Friday, 7 August 2015

Medieval Cathedrals: Notre-Dame de Laon, part 1: Exterior

[I'll be using a lot of architectural terms in this series of posts, and in the interests of not doing work that's already been done, instead of making my own glossary I'm linking to this excellent one by Athena Review. All photos used in this post are mine, and can be used by others provided you post a link to this page and credit me.]

My sources for this material are wikipedia’s Laon Cathedral page, The Great Courses The Cathedral course by Professor William Cook (lecture 9), and La Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Laon by Auguste Bouxin, available via  The book is where I got the information for the sculptural program.  Note that my French isn’t that great and the book is quite old (1902), so if you plan to use that information you’d be advised to check with more modern sources.  I did make some corrections to my chart based on the photographs I made of the cathedral, but it’s possible some of the figures have been more accurately identified.  I don’t own a guide book for this cathedral the way I do for several others, so take my charts as a jumping off point for study rather than as a finished product.

See part 2: Interior, here.

Notre-Dame de Laon is situated on top of a steep hill.  It makes for an impressive view, from the bottom and the top.  Laon was an important city for Charlemagne and his descendants.  The emperor attended the dedication of a previous church on the site, completed in 800 CE.  That church was replaced under Bishop Elinand (1052-1095).  It suffered fire damage in the revolt of 1112, but wasn’t completely destroyed. 

The current cathedral was started in the choir around 1160.  Construction stopped in 1174 and restarted around 1180, with the nave.  The choir was replaced and lengthened in 1215, replacing the apse (curved end) with a square one.  This gives the cathedral a wonderful sense of length, though none of the other Gothic cathedrals used it.  The West front, begun in the 1190s, was completed with three portals and a rose window around 1225.  This was the first deep set rose window created after that of Saint Denis.  It depicts the Last Judgement and dates from 1210.  Unfortunately the organ covers the lower parts of the glass, so they’re impossible to see (maybe you can see it on the gallery tour?).

Laon from the train.
First set of stairs up the hill.
The west facade is gorgeous, though all of the jamb statues are reproductions, as is the central lintel with the scenes of the Domition and Assumption of Mary.  Mary sits above these scenes on a throne next to her son, both of them flanked by angels with prophets, angels and the tree of Jesse in the archivolts above. 

West Facade
Central portal
The left portal is heavily influenced by the fact that Laon was an important center of learning for the time.  While the lintel and tympanum show the birth of Christ and Mary as Throne, the archivolts show scenes from the Bible that testify of Christ as well as the virtues and vices.

Left portal
Right portal
On the right portal we find the Last Judgement scene that is quite tame in comparison to that of many other churches and cathedrals of this period.  The bodies rising from the graves are peaceably led off to heaven or hell without any fuss and no real terrifying figures.  Christ sits in majesty above, with choirs of angels and the elect (or saints?) in the archivolts.  The outermost arch holds on the left side, the wise virgins with their vials of oil, and on the right, the foolish.  At the very top of that arch on the left we can see the church with the open door, and on the right, the doors are closed.

Left lancet archivolts with arts.
Right lancet archivolts with creation.
Above the outer doors are two large lancet windows with carved archivolts as well.  The left one shows fantastical beasts in two of the arches, with a third showing female representations of the arts (the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric, the quadrivium: arithemetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  The artist also threw in - according to Bouxin - philosophy, medicine and painting).  On the right we find some birds eating grapes, eagles spreading their wings and God creating the world.

The west facade has a lot of minor sculpture accenting the architectural features.  Easily spotted are a winged hippopotamus and rhinoceros, but there are a lot of faces and other fantastical creatures. There are arches but no gallery of kings on the upper level.  A statue of Mary holding Jesus, flanked by two angels, appears at the top in the centre of the facade.

Here's the sculptural program chart I made for my trip (and updated after my trip), that identifies all of the figures.  It's a jpeg of a pdf, so it won't print out in great condition.  If you'd like a better copy, email me and I'll send you the pdf.  If you choose to use this on your own site or for a school paper, please credit me and read the notes above regarding my sources.
Laon west facade sculptural program

west facade sculpture

The building was supposed to have 7 towers, but only 5 were built.  The towers have two sets of porticoes on top of each other at the corners, the lower one is square while the upper one is hexagonal.  Several stone oxen look out of the towers, tribute to the oxen that supposedly appeared to help pull the building stones up the hill to the building site and then disappeared when the work was completed.

tower detail with oxen
The north side of the church has a door with minor sculpture, now broken.  The figures look like a martyrdom scene, with the martyr being escorted to heaven in the upper level.

North door

North side

The south side has some figure sculpture but little else.

The east end is only really visible from the old Bishop’s palace to the south west, but shows the rounded chapels on the transepts and the square east end.
East side
Tomorrow I'll post the floor plan and pictures of the interior.

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