Rouen’s most distinctive monument, seen from far away, is its lofty and imposing cathedral, whose spire stands 151 metres high. From the Place de la Cathédrale, the church appears in all its glory, with its Tour de Beurre (butter tower) to the right and the Tour Saint Romain to the left.
History of Rouen Cathedral
The existing cathedral was not the first to be erected on the site. In the 11th century, a Romanesque building was built and dedicated in 1063 by archbishop Maurille. Excavations ran from the end of the 19th century and led to the discovery of the Romanesque crypt, the only archaeological remains of the former cathedral. According to scholars, it would have been of similar size as the famous abbatial church of Jumièges, whose most celebrated ruins lie some miles away from the city of Rouen.
When Gothic architecture started to be fashionable in Western Europe, the Rouennais decided to replace the Romanesque building with a more prestigious one which would show the world the greatness and prestige of Rouen, one of the largest cities of Western Europe. Less than a century after the dedication of the Romanesque cathedral, archbishop Hughes of Amiens planned the construction of the new building, starting from the facade, and then gradually covering the Romanesque nave with a Gothic one… until a fire devastated the whole district during Easter, destroying everything that remained of the Romanesque cathedral.
The Façade of Rouen Cathedral
With the Tour Saint Romain to the left and the Tour de Beurre to the right, the facade is an amazing set of towers, pinnacles, statues and porches. It is therefore no surprise that it was often painted by the impressionist Claude Monet. The painter composed a series of 28 paintings of the Western facade at different times of the day. His work is exhibited in various museums spread between America (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Getty Center, Los Angeles) and Europe (National Museum of Serbia, Belgrade, museum of Cologne, Germany, Fine Art museum, Rouen and musée d’Orsay, Paris).
The two tall towers contrast with other renowned cathedrals in France as they do not rise above the aisles, but at the sides.
The two porches of the aisles follow the early Gothic style but their tympana were only added in the 13th century. The main porch was the last Gothic element to be added to the cathedral, built to reinforce the facade which had been subsiding after the erection of the Tour du Beurre.
The rose window above is the fourth replacement and dates back to just after the Second World War.
Niches house rows of statues on both sides. There are two galleries of statues in the South and three in the North, a unique feature in France, although common in England. This is evidence of British influence in the Gothic style of the cathedral.
The higher part of the facade is decorated with fine Rayonnant and Flamboyant style gables and at the top of the facade, pyramid-shaped pinnacles crown the whole ensemble.
Sadly, the visible decay of the facade is due to erosion, humidity, frost and pollution and requires thorough restoration.
La Tour de Beurre
The Tour de Beurre was erected towards the end of the 15th century. Its name derives from the word for butter which was banned during Lent. For those diocesans who hoped to escape this drastic religious rule, permission was given for them to keep on eating ‘fat’ in return for a donation of six deniers Tournois – which were used to pay for the erection of the tower.
The last storey is a Gothic marvel as it transforms the squared plan to an octagonal one. Scholars believe that the architect of the time wished to complete the tower with a stone spire. However the canon priests were too scared of the cost of such a work and demanded that a refined balustrade be built instead. The statues are amazing, especially those on the eastern side, which are inspired by the legend of Ara Coeli.
However, the style of the tower was not particularly in keeping with the other features of the facade and its construction led to some technical problems. A slight settling of the foundations made the tower lean southwards. Consequently the main porch was completely remodelled in a Flamboyant Gothic style, bringing the long reconstruction of the cathedral to an end by the beginning of the 16th century.
The Tour de Beurre partly inspired the architects of Tribune Tower, Chicago for the building of the 141 metre high skyscrapers. The Tribune Tower in turn was a source of inspiration for the edification of the Grace Building in Sydney, Australia.
La Tour Saint Romain
On the northern side of the facade lies the mighty Tour Saint Romain, four centuries older than its counterpart. Work on the tower started in 1145, so it is the oldest part of the Gothic construction. Its last storey, in Flamboyant style, clashes with the rest of the more sober building. The Saint Romain tower burnt down on the 1st June 1944, after Allied bombing the day before. The bells melted inside and only the walls were left standing. Its unusual axe-like roof, covered with slates and decorated with a gilded image of a sun, has been reconstructed only recently.
The tower takes its name from Rouen’s most venerated bishop: Saint Romain (or Romanus). According to tradition, the patron saint lived under King Dagobert I and is remembered as a protector of the city. There were wild swamps on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the old town, where a terrifying dragon lived who “devoured and destroyed people and beasts of the field”. The Rouennais named it “Gargouille”.
Joined by a man condemned to death, having nothing to lose, they crossed the Seine and chased the dragon. When the Patron Saint caught it, Saint Romain drew the sign of the cross on the monster. Then he put his cape around it and dragged the beast to the parvis of the cathedral where the Gargouille was burnt to death. After that, it was a local custom for the bishop of Rouen, once a year, to grant one prisoner who had been condemned to death, his freedom (a custom which lasted until 1790). Needless to say, this legend draws similarities with the Graouilly of Metz.
The Lantern Tower
The last addition of major importance to the structure of the cathedral was the 19th century cast iron spire on the lantern tower (not visible from the Western facade). It replaces a former lead-covered timber Renaissance spire from the 16th century, which burnt down in 1822.
The huge tower follows the traditional characteristic of Gothic style in Normandy, having a lantern tower at the crossing of the transept.
It took some 50 years to construct the existing cast iron spire. Four beautiful copper-clad wooden turrets were added by architect F. Marrou between 1880 and 1884 around the spire at the base of the lantern tower. The North-east turret weighing 26 tons was missing following the violent storm of December 1999 which also damaged the choir and the stalls in its fall. The three other turrets were removed for maintenance and safety purposes before being replaced in 2012.
Reaching a height of 151.2 metres, Rouen Cathedral was the tallest building in the world from 1876, a record yielded to Cologne cathedral just four years later, in 1880. The spire still makes Rouen Cathedral the tallest of all French churches.
Inside the cathedral
The nave shows signs of early Gothic architecture. The length of the nave is 60 metres and its height 28 metres, much lower than that of Metz (41 metres) and France’s record Beauvais (48m). It is built with a four-storey elevation (a characteristic of early Gothic), in contrast to the late Gothic style which adopted only three. When the early Gothic focused attention downward (like in Rouen), late Gothic altered this tradition by drawing attention upward, to the heavens.
There are more than 15 side chapels bordering the two aisles of the nave. One of them, the Saint-Sever chapel on the northern side aisle, features the oldest stained-glass windows of the church, dating back to the 13th century. Called the “Belles Verrières” as soon as the 14th century, they were completed by Guillaume Barbe circa 1465.
On the northern side of the ambulatory, some 13th century stained-glass windows can be admired, such as those telling the legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, which inspired French writer Flaubert in his book “Three Tales” (Trois Contes). They are famous for the peculiar cobalt blue colour, known as “the blue from Chartres”. All the old stained-glass windows were taken down in 1939, at the start of the war, as a precaution to prevent them from being destroyed and were sent to the basements of the castle of Niort.
The northern side of the transept is accessed through the “Librarian Gateway” which was a private gate for the canon priests to return to their quarters safely. The rose window is the only one, out of the three found in the cathedral, to have kept its colourful stained-glass.
The North transept features a monumental Gothic staircase known as the “Librarians’ Stairs” because it led to the chapter’s library. The two first flights were built by Guillaume Pontifs in 1479 and the two last, also in Gothic architecture, date to 1788 to give access to the new floor of archives.
Upon its four piers, the crossing of Rouen Cathedral support the lantern tower, with openings through which light from outside can shine down to the inside of the church. This is a frequent feature in churches in Normandy (Bayeux, St. Ouen in Rouen, etc.) and in England (Gloucester, Salisbury, etc).
In the choir’s ambulatory is the tomb of Richard the Lionheart which contained his heart. (If you are inspired to find the rest of his body, you will find that his bowels were buried within the church of the Chateau of Châlus-Chabrol in the Limousin and the corporeal remains at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon and Saumur, in the Loire Valley).
Not far away is the commemorative plaque of John Plantagenet also called John Lancaster, the Duke of Bedford, who the locals regarded as Joan of Arc’s murderer. He owed his right to a tomb inside the church, to his duty as a canon priest of the cathedral after Joan’s death. The Calvinists destroyed the original tomb during the wars of religion.
The ambulatory also contains the tomb of Rollo (or Robert), Richard Lionheart’s ancestor, the founder and first ruler of the Viking principality which became known as Normandy.
Notice an ancient baptistery in the base of the Saint Romain tower. Most of the original furniture, tombs, stained-glass windows and statuary were damaged by the Calvinists.
Another hard time for the cathedral occurred during the Revolution and the French State nationalized the building at the end of the 18th century. Some of its furniture and statues were sold for profit and the chapel fences were melted down to make guns.
Allied bombing during the week before D-Day in 1944 did a lot of damage to the cathedral, which was hit by seven bombs. Fortunately, one of them, which landed in the choir, never exploded. The other six bombs destroyed the south aisle of the nave and the chapels. One of the four pillars supporting the lantern tower and its spire was seriously damaged. Urgent repairs were made to prevent the spire form crashing down onto the building. As for the nave, it remained firmly in place, thanks to the counterweight of the flying buttresses of the Chapel Sainte Catherine.