Of this aera, the cathedral of Rouen is unquestionably the most interesting building; and it is so spacious, so grand, so noble, so elegant, so rich, and so varied, that, as the Italians say of Raphael, “ammirar non si puo che non s’onori.”—By an exordium like this, I am aware that an expectation will be raised, which it will be difficult for the powers of description to gratify; but I have still felt that it was due to the edifice, to speak of it as I am sure it deserves, and rather to subject myself to the charge of want of ability in describing, than of want of feeling in the appreciation of excellence.
The west front opens upon a spacious parvis, to which it exposes a width of one hundred and seventy feet, consisting of a centre, flanked by two towers of very dissimilar form and architecture, though of nearly equal height. Between these is seen the spire, which rises from the intersection of the cross, and which, from this point of view, appears to pierce the clouds; and these masses so combine themselves together, that the entire edifice assumes a pyramidical outline. The French, who, without any real affection for ancient architecture, are often extravagant in their praises, regard this spire as a “chef d’oeuvre de hardiesse, d’elegance, et de legerete.” Bold and light it certainly is; but we must pause before we consider it as elegant: the lower part is a combination of very clumsy Roman pediments and columns; and, as it is constructed of wood, the material conveys an idea of poverty and comparative meanness.—It is commonly said in France, that the portal of Rheims, joined to the nave of Amiens, the choir of Beauvais, and the tower of Chartres, would make a perfect church; nor is it to be denied that each of these several cathedrals surpasses Rouen in its peculiar excellence; but each is also defective in other respects; so that Rouen, considered as a whole, is perhaps equal, if not superior, to any. The front is singularly impressive: it is characterised by airy magnificence. Open screens of the most elegant tracery, and filled, like the pannels to which they correspond, with imagery, range along the summit. The blue sky shines through the stone filagree, which appears to be interwoven like a slender web; but, when you ascend the roof, you find that it is composed of massy limbs of stone, of which the edge alone is seen by the observer below. This free tracery is peculiar to the pointed architecture of the continent; and I cannot recollect any English building which possesses it. The basement story is occupied by three wide door-ways, deep in retiring mouldings and pillars, and filled with figures of saints and martyrs, “tier behind tier, in endless perspective.” The central portal, by far the largest, projects like a porch beyond the others, and is surmounted by a gorgeous pyramidal canopy of open stone-work, in whose centre is a great dial, the top of which partly conceals the rose window behind. This portal, together with the niches above on either side, all equally crowded with bishops, apostles, and saints, was erected at the expence of the cardinal, Georges d’Amboise, by whom the first stone was laid, in 1509.