Rouen has been dubbed the "City of a Hundred Spires," for many of its important edifices are churches. Towering above them all is the highest spire in France, erected in 1876, a cast-iron tour-de-force rising 490 ft above the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen. Claude Monet immortalized Rouen's cathedral facade in his paintings.
The first cathedral at Rouen was built in 396 by Bishop Victricius. This was destroyed by the invading Normans, who replaced it with a larger cathedral with a wooden vault. Consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William the Conqueror, all that remains of this building is the crypt beneath the choir.
Rouen Cathedral was rebuilt in 1145 by Bishop Hugues d'Amiens based on the new Gothic style he admired at Saint-Denis Basilica in Paris. After devastating fire in 1200 destroyed all but the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal, reconstruction began immediately. The choir and remainder of the cathedral were built in the more mature Gothic style of the 13th century, completed around 1250.
In the 15th century, the facade of the cathedral was given in a makeover in the Flamboyant Gothic style of the day. The upper portions of the left tower were modified, the facade was renovated, and a new tower was added: the Tour de Beurre (Butter Tower), named for its funding by donations from wealthy citizens in return for the privilege of continuing to eat butter during Lent. (Bourges Cathedralalso has a Tour de Beurre.) The tower was not completed until the 17th century.
Other towers, spires and vertical extensions were added over the years, most notably the Tour Lanterne (Lantern Tower) of 1876. With that great spire, Rouen Cathedral became the tallest building in the world (but it only the held the record until 1880).
In 1892 and 1893, Claude Monet could usually be found with his canvas set up next to the cathedral's facade. During those two years he created some 30 paintings of the facade in a variety of lighting and weather conditions, providing a beautiful study of the play of light in Gothic architecture and sculpture. The paintings can be seen in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
Rouen Cathedral narrowly escaped destruction in World War II - it took several direct hits from bombs in 1944, which narrowly missed destroying key pillars. Another setback occurred on December 26, 1999, when one of the pinnacles fell down in a storm, damaging the vault and choir stalls.
What to See
Covered in lacy Flamboyant Gothic stonework, Rouen cathedral is dominated by three towers: the Tour Saint-Roman (c.1145); the Tour de Beurre (15th century; 151 m/250 feet) and the Tour Lanterne (1876), which contains a carillon of 56 bells, utilizes 740 tons of iron and bronze, and rises to almost 150m (500 ft).
The left portal (Porte St-Jean) is an important survivor of the 12th-century Early Gothic period. The tympanum depicts the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. In the lower register, Salome performs a balancing act (like a medieval jongleur) before King Herod, John is executed, and his head is presented on a platter. The upper register illustrates the legend that John was taken into heaven in ecstasy just before his death.
The main door, Porte Central, is decorated with sculptures (some decapitated) depicting the Family Tree of Jesus. The right portal (Porte St-Etienne) is dedicated to St. Stephen, the first martyr.
Inside, the nave dates primarily from the 12th century and the aisles and vault from the 13th century. The nave is quite similar to Laon Cathedral, with a four-story elevation, restrained height, and busy architecture elements that focus attention downward, instead of to the heavens like later Gothic architecture.
The 13th-century choir has 14 soaring pillars, pointed arcades and 15th-century misericords carved with 15th-century depictions of everyday life and various beasts. The 13th-century chancel is beautiful, with simple lines.
The interior features vibrant stained glass representing all major art periods from the Middle Ages to early Renaissance. The earliest is in the ambulatory, where the stained glass dates from the early 13th century and resembles that ofChartres, Bourges and Reims.
The Joseph Window is the only example from this period that is signed by the artist: it is inscribed Clemens vitrearius carnotensis me fecit, "Clement, glassworker at Chartres, made me." Another ambulatory window depicts the story of St. Julian the Hospitaller, who accidentally killed his parents and spent the rest of his life in penance, helping travelers and the sick.
Other interior highlights include vibrant stained glass depicting the crucified Christ (restored after heavy damage during World War II) and massive stone columns topped by some intriguing carved faces.
The famous Escalier de la Librairie (Booksellers' Stairway) rises from a tiny balcony just to the left of the transept. It is adorned with a stained-glass rose window that dates in part from the 1500s.
The Chapelle de la Vierge (Lady Chapel) in the apse is adorned with Renaissance tombs of the cardinals d'Amboise and the ambulatory and crypt contain the tombs of French royalty stretching as far back as Duke Rollo, who died in 933 AD. The most famous royal relic is the heart of Richard the Lion-Hearted of England (1157-99), entombed on the right side of the choir. The rest of him lies next to his father at Fontevraud Abbey.
Behind the cathedral is the Palais de l'Archevêché (Archbishop's Palace), which was bombed in the war. It was here that Joan of Arc was tried in 1431 and posthumously rehabilitated in 1456.
Rouen Cathedral; Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen
1063; 1145; 1200-50
Bishop Hugues d'Amiens
Photograph Details: Nikon D40, Focal Length 18mm, Opteka o.2x magnification fish eye lens adapter, ISO-720, exp: 1/30 sec, F-stop f/3.5