It is of all the medieval cities of France, is ever to the fore in the memories of the mere traveller for pleasure. In no sense are its charms of a negative quality, or few in number. Quite the reverse is the case; but the city’s apparent attraction is its extreme accessibility, and the glamours that a metropolis of rank throws over itself; for it must riot be denied that a countrified environment has not, for all, the appealing interest of a great city. It is to this, then, that Rouen must accredit the throngs of strangers which continually flock to its doors from the Easter time to late autumn. In addition there are its three great churches, so conveniently and accessibly placed that the veriest tyro in travel can but come upon them whichever way he strolls. Other monuments of equal rank there are, too, and altogether, whether it be the mere hurried pecking of a bird of passage, or the more leisurely attack of the studiously inclined, Rouen offers perhaps much greater attractions than are possessed by any other French city of equal rank.
So closely, too, have certain events of English history been interwoven with scenes and incidents which have taken place here, that the wonder is that it is not known even more intimately by that huge number of persons who annually rush across France to Switzerland or Italy.
Chroniclers of the city’s history, its churches, and its institutions have not been wanting, in either French or English; and even the guide-books enlarge (not unduly) upon its varied charms. Once possessing thirty-two churches, sixteen yet remain; quite one-half of which may be numbered today as of appealing interest. En passant, it may be stated that here at Rouen, in both Notre Dame and the Abbey Church of St. Ouen, is found that gorgeous functionary, commonly called ” the Suisse,” who seeks your gold or a portion thereof, in return for which he will favour you by opening an iron wicket into the choir, an incumbrance unnoticed elsewhere, except at Paris and St. Denis.
The late Gothic church of St. Ouen, where the Maid of Orleans received her fatal sentence, shows a wonderful unity of design even as to its modern western towers; a consistency not equally the possession of the neighbouring cathedral, or even of most great churches. Altogether, this grand building is regarded as an unparallelled example of the realization of much that is best of Gothic architecture at its greatest height. In its central tower alone -which may or may not be suggestive of a market-basket, accordingly as you will take Ruskin’s opinion, or form one of your own – is the least evidence of the developed flamboyant found. Its interior is clean-cut and free of obstruction; the extreme length of its straight lines, both horizontal and perpendicular, entirely freed from chapel or choir screen, embrace and uphold its “walls of glass ” in an unequalled manner.
In strong contrast to this expressively graceful style is the ultraflorid type of St. Maclou, the other of that trinity of architectural splendours, which, with the Cathedral of Notre Dame, form the chief ecclesiastical monuments of the city. St. Maclou, which dates from the early fifteenth century, though not of the grand proportions of either of the other great churches, being rather of the type of the large parish church as it is known in England, holds one spellbound by the very daring of its ornaments and tracery, but contains no trace of non-Gothic. The French passion for the curved line is nowhere more manifest than here (and in the west front of Notre Dame), where flowing tracery of window, doorway, portal, and, in general, all exterior ornament, is startling in its audacity. To view these two contrasting types before making acquaintance with the Cathedral of Notre Dame itself, is to prepare oneself for a consideration in some measure of a combination of the charms of both, woven into one fabric. Nowhere, at least in no provincial town of France, are to be found such a categorical display of ecclesiastical architectural details as here.
Rouen has from the second century been an important seat of Christianity. St. Nicaise, not to be confounded with him of the same name of Reims, first held a conversion here and was shortly followed by St. Mellor, who founded the city’s first church, on the site of the present cathedral. In succeeding centuries this foundation gradually took shape and form until, with the occupation by the Norsemen under Rollo, was founded a dynasty which fostered the development of theology and the arts in a manner previously unknown. The cathedral was enlarged at this time, and upon his death in 930 Rollo was interred therein, as was also his son in 943. Richard the Fearless followed with further additions and enlargements, his son Richard being made its forty-third archbishop. From this time on, the great church-building era, Christian activities were notably at work, here as elsewhere, and during the prolific eleventh century great undertakings were in progress; so much so that what was practically a new church received its consecration, and dedication to Our Lady, in 1063, in the presence of him who later was to be known as the Conqueror. Today it stands summed up thus – a grand building, rich, confused, and unequal in design and workmanship.
The lower portion of the northwest tower, called the Tour St. Romain, is all that is left of the eleventh-century building, the remainder of which was destroyed by fire in 1200. Rebuilding followed in succeeding years and shows work of many styles. Additions, repairs, and interpolations were incorporated with the fragment of the tower, so that the structure as we now know it stood complete with the early thirteenth century. Viollet-le-Duc is the authority for the statement that the apse and transept, chapels, choir, and two doorways of the west facade were quite complete before the influence of the perfected Gothic of the Isle of France was even felt. One Enguerrand was the chief designer of the new church, assisted by Jean d’Andeli as master mason. The early century saw the nave chapels built, having been preceded by the Portail aux Libraires, a sort of cloistered north entrance, still so referred to, one of the most charming and quiet old-world retreats to be found today even within the hallowed precincts of a cathedral. The Portail de la Calende did not follow until a century later, when the Tour St. Romain was completed to its roof; at which time was also added the screen or arcade which separates the Portail aux Libraires from the street.
This century, too, saw the beginning of the famous Tour de Beurre, built mostly by the contributions of those who paid for the indulgence of being allowed to eat butter during Lent. Its foundation was laid in 1487 under Archbishop Robert de Croixmore, and it was completed under Cardinal d’Amboise in 1507. A chapel at the base of the tower is dedicated to St. Stephen. The ornate decorations of the west front, added by Georges d’Amboise, are mainly of the sixteenth century and form no part of the original plan or design. It borders upon the style we have since learned to decry, but it is, at least, marvellous as to the skill with which its foliaged and crocketed pinna cles and elaborate traceries are worked. Ruskin was probably right in this estimate at least, -“The central gable is the most exquisite piece of pure flamboyant style extant.” At the present day this west front is undergoing such restoration and general repair that the entire gable, rose window, and part of the Hanking towers are completely covered with a most hideous array of scaffolding.
The central spire as it exists today, in reality an abomination of abominations, is naturally enough admired by all when first viewed from afar. It certainly looks not dwarfed, or even fragile, but simply delicate, and withal graceful, an opinion which ultimate association therewith speedily dispels. It must be one of the very first examples of modern iron or steel erection in the world, dating from 1827, following three former spires, each of which was burned. The architect responsible for this monstrosity sought to combine two fabrics in incoherent proportions. More than one authority decries the use of iron as a constructive element, and Chaucer’s description of the Temple of Mars in the Knight’s Tale reads significantly:
” Wrought all of burned steel . . .
Was long and straight and ghastly for to see.”
The great part of the exterior of this remarkable church is closely hidden by a rather squalid collection of buildings. Here and there they have been cleared away, but, like much of the process of restoration, where new fabric is let into the old, the incongruity is quite as objectionably apparent as the crumbling stones of another age. Notre Dame de Rouen is singularly confined, but there seems no help for it, and it is but another characteristic of the age in which it was built, – that the people either sought the shelter of churchly environment, or that the church was only too willing to stretch forth its sheltering arms to all and sundry who would lie in its shadow.
In an assignment of ranking beauty to its external features, the decorative west front must manifestly come first; next the Portail aux Libraires, with its arcaded gateway and the remains of the booksellers’ stalls which still surround its miniature courtyard; then, perhaps, should follow the Tour St. Romain and the Portail de la Calende, with its charmingly recessed doorway and flanking lancet arches. The sculptured decorations of all are for the most part intact and undisfigured. The gable of the southern doorway rises pointedly until its apex centres with the radiated circular window above, which, by the way, is not of the exceeding great beauty of the other two rose windows, which rank with those at Reims and Chartres as the beaux ideals of these distinctly French achievements.
The interior, viewed down the nave, and showing its great length and that of the choir, impresses one with a graver sense of unity in the manner of building than is possible to conceive with regard to the exterior. The height and length both approximate that of St. Ouen, and, though the nave rises only to ninety-eight feet, an effect of greater loftiness is produced by the unusual quadripartite range of openings from pavement to vaulting: two rows of arches opening into the aisles before the triforium itself is reached. The lantern at the crossing supports the ironwork spire, and admits light to the centre of the church, only to a small degree, however. The south transept, like that of the north, with its ample double aisles, is of great width, and, were the framing of the great rose window of less angularity, it would indeed produce a remarkable effect of grandeur. The other windows, and the arcading of the triforium, are singularly graceful; not lacking either strength or firmness, though having no glass of great rarity or excellence. In this transept is the altar of St. Romain, a seventeenth-century work of little pretensions.
The north transept contains two features which give it immediate precedence over any other, when viewed from within: its gracefully traceried rose window and fine glass, and the delightful stone staircase leading to the chapter library. Mere description cannot do this stairway justice. Renaissance it certainly is, and where we might wish to find nothing but Gothic ornament, it may prove somewhat of a disappointment; but it is magnificent. Its white marble balustrading gleams in the strong light thrown from the western transept window and gives an unmistakable note of richness and sonority. It was built late in the fifteenth century under orders of Cardinal d’Estonteville. The upper doorway leads to the treasury, and that of the first landing to the chamber in which were formerly kept the bibliographical treasures, now housed in the special building which forms the western wall of the outside court.
The north and south aisles of the nave are broken into by a series of chapels, the chief of which are the Chapel to St. Stephen in the base of the Tour de Buerre and du Petit St. Romain, where an abbe or cure speaking the English tongue is often to be found. On the south side is a chapel containing the tomb of William Longsword, second Duke of Normandy, and son of Rollo.
The great attraction of the choir, far more than its beauties of architectural forms, shown in its graceful columns and deep graven capitals, will be, for most visitors, its array of elaborate monuments, including those of Pierre and Louis de Breze, of whom the former, the Grand Seneschal of Normandy under Charles VIL, fell at Monthery, and was buried here in 1465. More pretentious is the tomb of Louis, his grandson, erected by his wife Diane de Poitiers, with a significant inscription which the curious may be pleased to figure out for themselves. This noble monument is one of those examples hesitatingly attributed to Jean Goujon. The piece de resistance is the Renaissance tomb of the Cardinals d’Amboise. Georges I. was memorialized in 1556 by his nephew Georges II., who in turn came to share the same tomb. Both their kneeling figures are beautifully chiselled, and the whole erection is gorgeously representative of the late sixteenth-century monumental work, little in keeping with the Gothic fabric which houses it, but characteristic of the changing thought and influence of its time. Six symbolical figures of the virtues form a lower course, while the canopy is surmounted by nineteen figures of apostles, saints, etc. In 1793 the ashes of these great prelates were scattered to the winds, but the effigies and their setting fortunately remained uninjured. Other archbishops of the cathedral are buried in the choir, and the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion once rested here, as did also the bodies of his brother Henry, and John, Duke of Bedford.
The choir stalls, mostly the work of Flemish wood-carvers, are notable examples.