their heads a cornice takes the shape of many angels stooping down to them to crown them.  But on the inferno side the devil drives before him the wicked, all naked, presses them on toward hell-mouth, that gapes for them, and above their heads the devil-cornice hangs and weighs on them.  And above these the Judge showing the wounds that were made for the salvation of the world; and St. Mary and St. John kneeling on either side of Him, they who stood so once at the Crucifixion; two angels carrying cross and spear and nails; two others kneeling, and, above, other angels, with their wings spread, and singing.  Something like this is carved in the central porch at Amiens.

Once more forgive me, I pray, for the poor way in which I have done even that which I have attempted to do; and forgive me also for that which I have left undone.

And now, farewell to the church that I love, to the carved temple-mountain that rises so high above the water-meadows of the Somme, above the grey roofs of the good town.  Farewell to the sweep of the arches, up from the bronze bishops lying at the west end, up to the belt of solemn windows, where, through the painted glass, the light comes solemnly.  Farewell to the cavernous porches of the west front, so grey under the fading August sun, grey with the wind-storms, grey with the rain-storms, grey with the beat of many days’ sun, from sunrise to sunset; showing white sometimes, too, when the sun strikes it strongly; snowy-white, sometimes, when the moon is on it, and the shadows growing blacker; but grey now, fretted into black by the mitres of the bishops, by the solemn covered heads of the prophets, by the company of the risen, and the long robes of the judgment-angels, by hell-mouth and its flames gaping there, and the devils that feed it; by the saved souls and the crowning angels; by the presence of the Judge, and by the roses growing above them all for ever.

Farewell to the spire, gilt all over with gold once, and shining out there, very gloriously; dull and grey now, alas; but still it catches, through its interlacement of arches, the intensest blue of the blue summer sky; and, sometimes at night you may see the stars shining through it.

It is fair still, though the gold is gone, the spire that seems to rock, when across it, in the wild February nights, the clouds go westward.


1In the explanatory remarks accompanying the engravings from Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel, published by the Arundel Society.  I regret not being able to give the reference to the passage, not having the work by me.

Text courtesy of Project Gutenberg.