Rouen Cathedral is one of the highest Gothic churches in the world and the architectural dominant feature of the French city of Rouen. The magnificent building is as if woven from a fine lace of stone. For its beauty and elegance Rouen Cathedral is a national heritage site of France and since 1979 it is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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Video: Light show on the facade of Rouen Cathedral
The Catholic church rises 151 meters and is currently the fourth tallest church on the planet, behind only the cathedrals of Ulm (161.5 meters) and Cologne (157.4 meters) in Germany, as well as the Cathedral de la Paix in Côte d’Ivoire (158 meters). In addition, the Rouen Cathedral is one of the oldest Christian churches in Europe. Its history goes back to the IV century. The extant Gothic temple began to be built in 1145, and its construction lasted until 1506.
The cathedral of Rouen had its share of various calamities. It repeatedly burned in the flames of fires. In the XVIII century, the temple was hit by a major hurricane. The cathedral was badly damaged by the bombing of World War II. Quarters of Rouen experienced many air raids. The nave, the tower of Saint-Romain, and the chapels were extensively damaged by the bombings and ensuing fires. At the end of 1999, a hurricane blew through the northern regions of France and powerful gusts of wind destroyed one of the four towers on the high spire of Rouen Cathedral.
Today Notre Dame in Rouen is beautifully restored and very popular with tourists. People come here to admire the high metallic spire, the regular Gothic proportions and the solemn decor of the interiors. Travelers come to this temple for the colorful medieval stained glass windows and tombstones over the burials of celebrities.
Every year, spectacular laser shows are organized on the facades of Rouen Cathedral. At nightfall, the towers and walls of the Catholic church become a backdrop for the illuminated fragments of the famous paintings of the French artist Claude Monet, who made the Rouen Cathedral famous with a series of his paintings.
In the summer of 2010 a curious performance was held in front of the City Hall. On the square came 1,250 people holding an enlarged fragment of a painting by Claude Monet. They formed a large rectangle, which from above was similar to one of the famous impressionist’s paintings from the series “The Cathedral of Rouen”. The mass action was filmed from a helicopter and included in the Guinness Book of World Records.
History of the Cathedral of Rouen
The first documents mentioning the bishop of Rouen date back to 314, and the first Christian basilica in the city was built in the late 4th century. When archaeologists conducted excavations there, they found that the ancient cathedral complex included two churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Stephen.
In 841, the Vikings invaded Rouen and completely destroyed both churches. The position of the city, and the region as a whole, remained uncertain, so it was decided not to rebuild the lost Christian shrines. At the beginning of the 10th century, the king of France decided to yield to the Vikings and made Rouen the capital of the Duchy of Normandy.
To propitiate the conquerors, he gave his daughter in marriage to their leader, Rollon, who was called “the Pedestrian. The Viking earned this nickname for his tall stature and powerful physique. Legend has it that Rollo was so heavy that horses could not bear his weight, so the duke had to walk a lot on foot. The duke’s ordination took place in a simple basilica, and Rollond was named Robert I. The leader of Normandy became the founder of the famous Norman dynasty, which ruled the territory of Normandy and England until the first half of the XII century.
The big in size Rouen Cathedral was built and reconstructed during several centuries. The first Romanesque church was erected in 1020. This church had a bypass gallery and chapels diverging around the altar. However, only the crypt remains of the original Romanesque structures. The rest of the church was built according to the same layout scheme, but already in Gothic traditions.
The oldest part of the Rouen Cathedral is located on the north side of Saint-Romain Tower (1145). The north tower suffered a tragic fate. During World War II Rouen was intensely bombed and after fires in the summer of 1944 Saint-Romain burned almost entirely except for the solid stone walls. The nave of the Cathedral of Rouen was erected in 1200 after a fire destroyed the nave of an older Romanesque church. The Gothic nave has a height of 28 m, a width of 11.3 m, and a length of 60 m.
The tower on the south side is commonly called the Butter Tower (75 m). It appeared later than the other parts of the Rouen Cathedral, in the 80s of the XV century. The construction of the tower took 20 years. According to legend, the money collected for church indulgences was spent on it. Most of the indulgences were sold by the priests to those who broke their fasting days and ate butter despite the ban, so the southern tower of the cathedral was called the Butter Tower.
The cathedral complex includes the temple itself and the archbishop’s palace. Despite the fact that Rouen Cathedral was built for several centuries, all its parts look like a harmonious architectural ensemble. The building of the French cathedral is so huge that it is impossible to take a single look around it. It does not fit in the whole field of vision.
Originally, the Gothic cathedral had three portals, but two of them were badly damaged in the 16th century. The only surviving portal on the north side is the one dedicated to John the Theologian. Above it, one can see a carved bas-relief with scenes of the baptism of Jesus Christ. This part of the Cathedral of Rouen has been restored several times since the 1760s.
The tall central spire was built in 1557. At that time it was made of wood and covered with pewter plates. But in 1822, as a result of a lightning strike, the wooden spire burned down. Then the city authorities decided to build a new spire of metal in the style of medieval Gothic. The construction of the new spire lasted from 1829 to 1876. During 4 years, the cathedral in Rouen was considered the highest in the world, until in 1880, the Cologne Cathedral took over.
Due to its dark color, the metal spire stands out clearly above the light facades. It continues to be the tallest cathedral spire in France. The massive structure weighs 1,200 tons, and to get to the top of it, you have to overcome 813 steps.
The Rouen-born writer Gustave Flaubert had the opportunity to observe the construction of the spire and ironically called it “the whim of a rampaging steam boiler builder. If you look at the spire up close, it does look too “technogenic.
The abundance of decorative elements and sculptures on facades appeared during what is commonly referred to as the “Flaming Gothic” period. Under the carved tympanums of the Rouen Cathedral are figures of Christian saints. And above the openwork portal there is a round window-rose, typical for Gothic architecture.
The interior of the Cathedral of Rouen
The interior decoration of Rouen Cathedral is as astonishing as its walls and towers. The spacious altar surrounds the colonnade. In the center, under the spire, the vaults rise to a maximum height of 51 meters. The interiors do not have that many colors which can be found in baroque churches. The color scheme is observed in subdued, strict tones, and the general impression is harmoniously supplemented by monochrome sculptures and light vaults.
Gothic windows are decorated with ancient stained-glass windows of XIII century, which are of blue color. The characteristic shade is called “Chartres blue”, because the technology of Gothic stained glass was first used in the Catholic church of Chartres. The beauty of the bright stained glass windows of Rouen Cathedral is described in detail in Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. Interestingly, some of the stained glass windows are signed with the names of the masters who made them. Eight hundred years ago the technology of molding colored glass was only developing, so stained glass work was considered a high art.
There are several revered tombs in the Cathedral of Rouen. The first Duke of Normandy, Rollond the Pedestrian, and his son found their last resting place here. In the cathedral stands the sarcophagus containing the heart of another Duke of Normandy and King of England, Richard I the Lionheart, who reigned from 1189 to 1199.
In one of the chapels you can see a statue of Joan of Arc. The sculpture of the French heroine with a commemorative inscription from the British did not appear here by accident. The trial of Joan of Arc took place on the territory of the Cathedral of Rouen, and she was sentenced to death. In 1431, the girl was accused of heresy and executed, but 25 years later, these charges were dropped. The historical events are evidenced by the plaques in the Rue Saint-Romain.
Rouen Cathedral in paintings by artists
The austere yet elegant Gothic appearance of Rouen Cathedral has inspired many artists. At the end of the 19th century French impressionist Claude Monet painted more than 30 canvases with views of the Gothic cathedral. He depicted the ancient temple from three points in different natural lighting and conveyed the variability of light with amazing accuracy. Monet worked on the pictorial series for about two years, visiting Rouen several times and renting a room in front of the cathedral.
Some of the paintings and sketches the artist created on the spot, and on some finished work in his studio in the locality of Giverny. The canvases were connected by a single subject and organically complemented each other, showing the changes taking place in nature from dawn to dusk. Art historians consider the Rouen Cathedral paintings as one of the pinnacles of Impressionism.
It is known that the series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral the artist at first hid even from his friends. Only in 1895 most of the 30 paintings were exhibited at the gallery of Dunard-Ruel, and the exhibition caused a stir in the public. However, Claude Monet failed to sell the series as a whole, so the paintings were dispersed one by one to different countries. Today they are in private collections and galleries in Russia, France and the United States.
In 1969, painter Roy Fox Lichtenstein created a triptych dedicated to Rouen Cathedral. The American artist worked in the Pop Art style and also depicted the façade of the Gothic temple. Lichtenstein took Claude Monet’s work as the basis, overlaying it with a typographic raster.
For tourists Rouen Cathedral is open seven days a week. It is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Mondays from 2 to 6 p.m.
How to get there
The Cathedral of Rouen is located in the historic part of the city. It stands on the right bank of the Seine, at 3, rue Saint-Romain, named after St. Roman, Rouen’s patron saint.
Rouen is easily accessible from Paris. The city can be reached in 1.5 hours by train from Paris Saint Lazare station. Buses run from Paris to Rouen in 2.40 hours. There are also rail connections to Zurich, Nice, Strasbourg and Marseille. And buses can reach the city from London, Lisbon and Madrid.
Rouen Cathedral in Rouen, France
The Cathedral of Rouen is one of the most important monuments of French Gothic architecture and the main attraction of Rouen. At 151 meters tall, Rouen’s Cathedral was the tallest building in the world from 1876 to 1880, later ceding the title to the cathedral in Cologne, Germany.
Even if you’ve already traveled to many French cities and seen enough Gothic churches, Rouen’s cathedral is sure to impress you. In my humble opinion, it is the most beautiful temple I have seen, with its stunning fine stone work. It feels like the cathedral is just laced! I think you can admire its facade endlessly, looking at the details of this stone “foam”.
It’s not for nothing that one of the great masters of Impressionism, Monet, painted the cathedral so many times in different weather conditions. The very spot where the artist sat is marked by an informational plaque on the square by the cathedral.
You too can admire the beauty of this Gothic monument for a long time, while slowly enjoying a delicious meal in one of the cafes overlooking the cathedral square.
Opposite the cathedral in a beautiful old building is the Tourist Office of Rouen.
History of the Cathedral of Rouen
The bishopric of Rouen is first mentioned as early as 314. The first basilica was built on the site of the present cathedral at the end of the 4th century. In 841, the Vikings attacked Rouen and the church complex was burned. Because of political uncertainties in Rouen, the complex remained ruined for a long time, until in 911 Rouen became the capital of the Duchy of Normandy. The first Duke of Rollon was baptized under the name of Robert in a simple basilica. In keeping with its new capital status, in 1020 a new temple in the then reigning Romanesque style (of which only the crypt survives) began to be built.
The Romanesque church included a bypassing gallery and chapels, radially diverging from the apse. The same plan was adopted by the new temple, the present cathedral of Rouen, the construction of which began in 1202. The foundations of the Romanesque church also served for the new cathedral.
A colonnade surrounds the vast altar space of the cathedral, which at that time was already an outdated feature. The structure of the transept is interesting: on its external corners four towers in Norman style decorated with numerous rosettes were made. Construction of the transept of the cathedral of Rouen began in 1280, during the period of mature Gothic. In keeping with the popular style, the facades between the towers are made in lace decorations.
The tower of the cathedral of Rouen
The tower of the cathedral of Rouen was made in 1514, during the Flamboyant Gothic period. The spire of the tower, reaching a height of 148 meters, was made in 1829-76 under the direction of Alavoine. Weighing 1,200 tons, it is the tallest cathedral spire in France. The spire has been destroyed by time and rebuilt many times over the years. Originally, in 1557, a wooden spire covered in tin was made. In 1822 it was struck by lightning and burned. A year later it was proposed to make a new metal spire in the 12th century Gothic style. The project was approved in 1825 and completed almost 60 years later, adding four iron towers to the structure. A few years ago in France, a strong hurricane swept away one of the towers of Rouen Cathedral.
Of the original gates of the temple, only the northern portal of John the Evangelist, decorated with scenes from the lives of John the Evangelist and John the Baptist, has survived. The other two portals were badly damaged in the 16th century.
The Archbishop’s Palace, built at the same time, adjoins the Cathedral of Rouen as a single complex.
On June 1, 1944, the Cathedral of Rouen was badly damaged by an Allied bombing. A major fire broke out and part of the church was destroyed. It took time to rebuild this beautiful building.
Rouen Cathedral after a bombing during World War II
Towers of Rouen Cathedral
The north tower of Rouen Cathedral, Saint-Romain, is 75 m high. It is crowned by a flame-gothic bell tower. It is the oldest tower of the church, built in 1145. The tower was almost entirely destroyed in a fire caused by the Allied bombing of Rouen on June 1, 1944. Only the walls remain of the original tower.
The southern “Butter Tower” (Tour de Beur), 76 meters high, was built in 1485 entirely in the “Flaming Gothic” style. The tower got its curious name because it was built using money donated for the remission of sins by people who ate butter during Lent.
The interior of the Cathedral of Rouen
The interior of the cathedral in Rouen is made as a central nave, separated from the side aisles by an arched partition, called a false triforium, which is above the main arcades.
The sights of Rouen Cathedral
In Rouen’s cathedral one can admire the ancient tombstones of famous people: Richard the Lionheart, King Henry II, Bishop Amboise, and other eminent personalities. The first Duke of Normandy, Viking Rollo, and his son are buried in the cathedral.
In the chapel of the Virgin Mary is the main icon of the cathedral.
Rouen Cathedral and Monet.
In the 1990s of the 19th century, the famous impressionist Claude Monet created a cycle of paintings depicting Rouen Cathedral at different times of day and seasons. The cycle included 50 canvases painted from three different points of view. The artist completed some of the paintings in his studio in Giverny.
Claude Monet’s series of canvases with views of Rouen Cathedral
On 6 June 2010 more than 1,000 people occupied the entire area in front of the Town Hall in Rouen (600m²). Each of them held in their hands an enlarged fragment of Claude Monet’s painting of Rouen Cathedral. The “living painting” was photographed and filmed from a helicopter to provide proof for the Guinness Book of World Records.
Rouen Cathedral was also captured in a triptych by Roy Lichtenstein, the famous American pop art artist, in 1969.
Monet’s giant painting of the view of Rouen Cathedral by the people in the square in front of the temple