Each year, the Courtauld Institute has a joint meeting with Lille and Leuven Universities, and this time it was the turn of the French to host, and I was invited along. In between two days of papers which managed to provoke some interesting discussions and sharing of ideas, we visited the new Louvre outpost at Lens, and then Arras to view some Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts. It was a rewarding few days, but really for me it was an excellent opportunity to get under the channel and do a trip round the area to actually see some Gothic architecture in the place where it all began. Four nights, five cathedral towns: Rheims, Soissons, Laon, Noyon and Amiens…
So from Lille I took an evening train via Charlesville-Meziers (where, in my hour’s change over, I found a C15 Flamboyant church in the dark, the lights were on but no one was home) to Rheims. I found the Cathedral in the early morning light and watched it slowly emerge in its pointy splendor. The coronation church of the French monarchy, this early thirteenth-century Cathedral is the birthplace of bar tracery, where the window heads are subdivided into skeletal shapes, leading to a whole new concept of surface ornament. Indeed, my interest in Gothic is often a little obsessed with linear forms, and it is the sheer scale of Rheims Cathedral and everything about it that impresses. The experience of these forms, and subsequently, the spaces they create, at their actual size that is a vital part of their meaning, and why it is borderline preposterous to write anything about these buildings without having been in them.
It’s a little harrowing however how little of Rheims is left. The roof was burnt off when the Cathedral got caught up in the First World War, and the gargoyles choked with the resulting lead vomit one of the most shocking things in the Palace of Tau next door. Yet also, many of the exterior sculptures are gradually being replaced with facsimiles, and removed from their original context into the museum they seem like idolatrous pagan giants, including the quite incredible and massive scene of the Coronation of the Virgin from over the central portal of the facade. Once again, it is the size that it is incommunicable outside of experience.
Rheims Cathedral is largely the result of one campaign, unlike most English Cathedrals. Much more of a puzzle along the lines I am used to back home is the Abbey of Saint Remi not far south of the centre. This is a Romanesque church remodelled into pointed, with a pure Early Gothic twelfth-century chevet of the kind of Saint Germain-des-Pres and St. Martin des Champs in Paris. Opened by an elderly gentleman with a cane at ten to seven, I spent a most rewarding hour or so investigating its pier forms to see how they came to a solution for renovating this church.
Even more obscure was the parish church of St. Jacques, which I only learnt about from perusing the guidebooks in the Cathedral shop. Asking for, and following directions in French, I was rewarded with my schoolboy linguistics with a three-storey Gothic nave, a late-Gothic Flamboyant apse and two chapels in a bizarre Renaissance-Gothic hybrid. It was kept open by two welcoming ladies, which as I would find, to be a rather unusual arrangement for parish churches. (Since this doesn’t seem as well documented as other buildings I visited, I’ve uploaded my photos from here)
Next up was Soissons. The plan was to catch a bus to Braine for its Premonstratensian Abbey church, but the bus never materialised, despite numerous enquiries. If anyone know if ligne 560 to Soissons exists, I would be intrigued to learn where I went wrong! So it was a longer way round to Soissons by rail, and arrival at my rather grim highway-side hotel was rather late and I held a bit of a grudge against Soissons subsequently. The town is dominated by the facade of Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, the rest pulled down at the revolution as it was too much to maintain, but the sculpture and ornament is well preserved.
The Cathedral is a high Gothic unity, the generation of the purity (or, depending on your taste, boredom) of Chartres. The only major disruption to this is the somewhat disconcerting apsed and aisled south transept preserved from an earlier building. A very weird feeling, as it seems to provide a climax worthy of an east end, but diminished by a chapel jutting out at an angle. I did find a pointed niche at its entrance that may have been a sedile, although the floor level would need to be higher. I sat in it anyway.
After a quick peruse of the exterior of the Abbey of Saint-Leger, with uncusped circles in the tracery (a favourite obscure thirteenth-century motif of mine), I felt I had to forgo visiting the museums at these abbeys which did not open til the afternoon and escape Soissons early for Laon.
Laon was probably the most spectacular town on my trip, on top of an immense plateau with the Early Gothic rose of the Cathedral transept beaming north. Of course, the train does not get up there, so it was probably a bad idea when I wandered off to a hideous C19 Neo-Romanesque building and missed out on the funicular railway. The Cathedral is a largely twelfth-century building with a clean, cool atmosphere. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the original round east end was extended into a most unFrench flat termination after 1200, the only indication being the change of the triforium capitals from fussy Early Gothic to simple crockets. The Cathedral was also souped up with a Rayonnant remodelling in the transept and the ever-common buttress chapels inserted along its length, which I of course pedantically investigated for piscina and potential seating arrangements.
Disappointing was the fact that the exceedingly interesting-looking church of St. Martin at the other end of town was locked up. I even asked at the library next door when it reopened after lunch, but apparently it was only open at 17:30 – presumably for Saturday vigil mass. A strange state of affairs considering the large amount of tourist groups visiting the Cathedral.
There was other stuff to see in Laon. The Hotel Dieu, the hospital formerly in front of the Cathedral and now occupied by the tourist office is worth a look, as is the museum, which has a twelfth-century round-naved Templar Church in its grounds, and a nice collection including the wing of an altarpiece from the Cathedral.
I also found a Romanesque church on the way back down to the hill, but, as usual, not so much as service times outside. Even if you are feeling particularly lingual, adventurous and cheeky abroad, without so much as a priest’s door to knock on, it’s difficult to know where to start getting into a church like this!
After the diminishing returns on my hotel rooms since Lille, Noyon was a relief, as I was staying in the budget wing of a relatively posh hotel. Noyon is fairly out-of-the-way and its Cathedral not of the same fame as Rheims or Chartres, but a very important building. Begun 1148, it is perhaps our first extant, unmodified approximation of what the premiere Gothic monument of St-Denis, Paris looked like before it was remodelled in the thirteenth-century. It is a precious survival of Gothic in its most primitive form, when walls were first opened to light and a new concept of shaping space started to emerge. After the over-restored facades of Rheims and Laon, the authenticity of Noyon stands out: there is a large amount of fragmentary polychrome surviving in the church, and the thirteenth-century portals are shocking since nearly every single piece of figural sculpture has been carefully obliterated, leaving only silhouettes and foliage.
It was also nice to attend Mass at Noyon, in the Chapter House on Saturday night, and for 10:30 High Mass on Sunday morning. Technically Noyon is no longer a Cathedral and only a parish church, so it was no surprise it was all conducted by one Priest with lots of young servers, but had plenty of incense, some nice hymns (“Debout resplendis” was a delight) and a large and reverent congregation. Yet it still felt like a distant echo of what used to go on in the choir behind and the tremendous chapels such as the C16 Flamboyant buttress chapel by the architect Charles de Hangest, if the patronage of the liturgy was even a tiny proportion of what was bestowed upon the architecture.
Another Gothic delight is a short, or not so short if you’re on foot like muggins here, distance south of the town. The Cisterican Abbey of Ourscamp was founded around the same time Noyon Cathedral was built, and the choir rebuilt in the 1230s with a very restrained vocabulary of forms, making it not too disimiliar to the Early Gothic/Rayonnant hybrid at St-Denis, Paris. The pockets of the vaults were removed in the eighteenth century leaving only the ribs to improve its picturesque quality as a ruin, and this skeletal beauty is testament to the Gothic system. Worth the four miles walk, I think, if a little trying for the four miles back.
Finally on my gruelling Gothic quest came Amiens. We are now back to the early thirteenth-century spatial triumphalism of Rheims, but here with a choir superstructure of the 1250s that shows the beginnings of the self-referentialism of Gothic: once purely structural forms like gables are now used decoratively, resulting in the dreamy fantasy of the cosmic palace of the Heavenly Jerusalem, causing a formal feedback resulting in a delightfully cacophanous harmony of ornament. The facade is a sublime masterpiece of The Gothic, with the whole solution of our existence sculpted in stone across its surface. The Cathedral is also a bit of an oddity in France due to the amount of interesting stuff in it. While many English Cathedrals have bishop’s tombs, choir stalls and other furniture, the disestablishment of the whole Church in France means much of this stuff went at the Revolution. Amiens has all this and more: the fifteenth-century sculptural narratives are of absolutely remarkable quality, with incident, psychology and most of all, impressive skill that is characteristic of the late Gothic artisan.
Otherwise Amiens was a disappointment. Unavoidably, I was there on a Monday, which is a no-no for an art historian on the continent, as it tends to be galleries-and-museums-shut day. The churches were also all locked without so much as a sign with its dedication outside. It is surprising for a Catholic country how many of the churches are treated as “historic monuments”, and just sit there in the urban fabric with no real life or presence inside them. Services often seem to take place within, and in spite, of them, with no real community keeping them alive. I am sure there are exceptions, but French churches seem much more unloved than English ones.
Anyway, it was back to Lille for a look in the Cathedral, entirely rebuilt as a triumphal Catholic gesture in the 1850s on the site of a demolished collegiate church. It is a horrible, stodgy lump of a thing, like someone had poured concrete on top of the classic radiating chapel plan, sticking some ever-cheap plate tracery in the windows and giving it some strange galleries that look like something off a Brutalist car park. It doesn’t even have a rib-vault over the main vessel. It was irretrievably mechanical and depressing, especially after the tour d’forces of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the last few days. So quickly it was down to the Beaux Arts museum for some more authentic Gothic in the form of Netherlandish sculpture as well as some fine paintings before home on the 20:30 Eurostar. It was an ambitious few days, and although I prefer the smaller and more obscure to the famous and top-tier, it proved an unparalleled learning experience of the Gothic.
I will upload images to this Flickr set, but possibly not all because I think a few people have been to these buildings with a camera.