By John A. Steel
MORE than 642 years have passed since the great Cathedral of St. Stephen at Bourses, which stands so serenely on a hill in the centre of the city, was at last finished and consecrated in the presence of a vast congregation.
It is, as the present Archbishop, Cardinal Lefebvre, has so truly said "an immense book in which our forefathers have endeavoured to express their Faith and their fervent love of God."
Bourges, by its dimensions, proportions and magnificent architecture is considered one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals ever built. In the opinion of many people it shares, together with its sister cathedral of Coutances in Normandy, the distinction of being the finest and most beautiful cathedral in France.
It is indeed a perfect poem of stone and light and teaches one to increase one's knowledge and love of God for whom the daring and inspired builders of the Middle Ages worked with such joy. humility and zeal.
The artists and craftsmen who made the stained glass windows which, together with those in the Cathedrals of Canterbury, Sens, Chartres and Auxerre are world-famous, have left to France some of the finest treasures in her land. By day their deep blue, purple, red, green and gold glow with colours that are so rich and ravishing they beggar description.
Throughout this long period of time the townspeople and those from the fair countryside of Berry have climbed the hill at Christmas time to honour the birth of Christ. Kings and Queens of France, lawyers, doctors, farmers, shopkeepers, sol diers, the nobility, vineyard proprietors and those who work for them have come to the cathedral to kneel in prayer. St. Joan of Arc prayed in it that she might free her beloved France.
This Christmas Eve all who hear the huge six-ton bell "Gross Guillaume" tolling in the Butter Tower will attend Midnight Mass with joy in their hearts for France is strong again, the vendage has been good and they still thank God that Bourges was untouched by the war.
Most of them will enter the cathedral by the magnificent West door and marvel at the Central Portal with its lovely carvings depicting the Last Judgment. No other cathedral in France has so glorious a facade as Bourgcs for there are four other portals— the Portal of the Virgin, the Portal of St. Stephen, the Portal of St. William, and the Portal of St. Ursin.
On Christmas Eve this superb facade and the entire cathedral will glow in the radiance of floodlights mounted on neighbouring buildings. Towering over the roofs of Bourges the lovely outline of the Butter Tower will mount like a triumphant snow-white pillar of light towards Heaven.
Bourges is indeed a "sleeping beauty" among cathedrals, for it is almost hidden from view as you approach it by tortuous medieval streets with high gabled houses dating back to the fifteenth century. When at length you come on it you are lost in wonder at its sheer magnificence. Inside the immense cathedral the unity and harmonious balance of the nave, which the architects strove above all else to achieve, is at once apparent. Unlike the majority of cathedrals there is no Transept in Bourges so the eye can see the whole tremendous interior at one glance and admire the grace and splendour of its conception. To make up for the effect of perspective the chancel is broader (49 feet) than at the West end where it is 47 feet under the organ loft.
So as midnight approaches the cathedral will quickly begin to fill and "Gross Guillaume" will toll more slowly. In the side chapels the lights of flickering candles will cast into relief the features of a devout peasant rapt in prayer or a poor woman lost in the happiness of her Faith. In the exquisite Lady Chapel the effigies of Duke Jean de Berry and his charming second wife Jeanne de Boulogne face one another each kneeling on a prie dieu.
Jean, who was the son of King "Jean le Bon" became the first Duke of Berry when he was only 20. He fought valiantly against the English alongside his father at the Battle of Poitiers and it would seem that some part of his noble spirit still pervades the cathedral. He and his wife loved it well, • as did Jacques Coeur, the Chancellor of Charles VII and countless others, who did everything in their power to make it more beautiful.
Suddenly the organ will begin to play as the Cardinal Archbishop, in his rich robes, and the clergy enter the nave in solemn procession and walk slowly towards the choir, their way lighted by the host of golden candelabra that hang from the roof.
At this moment Bourges is never lovelier or more full of magic, for the music seems to linger a moment in the dim mystery of the vault 125 feet above before it steals gently through the splendid forest of graceful soaring piers that support the roof of the nave and those of its four aisles.
Behind Duke Jean and his wife the statue of Our Lady, crowned with fresh flowers from the South, gazes fondly on the smiling face of the Christ Child gently cradled in her arms, whose birthday will so soon be celebrated when the choir bursts into a wondrous song of praise.