The cathedral, at the first sight, is bewildering. Gothic art, transported entire into Italy at the close of the Middle Ages, attains at once its triumph and its extravagance. Never had it been seen so pointed, so highly embroidered, so complex, so overcharged, so strongly resembling a piece of jewelry; and as, instead of coarse and lifeless stone, it here takes for its material the beautiful lustrous Italian marble, it becomes a pure chased gem as precious through its substance as through the labor bestowed on it. The whole church seems to be a colossal and magnificent crystallization, so splendidly do its forests of spires, its intersections of moldings, its population of statues, its fringes of fretted, hollowed, embroidered and open marblework, ascend in multiple and interminable bright forms against the pure blue sky.
Truly is it the mystic candelabra of visions and legends, with a hundred thousand branches bristling and overflowing with sorrowing thorns and ecstatic roses, with angels, virgins, and martyrs upon every flower and on every thorn, with infinite myriads of the triumphant Church springing from the ground pyramidically even into the azure, with its millions of blended and vibrating voices mounting upward in a single shout, hosannah!…
We enter, and the impression deepens. What a difference between the religious power of such a church and that of St. Peter’s at Rome! One exclaims to himself, this is the true Christian temple! Four rows of enormous eight-sided pillars, close together, seem like a serried hedge of gigantic oaks. Their strange capitals, bristling with a fantastic vegetation of pinnacles, canopies, foliated niches and statues, are like venerable trunks crowned with delicate and pendent mosses. They spread out in great branches meeting in the vault overhead, the intervals of the arches being filled with an inextricable network of foliage, thorny sprigs and light branches, twining and intertwining, and figuring the aerial dome of a mighty forest. As in a great wood, the lateral aisles are almost equal in height to that of the center, and, on all sides, at equal distances apart, one sees ascending around him the secular colonnades.
Here truly is the ancient Germanic forest, as if a reminiscence of the religious groves of Irmensul. Light pours in transformed by green, yellow and purple panes, as if through the red and orange tints of autumnal leaves. This, certainly, is a complete architecture like that of Greece, having, like that of Greece, its root in vegetable forms. The Greek takes the trunk of the tree, drest, for his type; the German the entire tree with all its leaves and branches. True architecture, perhaps, always springs out of vegetal nature, and each zone may have its own edifices as well as plants; in this way oriental architectures might be comprehended—the vague idea of the slender palm and of its bouquet of leaves with the Arabs, and the vague idea of the colossal, prolific, dilated and bristling vegetation of India.
In any event I have never seen a church in which the aspect of northern forests was more striking, or where one more involuntarily imagines long alleys of trunks terminating in glimpses of daylight, curved branches meeting in acute angles, domes of irregular and commingling foliage, universal shade scattered with lights through colored and diaphanous leaves. Sometimes a section of yellow panes, through which the sun darts, launches into the obscurity its shower of rays and a portion of the nave glows like a luminous glade. A vast rosace behind the choir, a window with tortuous branchings above the entrance, shimmer with the tints of amethyst, ruby, emerald and topaz like leafy labyrinths in which lights from above break in and diffuse themselves in shifting radiance. Near the sacristy a small door-top, fastened against the wall, exposes an infinity of intersecting moldings similar to the delicate meshes of some marvelous twining and climbing plant. A day might be passed here as in a forest, in the presence of grandeurs as solemn as those of nature, before caprices as fascinating, amid the same intermingling of sublime monotony and inexhaustible fecundity, before contrasts and metamorphoses of light as rich and as unexpected. A mystic reverie, combined with a fresh sentiment of northern nature, such is the source of Gothic architecture.