Visiting the churches, basilicas and cathedrals of Gothic northern Europe can be an intoxicating experience, and one can find oneself drugged into excessive panegyric. One recalls the excessive gushing of early 19th century writers and artists over the Romantic Middle Ages, with their knights in shining armor, courteous chivalry, and ladies in distress: Strawberry Hill, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ivanhoe, et al.
Certainly, a visit to Chartres or Sainte-Chapelle leaves one almost breathless in the sublimity of the interior space, the vaulting of heaven, the light through the stained glass. It is easy to become drunk with love for such buildings. But you should be careful not to fall into idolatry. They were, after all, built by human beings, and like their makers, can be imperfect.
The antidote to such architectural genuflection can be a visit to a Gothic cathedral that fails to rise completely to such admiration. For me, that moment came on seeing the monster at the heart of Rouen in Normandy. Rouen cathedral bullies the town, dominating the city with its giant spire, so out of proportion.
There is a perfectly good cathedral in the middle of it all, but it is buttressed on both shoulders by giant towers so out of scale as to seem like prison guards hectoring the poor dwarf between them, and then topped with a Victorian-era cast-iron steeple that is twice the height of the church itself. It is this Gothic designed taffy-pulled into parody.
Inside, the cathedral is spare. It was badly damaged by bombs during World War II, and most of the stained glass has been replaced by clear frosted glass. This makes the interior brighter than in most cathedrals, but also makes it look, as Rick Steves says, “like the largest mens’ room ever.”
It is hard to recognize just what the Victorian critic John Ruskin was thinking when he wrote of Rouen, “It is the most exquisite piece of pure Flamboyant work existing. There is not one cusp, one finial, that is useless, not a stroke of the chisel is in vain; the grace and luxuriance of it all are visible — sensible, rather, even to the un-inquiring eye; and all its minuteness does not diminish the majesty, while it increases the mystery of the noble and unbroken vault.” Ruskin may have been smoking something.
That is the kind of gushing I believe a modern visitor to Rouen will find quelled by simply looking at what is in front of him. Ruskin, it seems, was still blotto on the overkill of breathy Victorian enthusiasm.
Historians like to divide the Gothic idea into subsets, early, high, rayonnant and flamboyant styles. Rouen, as it exists now, is primarily the last, gauded up with all kinds of filigree and tracery. Its west facade (aka, its front), is so detailed as to make it impossible to take it all in as a single entity. This is made worse by the twin towers muscling the central building into a cowering detainee. The older tower, the Tour St. Romain, sits to the left (to the south), and rises on decaying brick and stone. The newer one, the so-called Butter Tower, was added much later to balance the earlier one, and re-establish symmetry. The result is that the building’s footprint is wider than it is tall (not counting the spire, but just the actual nave and aisles huddled below) and therefore negating the whole upthrusting heavenward leap most characteristic of Gothic church architecture. Instead of reaching for the heavens, it seems as wide as a warehouse.
Most of the Medieval churches were constructed piecemeal over centuries, and in almost every case, styles changed over that time, and so Gothic architecture is an especially heterogeneous one: unity out of difference. Rouen takes that idea and runs with it. It was begun in 1035 on the ruins of a previous Romanesque site that had burnt down. Since then, the history of Rouen is one of calamity and rebuild. This constant reboot has made it a less harmonious jumble than one finds elsewhere, of ad hoc fixes, misguided redesigns and megalomaniac civic striving.
It is the Peter Abelard of cathedrals, and a book could be written on the history of its misfortunes. The previous cathedral was struck by lightning in 1110, and construction began on the current building. The new one burnt again in 1200, destroying all but the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal, with work ending in 1250. It was struck again by lightning in 1284, was partially taken down and rebuilt in 1302, the spire was blown down in a wind storm in 1353. The construction of the Butter Tower in the 16th century led to disturbances in the facade, which had to be reinforced (finished 1530). The original Gothic spire had burned down in 1514 and was finally replaced by a wooden spire covered in gold-plated lead in 1580, paid for, in part, by the selling of indulgences. In 1562, it was damaged by rebelling Calvinists during the Wars of Religion, when much of the statuary and windows were destroyed. The cathedral was struck again by lightning in 1625 and 1642, damaged by a hurricane in 1683. The choir burnt in 1727 and a bell broke in 1786. During the French Revolution, the church, like many in France, was deconsecrated and turned into a civic building and metal parts of the church were melted down to make cannons and cannonballs. The spire was again blasted by lightning in 1822 and a new one made from cast iron added in 1876 (making it the tallest building in the world until displaced from atop the list four years later by the cathedral at Cologne. (Then to the Eiffel Tower in 1889).
The misfortunes continued. In 1940, a fire damaged the building’s structure and burned that part of the city from the church to the Seine river, and later during World War II, the cathedral was bombed twice, first by the British, then by the Americans, just before D-Day. Parts of the south aisle were destroyed and the south tower burned. Much of the remaining stained glass was blown out, leading to the current situation with frosted glass in many of the windows.
Then, in 1999, a cyclone named Lothar destroyed one of the four wooden turrets surrounding the central lantern tower was blasted and fell crashing into the choir. The history of Rouen’s cathedral is one of constant upkeep and rebuilding, like trying to sustain a sand castle against the tide.
Yet, if the building seems a disappointment after Notre Dame de Paris, after Chartres or St. Denis, perhaps I am being too hard on it. It still has many redeeming details, and some very ancient survivors, like the north portal, or St. John the Baptist Portal. In its tympanum one sees the story of the prophet, Salome’s dance (more an gymnastics exhibition), the beheading of John and the presentation of his head on a platter. It was created in the 12th century and has survived fire, storm and the ravages of war.
Then, there is the Booksellers’ Stairway (Escalier de la Librairie), which once led to the archives of the chapter, begun in 1479 and completed in 1788. And also on the north side is the only rose window that retains its stained glass, over the Portail des Libraires, created in the late 14th century by the artist Guillaume Nouel. The rose is partially blocked, but still can be seen. (The opposite rose window, above the Calende Portal in the south transept, is clear glass).
There are some delightful tapestries hanging in the arcade between nave and aisle.
Also, there is the Lady Chapel, growing out of the apse, like an elongated caterpillar, are some excellent windows and a huge 17th century altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin. The Lady Chapel (that is Our Lady — the Virgin Mary) was built in rayonnant style beginning in 1302 to replace an earlier, smaller chapel.
And rising from the crossing of the transept is the opening in the ceiling that leads upward to the spire. While the vaulting is impressive enough, it is ever more striking to see the empty space defined by the interior of the nave opened up even higher, as if the incense and prayers could escape heavenward through it, like smoke through a chimney hole in Medieval dwelling. The vast spire tower and the godawful cast-iron spire are supported by four grand pillars marking the crossing of nave and transept, but even with those giant supports, the ceiling and the hole in it inspire an exceptional sense of what you could call “spiritual uplift,” as if the chimney had an efficient updraft.
Nowadays, the parvis (plaza in front of the cathedral) is notably commercial, with an underwear store across from the triple portals —
the western exterior of the church has nevertheless inspired one of the great painting series of the Impressionist era. Claude Monet painted that cathedral front something like 30 times, in sun, shade, rain, moonlight and in morning, afternoon, and night. The paintings are now spread around the world in various museums.
The painter would set up his easel — sometimes easels — across from the church and paint on one canvas in the morning to catch the first glow of light, then switch to another canvas later on to paint the afternoon light. He might switch canvases many times, over days and weeks, to catch the various effects.
I couldn’t do that in my short visit to Rouen, but I did photograph the cathedral throughout the day to make my own mini-Monet spread.
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