Tag Archives: Gothic

The tragic tale of St Alban’s Abbey

St Alban’s Abbey, St Albans, is not your usual case of wonky arches. It doesn’t have much in the way of alarming settlement, poor setting out, or desperate solutions to prevent collapse. What it does have is the worst west front of any English Cathedral. This is the result of two disastrous architects they employed: the first a medieval cowboy builder; the second a bullying nobleman, who was endowed with a vast ineptitude for architectural design, and a huge fortune enabling him to inflict it upon this poor historic building.

P1900833

Aye, we’ve still got our original tower. Not too tall so we don’t lose too much heating up there. We ur on White Meter, ye ken!

The story of St Albans starts, as with basically all wonky arches, with the Normans. Despite not being a cathedral until 1877, it was one of the most important abbeys in England at the time of the Conquest and was rebuilt in the Romanesque style pretty sharpish: before some of the cathedrals. In fact, it’s one of the earliest bits of Romanesque architecture we have left in England, much of it not being replaced by Gothic rebuilds. It never suffered a central tower collapse, nor was any of it, quite surprisingly, demolished to make it more manageable as a parish church. Instead, it comes off a church that was rather parsimonious with its fabric, seemingly always waiting till the last minute to get the builders in, with disastrous results.

P1200007

Verulamium Park, St Albans, Roman wall, 3rd century Aye, why spend ye spondoolies on rocks when all these bricks sittin’ abit fur free!

To be fair, the monks of St Albans cultivated its ramshackle appearance in order to emphasise how old it was. Much of the Romanesque work is built out of bricks salvaged from the Roman town of Verulamium. You can see what’s left of it if you walk through the town’s park: great walls and gatehouses, all taken down to what would have been the ground level to make a great church from.

P1900645

Nave N arcade. Daein us weel since the 1090s.


Even by early Norman standards, the interior elevation is extraordinarily plain, almost brutally so. What it lacks in ornament it makes up for in size, with a nave at least nine bays, the longest church in the country after Winchester Cathedral. This length is what makes the late 12th-century extension of the church under Abbot John de Cella all the more perplexing. At this time, with the Gothic style coming in from France, great churches were demolishing their pokey apses and putting great stonking presbyteries on the east end. St Albans however, chose to leave its presbytery alone, and add another three bays on the west, and necessarily with it, a brand-new facade.

P1900805

Western extension of nave, 1190s, into early 13th century. We thooght abit a vault but ‘en we cooldnae be arsed.

west-porch-st.-albans-abbey-hertfordshire-antique-print-1870-283563-p[1]

The central porch of the W front in 1870, as executed by Hugh Goldcliff, 1195-1214.

This is where the first cowboy rides in. Famous resident and chronicler of the Abbey Matthew Paris tells us of Hugh de Goldcliff (even his name makes him sound dodgy), a builder who, like a good conman, managed to convince John de Cella what he wanted was a big fancy west front with two massive flanking towers and lots of bits of fiddly ornament that would conveniently keep him and his hand-picked team of masons busy for many seasons, even though the abbey couldn’t afford it. It was so badly built the west front fell down, and people came from miles around to come to point and laugh at it. Paris described him as “vir quidem fallax et falsidicus, sed artifex praeelectus“. He was dismissed without pay, so at least the monks would have been pleased about saving a wee bit of money there.

P1900767

South elevation of presbytery. Note how the clerestory is still in Verulamium brick despite the late 13th-century fenestration. Dinnae wanna tae waste those bricks, they’re only a thoosain years auld!

P1900751

Presbytery, W bays, S elevation, last quarter of 13th century. Looks new, but we didne spend a lot ay bunsens oan it.

Another mason called Hugh, much more promisingly-surnamed Eversholt, was called in to complete a scaled-back version of the new Gothic west front and complete the new west bays of the nave. In 1257, probably because the groin vault was cracking, the monks finally bothered to replace the east end. However, the new work is really just a recasing of the Romanesque end with the apse lopped off, as you can still see the brickwork outside (which would have originally have been rendered as to be invisible). The first three arcade bays are filled in, presumably because they were desperate not to risk any money on the tower falling down.

About the only solecism that the decidedly Ready-Salted architecture of the presbytery allows is when they get to the corners and there’s no plain spandrel space for the vault corbel to go in, so they decide to bend out the arch mouldings to catch it. It looks kinda gross.

Presentation1

E bay of presbytery arcade, N side, detail of junction. (The wooden construction is the watching loft to check no cheeky wee bairns nick anythin’ at the shrine)

P1900854

Lady Chapel, 1310s, restored by George Gilbert Scott. Braw.

The glorious exception at St Albans is the Lady Chapel, which was added on to the completed presbytery ambulatory shortly after it was completed, probably in the 1310s. It is the most sumptuous space, even though it was used as a school after the Reformation, still retaining a multitude of saints under nodding-ogee canopies in the window jambs. A lot of it seems quite precocious for its date: it’s actually pretty special. But for the most part, the monks of St Albans liked to play up their antiquity. It’s like your neighbour who won’t replace his rotting garden fence even though you know he’s loaded because the flash git has a fancy car in the drive. A Ford Fiesta or something.

P1900828

Nave, middle bays of S arcade, late 1320s. Hud tae be dain.

Possibly because of something a pissed-off Goldcliff had done to the new south arcade, the Abbey had its second disaster in 1323 when, quite exceptionally, in the eastern part of the nave, part of the Romanesque south arcade simply flat-out collapsed. This leaves St Albans nave in the bizarre position of having three different elevations: 11th century on the north, 14th on the south, and the late 12th/early 13th at the west end. And except for new fittings, such as the late 14th-century rood screen and gigantic reredos of around 1480, that was basically it for the medieval architecture of the church.


P1900859

Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban, 1308. All the auld bits meticulously sorted and put back together, good as new, by Gilbert Scott. Bit he wears naethin’ under his kilt.

The picture so far is that St Albans is interesting yet unremarkable. However, in the 19th century, a ne’erdowell would descend on the building that made Hugh de Goldcliff look reputable. This menace was Edmund Beckett, better known as the first Baron Grimthorpe. Lord Grimthorpe might sound like a Saturday-morning-cartoon villain, and indeed his megalomania wasn’t far displaced from one. Although he was known for creating the clock mechanism of Big Ben’s tower, he will above all be remembered for absolutely ruining St Alban’s Abbey. Sir George Gilbert Scott clearly had a soft spot for St Albans, allegedly saying that it was his favourite building. He carefully restored the Lady Chapel in the early 1870s from its interim use as a school, saved the tower, and prevented the nave S wall from collapsing (again!). His reconstruction of Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban from fragments found in the dividing wall between the Abbey and the Lady Chapel he thought to be one of his proudest achievements, and indeed it is an absolutely stunning object. Perhaps saving the best till last, he died in 1878 having never done a full restoration of the building’s fabric.

P1900763

South elevation of the nave, which would have originally interfaced with the monastic areas. You can see the three stages of medieval work in the clerestory – 1190s / 1320s / 1080s – but note how Grimthorpe has just slapped buttresses through the fancy remains of the cloister as if they arenae theaur! Whit a bawbag.

Scott having done all the difficult and important stuff, Lord Grimthorpe offered to pay for the whole restoration under the stipulation he could do whatever he wanted. The St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society made a visit in 1889 while he was still wreaking havoc on the building. They note that he’d ruined the south side of the nave by whacking windows in it and sticking buttresses through the arcading. The nave ceiling had be broken up and was used as construction hoardings.

p1200008.jpg

SW prospect of the Abbey from Verulamium Park. Note Grimthorpe’s five lancets in the S transept. Inside there is a flat ceiling at the height of the outer pair that cuts off the tops of the middle three. Bastart’s aff his heid!

Often our view of great cathedrals misses out that many of them had their fenestration modernised in the late Middle Ages with Perpendicular-style windows. Like pretty much anyone, Grimthorpe hated Perp for its rigidity and tedium, but unlike most restorers, he just stuck in whatever he fancied, rather than something he had evidence for, or even something that feasibly might have been there. The south transept he smacked a poor copy of the “Five Sisters” at York Minster, without the slightest bit of understanding of the proportion and elegance that actually makes those good architecture. On the outside, Grimthorpe’s lancets ascend in height to go right up into the gable, but on the inside (where the gable is cut off by the ceiling), they’re all the same height. This mismatch between interior and exterior is deeply dishonest.

P1900781

N transept, N elevaaaaaaaaaahhhghzf..

The north transept is even worse. The Eccles Soc, in the best sarcasm they could muster, said that the “design appeared to have been evolved by laying on a sheet of paper a Jubilee sovereign, and surrounding it by a row of three-penny pieces, with outer rows of shillings and sixpences of the same class”. It’s a trypophobic’s nightmare.

All this really climaxes in the ineptitude that is the west front. As you may remember, the original west front from the turn of the thirteenth century had been a medieval bit of jerry-building and had originally partially collapsed and vastly scaled back from its initial ambition. As it was, it had come down to the Victorians essentially as a late medieval encasing of John de Cella’s folly, with only the interior of the porches hinting at the planned splendour of the original design. Preliminary investigations by Scott revealed the mark of one of the original gables over the porches, clearly visible on the south side:

St-albans-alpha-0002-abbey-west-end-old[1]

The west front shortly before restoration in the early 1870s, Victorian autochrome photograph. Looks braw tae me.

All that the current west front owes to the original design, as conceived by Goldcliff, are the proportions of the gables of the three porches. About everything else is a barely-competent Gothick pastiche. It’s very shallow, which gives it a cardboard feel like a cheap street facade of an urban non-conformist church. The medieval front was originally designed to have two full-sized flanking towers, and in this sense it would have been a true west front – a separate block on the end of the building, not just a representation of the building behind. Grimthorpe’s front links together two turrets that just seem inconsequentially silly, with the two bands of bland [sic] arcading wrapping around. It has neither noble simplicity nor decorative invention. It makes you realise that designs of the Middle Ages aren’t celebrated just because they’re old, but because they’re good.

P1900641

St Albans Abbey, west front from the SE, 2015. Crivvens.

In sum, Grimthorpe’s work managed to ruin almost every single vista of the historic building. The only positive outcome of this is to make you realise how sensitive to the historic fabric often unfairly maligned Victorians like Scott were. If Matthew Paris found the aborted west front of 1214 embarrassing, he’d be mortified to see what was wreaked on his edifice in the 19th century. If you visit the cathedral, the interiors of the porches are still indicative of the craziness of the original medieval vision for St Albans, although the central porch has had its design altered the most with an extra-superarch on the side arcades. Grimthorpe even had the temerity to add a portrait of himself as Matthew in the Evangelist cycle he added here. It would have been more appropriate if he’d posed for Luke. And not the head, either.

Advertisements

Die Kölnerdreizehnkirchenherausforderung (The Cologne thirteen churches challenge)

My trusty guide for the day

My trusty guide for the day

Recently I piggy-backed another Courtauld trip, this time to Aachen, to try and get a bit of experience with German churches, and a day in Cologne. Cologne is famous for its twelve Romanesque churches, of which is it especially proud from its massive post-war restoration that returned all them to their former glory despite significant damage (we’re talking tower and vault collapses here) in  nearly every one. And then of course, there is the Cathedral. Could I do the lot in 24 hours (including pesky sleep?).

I did no research whatsoever on the churches, except where they were (quite important) and when they were open, as I wanted the experience to be full of surprises. What follows is a brief account, light on the dates and analysis of building breaks, to try to distill each church to a one favourite stand-out feature or we’ll be here all day. Onward!

______________________________

Arriving in Cologne was quite an unforgettable experience. Cologne CathedralLittle did I know, searching for internet access so I could have my phone magically point me in the direction of my hotel, that the Dom was right outside of the south exit of the station, a looming critical mass of distilled Gothic through the plate glass facade. This was not a moment to think “oh, hey, there’s the Cathedral, now, let me put a fake email address into this network log-in screen…”. No, Cologne Cathedral is something of such sublime proportions that it immediately shatters any such worldly concerns such as foreign wi-fi signals. The west facade is nearly entirely nineteenth century, but finished from now almost relic-like “Plan F”, which showed the original design. And what in reproduction, can seem like two facades clumsily stacked on top of each other, appears in true experience as the apotheosis of the Gothic system, and quite frankly, initially, utterly bloody terrifying to the point of inducing vertigo. Eventually it beckoned me to enter in. I cried a bit. It’s enough to evangelise you that Gothic is not a style. It is the Law.

______________________________

#1 But, alas, most of my time was going to be concerned with Romanesque, which, as a responsible art historian, I should tell you was not a style where people were working out how to do Gothic but a creative force in its own right. The Northern-most church, on the way to my hotel, is St. Kunibert, on the other side of the railway station. As my first of the Romanesque churches it was not a disappointment. It really sets the scale for the monumental churches all over the city – a dominating “westwerk” block with two towers at one end and a raised choir at the other end with a semi-circular apse.
St. Kunibert, CologneSt. Kunibert, CologneSt. Kunibert, Cologne
The incredible thing for me is that this church was built entirely in the thirteenth century. Even in England Romanesque was totally old hat by this time. This church was especially badly gutted in the war, but the simple polychrome of red and blue the restoration has instated on the columns, ribs and arches sets off marvellously against the pale grey stone.

______________________________

#2. Also on the first evening I managed to see Groß St. Martin, as this seemed to be open til 7:30pm everyday.
Groß St. Martin, Cologne Groß St. Martin, Cologne Groß St. Martin, Cologne
This is another enormous church with a tower with four flanking turrets that dominates the skyline after the Dom (sadly all rebuilt as the crossing caved in from a direct hit). Unlike St. Kunibert the fabric has much more of the patina of time about it, and there’s certainly a lot less in the way of altarpieces and statues. But what was most memorable about this church is the reason it’s open so late: it is staffed by a Monastic order and has a Mass every day. The nuns’ plainchant was captivating and there was a wonderful serenity to the whole thing. As nearly every service I’ve seen in a building like this, it was not able to approach the scale of the ancient church, and merely taking place in it. However in its modest quality it felt like watching a very distant shadow of the medieval liturgy, like the underdrawing of a faded fresco.

______________________________

#3. The next day I set off south to work my way up through the remaining ten Romanesque churches. Upon seeing St. Georg open I dived inside. A much stumpier building than so far, with a westwerk like Mecca in a dunce’s hat.
St. Georg, Cologne St. Georg, Cologne  St. Georg, Cologne
Quite an interesting church archaeologically for modifications (check out that added vault on the nave elevation…) and changes of plan, but I won’t bore you with my tedious pictures of such things. The most memorable thing here is the crucifix in the westwerk, a so-called gabelkreuz, where not just Christ but the cross is twisted into a Y-shaped expressionist agony.

______________________________

#4. So down to St. Severin, the southern-most church, a commanding spire making it easy to find and the only one with a Gothic nave.
St Severin, Cologne  St Severin, Cologne St Severin, Cologne
This pointy fourteenth-century nave was certainly the most memorable bit, even it was a bit workman-like, but it had some quite unusual Renaissance tombs with alabaster reliefs. Oh, and another fourteenth-century gabelkreuz!

______________________________

#5. St. Panteleon was next, which is important for having really early Romanesque in the mighty westwerk.
St Pantaleon, Cologne St Pantaleon, Cologne  St Pantaleon, Cologne
However, what made me make an noise of audible delight was the choir screen, documented 1502-14, but in full-on Florid Gothic: a veritable fugue of intersecting nodding ogees and fantastic pinnacles. Oh daddy.

______________________________

#6. Over to St. Maria Lyskirchen, the smallest of the churches, which largely escaped Bomber Harris et al, and so still has its strange Baroque balcony in the nave.
St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne  St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne  St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne
It also means it keeps its utterly extraordinary series of paintings – the earliest the Adoration on the counter-facade, mid-thirteenth century in the main vessel, and later, towards 1300 in the two choir chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas and St. Catherine.

______________________________

#7. Back to the massive Romanesque with St. Maria im Kapitol, here the nave never had its vault rebuilt after the war so has the bare springers. There was some setting up of a light show behind the Renaissance screen, and I wasn’t sure whether it was off-limits, so took it as a covert operation. As Alec Clifton-Taylor says, the good thing about Romanesque is how easy it is to hide behind the piers (but “One has to be so particular in Perpendicular”).
St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol
But this church is full of extraordinary things. Romanesque Madonna, prehistoric “bones of St. Mary”, the original carved wooden doors, another gabelkreuz… but I am going to choose the late Gothic Hardenrath chapel, consecrated 1466. It has a singing gallery off the south transept leading into a tiny intimate space crowded with art. Sadly the wall paintings were largely detached in the war, but it is still an impressive space. Even more so when you realise the gate is unlocked when you’ve been taking pictures through it for five minutes.
St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol

______________________________

#8. I dive over to St. Aposteln. In practically any other town this would be looking at Cathedral status, but here it’s just another Romanesque mammoth with two towers flanking the choir like oriental sentinels.
St Aposteln, Cologne  St Aposteln, Cologne   St Aposteln, Cologne

Not too much inside, they were setting up a concert when I arrived so mainly could only see the westwerk, but a zoom lens and tripod got me the choir and nave. The full set of fourteenth-century apostles set into the modern high altar were by far the stand-out of the furnishings.

#9. Now, St. Cecilia is a different sort of church. It’s not much more what you would expect out of a Romanesque parish church, nothing fancy.
Cäcilienkirche, CologneCäcilienkirche, CologneP1860983
However, it is now home to the Schnütgen Museum, and packed full of medieval sculpture. Now, the main museum foyer had a “no photo” sign in so I actually only took pictures sparingly and covertly at first, until I noticed other visitors not getting told off (this how you roll as an art historian – interesting because this fellow Cologne church crusader got slapped down). It’s cheating and I should probably just talk about the wall paintings or something that is actually part of the original church, but I was totally absorbed by the altarpiece of St. Ursula that was displayed on the site of the high altar. The goldsmiths work and inlaid enamelling is twelfth century, but the current figures were painted in the late fourteenth century. The best of both worlds, culminating in a vision of the next! (I didn’t really take many pictures of the collections and also haven’t uploaded them to Flickr as it’s a nightmare to tag museum photos)

#10. At this point I went back in the Cathedral. Access had been rather disappointing earlier: although it’s open from 6am the whole east end is roped off for much of the early morning for confessions only. So this means you don’t get a chance to enjoy it without it being filled with buggies and people with T-shirts with writing on, a shame, really, and a bit baffling. All I could really do in the morning was go to Mass in the Lady Chapel and look at Stephan Lochner’s altarpiece from the Town Hall (which ain’t so bad).

Cologne CathedralCologne CathedralCologne Cathedral

Even later in the day all the ambulatory chapels are gated off so the extraordinary tombs, like this fourteenth-century bishop lying on a castle, are not easy to see, and you can’t use a tripod so have to shoot everything except the stained glass on grainy high ISO anyway. All in all a visit is very restrictive compared to an English Cathedral. Also, unless you want to see a bunch of post-Reformation shiny plate (always a frustrating experience for a medieval art historian: which of the shiny things are old enough for me to care about??), the Treasury is not worth a visit and is badly laid out. All that’s really interesting are the original sculptures of the medieval south porch of the facade.

#11. So, we’re nearly finished now! St. Andreas is right next to the Cathedral, and is distinguished by its tall Gothic choir, with mouchette wheels in the tracery.
St Andreas, Cologne St Andreas, Cologne St Andreas, Cologne
Wall paintings in here, too, but rather suspiciously over-painted. I enjoyed the St Christopher statue attributed to stone carver Tilman van der Burch, whose sculpture was all over Cologne around 1500. Unlike his version in the Cathedral, in which the giant’s face is seized by the pain of exhaustion, here he seems to be looking up to check on the Christ child in a quite charming way.

______________________________

#12. St Gereon is really the most extraordinary of the churches, as its thirteenth-century nave is a centrally-planned polygon. Not only this, but it uses Gothic motifs in the elevation.
St Gereon, CologneSt Gereon, CologneSt Gereon, Cologne
The architecture really is the most stunning thing about the church, and despite the church being staffed, the high choir is roped off. After initially taking tripod pictures, one of the attendants, looking very concerned, asked me not to, I assume, for health and safety reasons while there’s a group in wandering about. He then followed me covertly into the crypt where he caught me crouching down using it unextended and then threw me out. It’s a serious job preventing people taking long exposure images in low-light conditions!

______________________________

#13. And finally St. Ursula. A good church to leave til last as it’s utterly fascinating. Unusually for the churches, the Gothic choir was open to visitors, with only the extreme east and the sanctuary roped off, partly to allow people to admire the famous cycle of paintings about Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, martyred near Cologne.
St Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, Cologne

The grave of Ursula and her ever-multipying band of Virgins was quite the coup for Cologne, as it means they were never short on relics. Reliquary busts of the ladies are all over the city, here they populate every arch of the triforium gallery. But undoubtedly the most remarkable thing in the church is the 17th-century Goldene Kammer. It has dozens of the reliquary busts, but also, in the classic gruesome Baroque directness, thousands of bones arranged into prayers in the spandrels of the vault. It was also interesting to watch a pair of conservators working on restoring the original colour scheme.

St Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, Cologne

So that was it. Quick look in the Cathedral again and then into the train station where no misadventure befell my trip back to Brussels whatsoever. I would actually recommend anyone else who has a few days in Cologne to take up the Kölnerdreizehnkirchenherausforderung, as it is perfectly manageable in one day, as I had to leave relatively early but also spent around an hour and a half in the Schnütgen. Some of the churches are staffed and you have to avoid the periods where a few (St. Aposteln, St. Gereon, St Ursula, St Kunibert) close around lunchtime, and of course the dreaded Monday when everything interesting for tourists across continental Europe is shut. Many of the churches were open before their advertised times and are simply left open without attendants, and it really is a marvellous thing that they are so accessible. A lot of English towns (like Leicester!) could learn from the effort Cologne has made to bring their churches together as historic and holy monuments, and make the most of an opportunity to see such a variety of architecture and art in one place.

There’s a lot of pages on the Twelve Churches if you search Google, but very useful for full list of opening times of the Cologne churches, is this site in German.

Here’s the full Flickr set which is probably a bit below my usual standards for comprehensiveness of fittings since, well, there was a lot to take pictures of!

Perambulating Picardy: A Gothic pilgrimage round north-east France

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

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…

 

__________________________________________________________________________

Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

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.

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

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.

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

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.

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

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)

 

 

__________________________________________________________________________

Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

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 south transept at Soissons

The C12 south transept at Soissons

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.

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

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 Cathedral, from the south-west

Laon Cathedral, from the south-west

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.

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

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.

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

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.

 

St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (new town)

St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (down the hill in the new town). Romanesque facade.

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!

 

 

 

__________________________________________________________________________

Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

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.

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

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.

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1150 (with later clerestory)

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1233-57

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.

 

__________________________________________________________________________

Amiens facade in the evening light

Amiens facade in the evening light

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.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

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.

Cheap 'n' nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

Cheap ‘n’ nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

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.