Rouen

By Thomas Frognall Dibdin

[35]

The approach to Rouen is indeed magnificent. I speak of the immediate approach, after you reach the top of a considerable rise, and are stopt by the barriers. You then look down a straight, broad, and strongly paved road, lined with a double row of trees on each side. As the foliage was not thickly set, we could discern, through the delicately clothed branches, the tapering spire of the cathedral, and the more picturesque tower of the Abbaye St. Ouen--with hanging gardens, and white houses, to the left--covering a richly cultivated ridge of hills, which sink, as it were, into the Boulevards, and which is called the Faubourg Cauchoise. To the right, through the trees, you see the River Seine (here of no despicable depth or breadth), covered with boats and vessels in motion, the voice of commerce, and the stir of industry, cheering and animating you as you approach the town. I was told that almost every vessel which I saw (some of them of two hundred, and even of three hundred tons burden) was filled with brandy and wine….

First for the cathedral, for what traveler of taste does not doff his bonnet to the mother-church of the town through which he happens to be traveling, or in which he takes a temporary abode? The west front, always the forte of the architects's skill, strikes you as you go down, or come up, the principal street--La Rue des Carmes--which seems to bisect the town into equal parts. A small open space, which, however, has been miserably encroached upon by petty shops, called the Flower Gardens, is before this western front; so that it has some little breathing room in which to expand its beauties to the wondering eyes of the beholder. In my poor judgment, this western front has very few elevations comparable with it--including even those of Lincoln and York. The ornaments, especially upon the three porches, between the two towers, are numerous, rich, and for the greater part entire, in spite of the Calvinists, the French Revolution, and time.

As you enter the cathedral, at the center door, by descending two steps, you are struck with the length and loftiness of the nave, and with the lightness of the gallery which runs along the upper part of it. Perhaps the nave is too narrow for its length. The lantern of the central large tower is beautifully light and striking. It is supported by four massive clustered pillars, about forty feet in circumference; but by casting your eye downward, you are shocked at the tasteless division of the choir from the nave by what is called a Grecian screen; and the interior of the transepts has undergone a like preposterous restoration.

The rose windows of the transepts, and that at the west end of the nave, merit your attention and commendation. I could not avoid noticing, to the right, upon entrance, perhaps the oldest side chapel in the cathedral, of a date less ancient than that of the northern tower, and perhaps of the end of the twelfth century. It contains by much the finest specimens of stained glass--of the early part of the sixteenth century. There is also some beautiful stained glass on each side of the chapel of the Virgin, behind the choir; but altho very ancient, it is the less interesting, as not being composed of groups, or of historical subjects. Yet, in this as in almost all the churches which I have seen, frightful devastations have been made among the stained glass windows by the fury of the Revolutionists….

On gazing at this splendid monument of ancient piety and liberality--and with one's mind deeply intent upon the characters of the deceased--let us fancy we hear the sound of the great bell from the southwest tower--called the Amboise Tower--erected, both the bell and the tower, by the uncle and minister of Amboise. Know, my dear friend, that there was once a bell (and the largest in Europe, save one), which used to send forth its sound for three successive centuries from the said tower. This bell was broken about thirty years ago, and destroyed in the ravages of the immediately succeeding years. The southwest tower remains, and the upper part of the central tower, with the whole of the lofty wooden spire--the fruits of the liberality of the excellent men of whom such honorable mention has been made. Considering that this spire is very lofty, and composed of wood, it is surprising that it has not been destroyed by tempest or by lightning.

Leaving the cathedral, you pass a beautifully sculptured fountain, of the early time of Francis I., which stands at the corner of the street, to the right; and which, from its central situation, is visited the livelong day for the sake of its limpid waters. Push on a little further, then, turning to the right, you get into a sort of square, and observe the abbey--or rather the west front of it--full in face of you. You gaze, and are first struck with its matchless window: call it rose, or marigold, as you please.

I think, for delicacy and richness of ornament, this window is perfectly unrivaled. There is a play of line in the mullions, which, considering their size and strength, may be pronounced quite a masterpiece of art. You approach, regretting the neglected state of the lateral towers, and enter through the large and completely opened center doors, the nave of the abbey. It was toward sunset when we made our first entrance. The evening was beautiful; and the variegated tints of sunbeam, admitted through the stained glass of the window, just noticed, were perfectly enchanting. The window itself, as you look upward, or rather as you fix your eye upon the center of it, from the remote end of the abbey, or the Lady's Chapel, was a perfect blaze of dazzling light; and nave, choir, and side aisles seemed magically illumined. We declared instinctively that the Abbey of St. Ouen could hardly have a rival--certainly not a superior.

Let me, however, put in a word for the organ. It is immense, and perhaps larger than that belonging to the cathedral. The tin pipes (like those of the organ in the cathedral) are of their natural color. I paced the pavement beneath, and think that this organ can not be short of forty English feet in length. Indeed, in all the churches which I have yet seen, the organs strike me as being of magnificent dimensions.

You should be informed, however, that the extreme length of the interior, from the further end of the chapel of the Virgin, to its opposite western extremity, is about four hundred and fifty English feet; while the height, from the pavement to the roof of the nave, or the choir, is one hundred and eight English feet. The transepts are about one hundred and forty feet in length. The central tower, upon the whole, is not only the grandest tower in Rouen, but there is nothing for its size in our own country that can compare with it. It rises upward of one hundred feet above the roof of the church; and is supported below, or rather within, by four magnificent cluster-pillared bases, each about thirty-two feet in circumference. Its area, at bottom, can hardly be less than thirty-six feet square. The choir is flanked by flying buttresses, which have a double tier of small arches, altogether "marvelous and curious to behold."

I could not resist stealing quietly round to the porch of the south transept, and witnessing, in that porch, one of the most chaste, light, and lovely specimens of Gothic architecture which can be contemplated. Indeed, I hardly know anything like it. The leaves of the poplar and ash were beginning to mantle the exterior; and, seen through their green and gay lattice work, the traceries of the porch seemed to assume a more interesting aspect. They are now mending the upper part of the facade with new stone of peculiar excellence--but it does not harmonize with the old work. They merit our thanks, however, for the preservation of what remains of this precious pile. I should remark to you that the eastern and northeastern sides of the abbey of St. Ouen are surrounded with promenades and trees: so that, occasionally, either when walking or sitting upon the benches, within these gardens, you catch one of the finest views imaginable of the abbey.



[35] From "A Bibliographical Tour in France and Germany."