Rouen – Cidre, Joie et Cathédrale


by Anja Weinberger

Or: What do Claude Monet and the young man with a green mohawk have in common?

“You’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.”

Hasn’t each of us heard or perhaps even uttered this phrase, which I always find disparaging?

It never ceases to amaze me, and I must say that these few words are said quite often.

The following should be the context here, about which the inclined reader surely already thinks: If one has seen a Gothic cathedral, let’s say for example the one in Amiens, then there is no reason to go to Rouen to visit another one there; after all, everything is Gothic, everything is one and everything is the same. Just higher, brighter, the window glass more colorful. Or is it?

I can’t agree with that at all. Rather, the opposite is true: no two are alike. Maybe you can find distant similarities, that’s true, and the search for these similarities is also fun. But differences predominate – clearly.

For the more technically interested here in the boxes some additional information:

Roughly speaking, the Gothic period, as we call it from hindsight, is the time when builders built higher and higher, windowed the higher and higher walls more and more extensively, and had these windows glazed more and more colorfully and narratively by artists of the era.

On the outside of the building, Gothic buildings can also be easily recognized by the buttresses that are usually built in large numbers to support these much higher walls. This construction can look particularly bizarre or impressive around the chancel of a church.

In terms of dates, we locate the Gothic in architecture from 1140 to around 1500.

The epoch before that is the Romanesque, the one after that the Renaissance.

We came to Rouen on our tour of France from nearby Amiens, which is really not far; and – how nice – in such a case, the travel day is not only car day but also a first walking day.

Driving towards Rouen, it may well happen that you look down on the great city, its river and its cathedral from above. It is very impressive, because the church building has an almost surreal shape. It lies in the middle of the city like a large animal or a creature of some kind – one might think extraterrestrial. Its shape is so different. One reason for this is possibly to be found in the three completely different tower silhouettes and the rather elongated nave.

Rouen Kathedrale, © Anja Weinberger

(I briefly recall Amiens: there, the cathedral stands rather elevated and seems quite compact, although very powerful. Moreover, Amiens itself seems rather small-town and is actually less than half the size of Rouen).

Such things are rarely thought about, although the present size of the town in question and the location of the church within that community have much to do with the impact of the building.

This is probably most obvious in Wells, a town of 10,000 in southwest England, with its extremely prominent early Gothic cathedral of St. Andrew, the pilgrimage church with the unusual scissor arches inside that was popular in times past and therefore oversized.

One could almost say Wells is the cathedral or the cathedral is Wells. In front of its west façade, adorned by a particularly large number of statues, one feels as if one is in the living room of the city. Chairs are unfolded, people chat, sometimes you even see a round of people toasting happily.

The vast majority of Christian churches are oriented east-west. The choir with the altar is located in the east and is connected to the west facade by the nave. The main entrance is very often found there, or at least it used to be.

In Amiens, the cathedral dominates the old town, and the newer, very modern part of the city center has a life of its own.

Rouen, on the other hand, is quite a large city with a lot of beautiful corners; in one of these corners, admittedly of course in the old town, the cathedral stands as one of several Gothic churches in the city.

Rouen Kathedrale, © Anja Weinberger

Again, we got a very nice, small hotel on the edge of the colorful, lively, with a lot of well-maintained half-timbered Rouen old town.

Right next door was a store where everything necessary for a good “pique-nique” could be found. So we bought two bottles of cider, one “brut” and the other “doux”, a good baguette and some cheese. We also learned of the existence of our new great love in the culinary field, the “Confit d’oignons”. Since then, we always have this onion jam in the fridge, because for a long time now, my beloved doesn’t miss the opportunity to get the best red onions from the farmer next door every few weeks, and then spend a few hours tinkering around with all our pots and knives. I leave him alone because onions make me cry really quickly, but would gladly pay the high price of cleaning up anytime to be allowed to share in the delicious purple end result. But, surprisingly, I don’t have to, because, surprisingly every time, he leaves the kitchen spotless.

So now we are provided with the essentials, have moved into the small room, even took a nap, and already rises in me again this restlessness that strikes me every time near a long-awaited sight. My husband does not know this disease and usually prefers a longer rest. So I go off alone and I like that.

Because then you don’t have to adjust your step to anyone’s step, you can turn into a pretty archway without explanation because the decorations in the arching are definitely worth a look and – most importantly – you don’t have to feel guilty because, having arrived at the church, you would like to look at all the statues in peace. This takes a long time, because there are many, endowed with the most diverse attributes, and sometimes it takes some time to figure out who it is that stands in front of you.

Many saints, angels or prophets in the form of a statue or on paintings carry an attribute with them.

These accessories can be other living creatures, such as the angel in the evangelist Matthew, the dragon or worm in Margaret or a small dog in Saint Roch. Also possible are objects that point to the respective martyrdom, such as stones in the case of St. Stephen, the grate in the case of St. Lawrence; arrows stuck in the handsome, half-naked Sebastian, or a wheel that Catherine hides behind her shamefacedly yet proudly.  Clothing can also be a clue, as popes almost always wear a tiara, bishops a miter, and a mantle often marks the various apostles. Other attributes point to the respective life path or the role within the church. Thus Peter shows the key, James his pilgrim shell or Mary Magdalene an ointment vessel.

I was so excited to see the west facade here in Rouen. On the one hand, because it is already clear from the photos and descriptions that it has unusual proportions, but on the other hand also because Claude Monet painted it so often. Now I kept again to the advice of a dear friend, who had recommended to gain as much distance as possible to the facade as determinedly as possible, in order to turn around only then.

Rouen Kathedrale, © jackmac34

Presumably, some of the numerous assembled fellow spectators found this strange; because, as advised, I first stood with my back to the cathedral, closed my eyes and turned 180 degrees. If one would like to follow this admittedly good tip also, then I recommend a somewhat larger distance to the neighbor; or else not, because I made a nice acquaintance on this way.

The west facade of a Gothic cathedral is the successor of the typical westwork or west building in Carolingian, Ottonian or Romanesque – i.e. even older – churches. While the main purpose of this westwork was to allow the ruler present to participate in worship in relative seclusion, the Gothic west façade radiates primarily outward. It is usually the most elaborately decorated part of the church and tells many stories in a small space.

And so there it was, truly unique. Or is great the right word? One should be sparing with superlatives, but here, in my opinion, every single one is appropriate.

If in Amiens we were impressed above all by the calm and balance that the western front radiates despite its profusion of sculptures, here in Rouen we find the exact opposite. Three towers catch the eye, each different, each well formed in its own way, and one even built of different, rather yellowish stone. Or should we say seven towers? Four smaller, delicate towers tower over the central building above the three portals. And then we realize what is different here – the large west towers stand next to the facade and do not have portals on their lower floors.

(Let’s briefly recall Amiens; there, there is a main portal in the center and in each of the two west towers, right next to it, the two secondary portals that also open to the west, that is, also to the front).

If you let your eyes wander, you will quickly notice that here everything is more “untidy”. The left tower dates from the 12th century, so it was built under very, very early Gothic influence. The right tower, on the other hand, was not commissioned until the middle of the 15th century. Its name “Butterturm” refers to the indulgences used and its yellowish color indicates that the original quarries had probably been exploited. It was therefore necessary to switch to other stone from a different quarrying area.

Rouen Kathedrale, © franktheriaux

The indulgence was “invented” by the Catholic Church and refers to the remission of sins in exchange for something in return. This can be a confession or pilgrimage, or just filthy lucre. In Rouen, the construction of the Butter Tower was made possible with such money. If one had eaten butter during Lent, one could buy oneself free of this “sin”. If only there had been a few more pounds of butter on the menu of the parishioners – but no! And so the tower remained unfinished; instead of the planned spire, it is adorned by a pretty octagonal finial with a perfectly shaped balustrade.

Here in Rouen, too, there is a beautiful large rose window in the middle of the 56 m wide Flamboyant facade. However, it is almost lost in this diversity of form and shape, and is even partially obscured by the central Wimperg that rises up in front of it.

The tympanum of the central portal directly below this lash shows a particularly expressive root of Jesse.

What the heck is all this?

A Wimperg is a pointed ornamental gable or pediment-like crowning of a portal or window and was popularly used in the Gothic period to emphasize the general sense of height.

A tympanum is the pediment directly above the lintel of a portal. This tympanum is particularly well suited for telling numerous stone stories.

And the root of Jesse represents a common image motif within Christian iconography, which is said to show Jesus’ descent from the House of David. Most often, this image is depicted as a tree. The well-known Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” is also in this context.

Flamboyant or Flamboyant Gothic is the name given to the last phase of Gothic in France and Belgium. During this period, many elements of Gothic were once again exaggerated. The word “flamboyant” means “flaming” and can be found again in the many upwardly extended elements that resemble flames.

In other parts of Europe, too, there are such late Gothic manifestations. English late Gothic is called “Perpendicular Style,” in Portugal it is called “Manueline” or “Emanuelism,” and in Spain it is called “Isabelline Gothic.” The latter refer to the name of the current ruler.

All these varieties then lead to the Renaissance throughout Europe.

The highest tower here in Rouen is the cast-iron crossing tower. Erected in 1876, it is also the newest of the towers and as such a masterpiece of structural engineering. With 156 meters it is also the highest church tower in France, only the tower of the Ulm Cathedral in Germany can boast a few meters more.

(Suddenly I have to think of Amiens again, because there is a crossing tower there, too. And although it too towers over the church, it does not come to the fore, it is narrow, almost delicate. Probably many viewers don’t even notice it).

The name “crossing tower” refers to the position of the tower in the ground plan of the church.

The crossing is the place where the transept and nave intersect, some say penetrate. Architecturally, this is a particularly delicate spot and affects the stability of the entire structure. Above the crossing, sometimes above the dome there, rises the crossing tower.

The magnificent church stump in Beauvais, not so far away, can tell many stories there. One wanted to build especially high, especially “special”. Even before the nave had grown far enough to reach the west front, a tower was placed on the crossing, which adjoins the finished choir. This could not go well, the 150m high tower soon collapsed, smashing the vault, the choir stalls and the rood screen. Miraculously, no one was killed. Later, the Enlightenment and the Revolution did their part, and so this unique and unfinished testimony of classical Gothic cathedral architecture still stands in Beauvais today.

Sadly, the word “crossing tower” gained notoriety when during the fire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in April 2019, this very tower collapsed.

In Germany, we find the type of building with a crossing tower rather rarely, but very often in Norman church construction.

Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral 33 times between 1892 and 1894. 28 of these pictures show the west facade in a more or less oblique close-up view. The actual architecture is not reproduced strictly true to reality. Rather, the painter puts his main focus on the different lighting conditions of the different day – and seasons. Thus enchanted views are created – sometimes full of harmony in blue, sometimes in pale white-gray in the early morning, sometimes almost oriental-looking in golden tones. Unfortunately, these works of art are scattered to the winds; and as far as I know, only at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris can one marvel at several side by side.

Not only the confit d’oignons was a new discovery for us, but also the highly professional practice of “Son et Lumière” everywhere in France. Whoever does not know this yet, has missed something. With great technical effort, buildings, and very often the Gothic cathedrals throughout the country, are illuminated and sounded.

There are simple colored spotlights or complex light choreographies with lots of potential for surprises.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, 1894; © National Gallery of Art, Washington; Chester Dale Collection; Open Access Image; Link zum Bild

That evening in Rouen, however, we knew nothing about it. And so we were quite surprised and even a little startled when a group of young adults dressed all in black – one of them with an impressive, bright green mohawk – came briskly up to us, who were standing at the edge of the square in the dark hoping for a free table in the café, and pushed us aside. Strictly speaking, not unfriendly, just prompting.

But then we quickly understood: we were simply in the way here – after all, all around the square are the necessary projectors for this magical light show, and all the technicians involved are dressed in black to attract as little attention as possible. The young man with green hair even quickly pulled a black cap over his head before the first round of light-and-sound began.

We were doubly lucky. The table in whose direction we were pushed was emptying at that moment; and so, completely by surprise, we were able to experience a wonderful evening with “Son et Lumière”, in front of us a delicious glass of cider.

Monet and the young man with a green mohawk made Notre Dame shine in glorious colors – for just under an hour, as if in a dream.

machine-translated from German

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