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Title: The Brochure Series of Architectural Illustration, vol. 06, No. 7, July 1900 - House of Jacques Coeur: Bourges, Gothic Carved Woodwork
Author: Various
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                          THE BROCHURE SERIES
                   House of Jacques Coeur: Bourges
                        Gothic Carved Woodwork
                              JULY, 1900


                            BROCHURE SERIES

                      1900.      JULY      No. 7.


The house of Jacques Coeur at Bourges is, to architect and historian
alike, one of the most interesting monuments which have survived
from the Middle Ages,--interesting to the architect not only for its
intrinsic beauty, but from the fact that it is the most complete and
important specimen which remains of all the civil buildings in France
of the Gothic period, and which, because of the brief time occupied
in its construction, exhibits the style of the fifteenth century in
unusual purity, and interesting to the historian from its connection
with Jacques Coeur, one of the most picturesque and remarkable
figures in French history. That Jacques Coeur was the son of a
wealthy fur merchant of Bourges, and that he was born in 1395, are
the only facts of importance in his eventful career that are known,
until he first makes his appearance on the historical stage, under
rather disadvantageous circumstances, in 1420. The Dauphin of France,
driven across the Loire by the English and their Burgundian allies,
had made Bourges the seat of his government, and had appointed a
certain Ravant-le-Danois master of the Bourges mint,--a post of
some importance. Ravant-le-Danois had taken into partnership (for
at this time the coining of public moneys was farmed out to private
enterprise) Jacques Coeur, and the two, finding that the profits of
the business were not so large as they had expected, presently resorted
to illegitimate methods of increasing them; and Coeur appears to have
been active in the process of issuing money which was considerably
under the standard weight. The fraud was discovered; but the kings of
France themselves had been too often guilty of tampering with the coin
of the realm for the offence to carry with it any deep disgrace; and,
perhaps considering the state of the royal treasury, justice considered
itself satisfied with a fine equal to about $7500. Thereafter, however,
Jacques Coeur appears to have cast about for a more honorable channel
into which to direct his energy. Enterprising, keen-eyed, determined
by some means or other to make his fortune, he naturally turned his
face eastward. The trade between Europe and the Levant had never been
more active than it was in the early part of the fifteenth century, in
spite of the ecclesiastical restrictions laid upon it. For the Church,
still dreaming of new crusades and a Christian rule in the Holy Land,
censured all peaceful dealings with the infidel. But the demand for
Eastern luxuries--silks, gems, perfumes and spices--was immense, and
the trade too lucrative to be renounced; and so Rome satisfied her
conscience by allowing the traffic to be carried on by certain persons
within certain well-defined limits, and was handsomely paid for the
concession. The merchants of Montpellier in France had obtained a
license from the pope to send one ship yearly to Eastern ports, and to
their fraternity Jacques Coeur joined himself in 1432. He had chosen
a propitious moment to begin his operations. France was beginning to
recover from the prostrate condition in which the civil war had left
her, and Coeur's ventures prospered marvellously. Before long he is
the recorded owner of seven vessels, and employer of no less than three
hundred agents who represented him in all the chief commercial centres
in France and abroad. His ships sailed to the furthest harbors of the
Levant, and his relations with the sultan assumed political importance.
A contemporary chronicler describes him as "a second Jason, with Cairo
for his Colchis strand."


A merchant of such wealth and importance could hardly be overlooked by
Charles VII., who had a talent for putting the right man in the right
place; and when in 1436 Paris at last consented to admit the king,
he re-established an Hôtel des Monnaies in the capital, and gave the
direction of it to the man who had managed his own monetary affairs
with such striking results. It was in connection with this office that
Coeur rendered his country his most important and permanent service.

France was flooded with debased coin, English, Burgundian and French:
indeed so little could the merchants depend upon the nominal value of
the pieces which passed through their hands that they stipulated with
each other for payment by weight instead of in the usual legal tender.
Jacques Coeur recognized the disastrous effects of this system; and
as soon as he became master of the Paris mint undertook to reform it.
Money suspected of being under weight was arbitrarily seized, wherever
it was found, and a new gold and silver coinage of full value was
struck. "The new treasurer," says a chronicler, "believed that the way
for the king to grow rich, as for other people, was to pay his debts."

In 1440 so high did Jacques Coeur stand in royal favor that he was
made a member of the King's Council, granted letters of nobility and
created keeper of the privy-purse, a post which carried with it many
valuable privileges connected with the court, and by which he profited
to the fullest extent. He had the right of selling merchandise in the
precincts of the royal residence to the nobles and courtiers, and to
loan money to the whole court. There exist among the treasurer's
papers of the time notes to the effect that the queen borrowed a sum
equivalent to $700 from him and pledged a pearl for its repayment, and
that the king's youngest daughter Madame Aragonde borrowed $650 "_pour
avoir une robe_."

His talents found recognition outside of the domain of finance. He
served on royal commissions and went on important embassies. On one
of these, his entry into Rome was so magnificent that the spectators
declared "it was sixty years since they had seen the like, but that the
expense of it was outrageous."

All this time his wealth had continued to increase. Poets celebrated it
in their verses; his rivals watched it with bitter envy. Exaggerated
stories of his lavish expenditure became current. It was reported
that the commonest utensils of his house were of silver, that even
his horses were shod with it. From impoverished nobles, who were his
debtors, he commenced to buy great estates all over France. It was at
this time, in 1443, that he began to build his unrivalled house in
Bourges, his native town, although he already possessed mansions at
Marseilles, Montpellier, Beaucaire, Lyons, Tours, Béziers and Paris.

  (_After Viollet-le-Duc_)]

When in 1449 the four years' truce with England was broken, the French
threw themselves vigorously anew into the war, and Charles set
himself with unusual energy to efface the last traces of his country's
long humiliation. The campaign was actively planned, but there was
no money in the royal treasury. The king appealed to the only man in
France able to meet the urgent necessities of the case, the merchant
Jacques Coeur. He was walking alone with the king when Charles
broached the subject and asked him to advance the money for the Norman
enterprise. "All that I have, sire, is yours," was the answer; and
Charles had no further anxiety about the payment of his troops. The
nominal loan, but virtual gift, of Jacques Coeur to the crown was an
amount equivalent to $2,500,000 in our money.


After a series of brilliant victories Charles at length triumphed,
and the English empire in France ended. The part the treasurer had
taken was not forgotten. In the triumphal entry into Rouen he rode,
magnificent in crimson velvet and fur, beside Lieutenant-General
Dunois, the hero of the day. Apparently he was in the heyday of his
prosperity, and outwardly all continued to go well with him; but his
downfall was pending. The whole court owed him money, and each debtor
was a foe in ambush; the king, who invariably grew weary of those who
were for long about him, was secretly not unwilling to sacrifice this
man who had held so chief a part in his affairs for fifteen years,
and Coeur had made two bitter enemies, high in court favor,--the
Comte de Dammartin and Otto Castellani, an Italian, the latter of whom
coveted the treasurer's office for himself. The blow fell at last, and
with dramatic abruptness. In 1451 Jacques Coeur was arrested on the
trumped-up charge of having poisoned the king's mistress, Agnes Sorel,
who had died eighteen months before, and one of whose executors he had

A special commission was appointed to try the case, and the first two
names on the list of his judges were those of the Comte de Dammartin,
president, and Otto Castellani! Before the trial began the prisoner's
property was declared forfeit to the crown, and a first charge of
$1,250,000 was levied upon it for the expenses of the war in Guienne.
Jacques Coeur's generosity had redeemed one province; a second was to
be recovered by his ruin.

The accusation of poisoning was so obviously groundless that it was at
once abandoned; but half a dozen other charges were quickly formulated
against him, amongst them those of having exported French money to the
East; of having sold arms to the infidel; of having administered the
king's affairs fraudulently and tyranically in Languedoc, and of having
issued light money from the mint.

Coeur defended himself bravely, but he might have spared himself the
trouble. His judges had already agreed upon a verdict. He was dragged
from one prison to another, continually protesting his innocence,
continually appealing to the Church for protection; till at last in
1453 he was brought into the torture chamber of the Castle of Tours and
threatened with the rack. Weary and weak from twenty months of suspense
and confinement, his heart failed him, and he agreed to admit all the
charges against him except that of having poisoned Agnes Sorel.

In consideration of the pope's intercession and of Coeur's former
services his life was spared; but he was condemned to pay the king
$1,250,000 as restitution money, and $2,500,000 as a fine, and to be
banished forever from the kingdom. On being notified of the decree,
Jacques replied that he could not possibly raise the sums demanded. He
himself owed money which he had borrowed for the king's affairs, and
his goods were not worth so much. He was accordingly thrown again into
prison, and the procurer-general proceeded to sell, by public auction,
all the property of the prisoner which, after diligent search, he could
find throughout the kingdom, including the house at Bourges.

Two years passed, and the sentence of banishment was not yet executed,
perhaps because the fines were not yet paid. At the end of that time
Coeur, by the help of one of his former clerks, contrived to escape
from prison, and fled to Rome.


The end of his life is almost as obscure as the beginning. It is clear
however, that, though now a man of over sixty, whose last five years
had been years of intense suffering, Coeur was recognized by the
pope, Calixtus III., as a man of ability and spirit. Constantinople
had fallen, and the pope was anxious to undertake a new crusade. But
the days of crusades were over; and his envoys pleaded and reasoned
with the sovereigns of Christendom in vain. At length, in despair,
the pope fitted out sixteen galleys himself, and in 1456 sent them to
succor the Christian colonies in the Archipelago. The patriarch of
Aquileia was the nominal leader, but an actual leader was required, and
Calixtus offered the secondary command to none other than the French
exile, Jacques Coeur. Coeur accepted the post; but his new career
was a very short one.

The expedition sailed first to Rhodes and thence to Chios, and here
Coeur fell ill as the result of a wound received in some skirmish
on the way. He died on the 25th of November and was buried in the
Franciscan church on the island, forgiving his enemies and his king
with his last breath.

As has been said, Jacques Coeur's most princely residence, that
at Bourges, was begun in 1443, when he was at the height of his
prosperity, and was nearly completed when in 1451 his downfall came.
In spite of changes in the arrangement of the interior, in spite of a
clumsy addition in the Renaissance style on the right of the courtyard,
and in spite of some blunders in the restoration, which was undertaken
by the government in 1858, the building has escaped any grave
mutilation, and may be taken as a type of the princely residence of its

  _Germanic Museum: Nuremberg_]

Owing to the loss of Coeur's personal papers in the confusion
incident to his trial, the name of his architect is unknown. From
the general style and especially on account of certain details of
ornamentation it is possible that he was Jean Gaussel, the architect
who built the façade of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois at Paris; but this is
merely a surmise.

As a site for this house Coeur had bought a domain, known as the
_Fief de la Chaussée_, which bordered upon the ancient rampart of
Bourges, and included two of the original towers of that rampart. These
two towers he restored and heightened, and they served as a beginning
for the new construction and were incorporated with it. The general
plan of the whole is an irregular pentagon--a central court surrounded
by unsymmetrical groups of buildings, according to the disposition of
almost all mediæval civil and military buildings. It is clear that the
architect sacrificed every consideration of symmetry to the exigencies
of usefulness and convenience; but the resulting irregularity is quite
in harmony with the Gothic style, and conduces not a little to the
picturesqueness of the whole.


The façade of the house (Plate LI.) faces a small square in which
stands a modern statue of Jacques Coeur. The main feature of this
façade is a central pavilion (Plate LII.) which contains the main
portal of the house comprising two entrances, the larger for horsemen
and guests, the smaller for tradesmen and servants. Above the portal
is a niche sheltered by a carved canopy, wherein an equestrian statue
of Charles VII. originally stood. The niche is flanked by two false
windows, and out of each leans a stone figure, one representing a
man-servant, the other a maid-servant, both dressed in the costumes of
the time, who peer out into the street as if to watch for the return of
their lord. On the left of the pavilion rises a beautifully elaborated
prism-shaped tower, within which winds a spiral staircase leading to a
chapel. This chapel occupies nearly the whole of the first story of the
front, and a great window that lights it opens above the entrance.

  _Bavarian National Museum: Munich_]

The coat of arms of Jacques Coeur--three black cockle-shells and
three crimson hearts, the latter in punning allusion to his name,
with his motto "_A vaillans coeurs rien impossible_," the word
"_coeurs_" being represented by two hearts--is frequently repeated in
the carvings of the façade. Indeed everywhere throughout the building
we find these emblems,--in the windows, in all the carvings, above
the mantlepieces, even on the tiles of the roof, and the bell of the
chapel; and the nail-heads of the door-fastenings are shaped like

The main entrance leads directly into the great courtyard, around which
the various constructions which make up the whole are irregularly
grouped. The design of the pavilion of the façade is repeated on the
inner side, but in place of the statue of the king the niche was
originally occupied by a statue of Jacques Coeur. To the left of the
portal, under an arcade, is the entrance to the spiral stairway (Plate
LIII.) which winds within the tower to the chapel. The tympana above
the three openings to this stairway are carved in relief with rude but
vigorous figures, the designs being appropriate to their situation.
On the tympanum most plainly shown in our illustration, for example,
the carving depicts three acolytes preparing an altar for service.
Throughout the house the carvings are, after the same fashion, made
characteristic of the rooms or entrances which they adorn: the carvings
over the kitchen staircase represent culinary operations,--a roast
hanging above the fire, a boy turning the spit, a woman washing plates,
a cook grinding spices,--that leading to the dining-room is ornamented
with fruit-trees, and so forth.

  _Bavarian National Museum: Munich_]

The principal side of the court, architecturally considered, is
opposite the main entrance (Plate LV.). The chief feature of this
side is a great octagonal tower which contains the stairway leading
to a dining-hall situated on the first floor and corresponding in
position to the chapel in the front wing. The north and west sides of
the courtyard are surrounded, on the ground floor, by cloisters (Plate
LIV.) above which were the living-rooms and household offices.


The rear view of the building (Plate LVIII.) shows that part of the
construction which was based upon the ancient rampart of the city.
The two large towers are those before referred to, which were still
standing as part of the rampart when the building of the house was
begun. One was entirely reconstructed by Coeur, with the exception of
the first story, which is of old Roman work as the layers of brick and
masonry indicate; the other received only its crown and a new interior
construction, and like the first, was flanked by a tower destined to
serve as a cage for the stairway.

  _Bavarian National Museum: Munich_]

The only room of architectural interest in the interior, which has
been largely remodelled to serve the various public uses to which the
building has since been put, is the chapel (Plates LVI. and LVII.).
Here the side walls have suffered from too ardent restoration; but
the splendid painted ceiling is intact. It is divided by ribs, the
bosses of which are decorated with the arms of Jacques Coeur and
those of his wife, into twelve triangles, four large and eight small
ones; and within these triangles, relieved against a background of
gold-starred blue, angels bearing ribbons inscribed with scriptural
texts are painted. The breadth and beauty of the design, the sobriety
and harmony of the color-scheme and the excellence of execution gives
this ceiling first importance as a document in the history of French
decorative painting.

  _Bavarian National Museum: Munich_]

Taken as a whole this house, though rivalled by the Hôtel de Cluny
at Paris and the Palais de l'Échiquier at Rouen, ranks as the most
splendid civil construction antedating the Renaissance which remains in
France. Its history is known without interruption from the beginning.
Five years after its confiscation it was restored to Coeur's
descendants. In 1501 it was sold by them, passing through several
hands, until in 1682 it became the property of the city of Bourges and
was made to serve as the Hôtel de Ville. In 1858 it was ceded to the
State, and is now used as a Palais de Justice.

  _Bavarian National Museum: Munich_]


                             Specimens of
                          Gothic Wood Carving

Examples of decorative carving in wood dating prior to the Middle
Ages are extremely rare. Some sculptured figures of saints, and other
fragments of a more solid sort, have survived, but the more delicate
ornamental work has disappeared. Indeed most of the ornamental
wood-carvings which have come down to us even from the Middle Ages
belong almost exclusively to the end of that period, when, especially
in Germany, the art attained unrivalled productiveness and excellence.

  _Bavarian National Museum: Munich_]

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the skill in
technical workmanship was unsurpassed. By this time, too, the carvers
had learned to adapt their designs most perfectly to the nature of
their material; to avoid attempting to cut large curves, braces and
other structural members out of wood,--which besides being wasteful of
the material, since enormous balks were required when large curves were
cut out of the solid wood, were constructionally weak,--and to design
their larger pieces with straight lines for the main frame-work, using
curves only on a smaller scale and in positions where they were not
subjected to much strain.

In design, the work of this period evinces great vigor and originality.
The best workmen did not repeat predetermined patterns, but allowed
the motives to grow under their hands, thus endowing even the smallest
pieces with an individuality which makes the decorative effect as
spirited and varied as it is graceful. The perfection of architectonic
designs in the wood-carving of this time, was probably due rather to
emulation of the lace-like and elaborate carving in stone which was
being executed contemporaneously, than the imitation of it.

The modern notion that carved wood should be left unpainted was quite
foreign to Gothic designers. They preferred even a simple coating of
white or red to the natural tone of the material, and commonly the
chief members of all the mouldings were adorned with delicately painted
patterns. Our "restorers" have in most cases, however, scraped off all
that remained of this brilliant decoration.

  _Bavarian National Museum: Munich_]

The excellent preservation of specimens of even the most fragile
wood-carvings of this century is due doubtless to the extreme care
with which the workmen selected and prepared their material. Oak was
almost invariably employed; and it is evident that not only was it
critically selected but that it was subjected to an elaborate process
of preparation. It was probably left for long in damp places, sometimes
even soaked in water, after which it was thoroughly dried in the open
air and thereafter occasionally smoked, for the purpose of hardening
the surface.

                                                               S. F. N.


                          Transcriber's Note:

Italics are indicated by _underscores_.

Small capitals have been rendered in full capitals.

Ligatures [oe] have been converted into oe.

A number of minor spelling errors have been corrected without note.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Brochure Series of Architectural Illustration, vol. 06, No. 7, July 1900 - House of Jacques Coeur: Bourges, Gothic Carved Woodwork" ***

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