Extraordinary Early Gothic at Laon Cathedral

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Atop a hill, the silhouette of Laon cathedral with its extraordinary towers, can be seen from very far. It had a great influence on many other churches.

The beautiful city of Laon is called the "Crowned Mountain", due to its magnificent cathedral which dominates the plain from very far. It was built atop a hill upon which the old city of Laon grew and expanded. This magnificent cathedral is considered one of France's senior cathedral and one of the most attractive edifices of the Gothic Style at its beginnings. This is mainly due to its location and so original architecture. The façade offers a deeply expressive face coloured by the extraordinary affirmation of a relief that accentuates the oppositions of shade and light. It is a majestic face through its power of elevation, its sculptures, colonnettes and the original and unexpected oxen in the towers. The architect wished here to honour the beasts that pulled the stones up to the hill, in a very moving tribute. The silhouettes of the life-size oxen in the sky inspire generosity and nobility.  

The construction began in 1155 by Gautier de Mortagne with the choir and ended around 1240 with the West front and towers. For the distribution and layout of masses the façade presents divisions in width and height, which will become the essential principles and basis for all general arrangements in every Gothic religious edifices. If we compare it with the West fronts of the cathedrals built at the end of the XVth century we will have the vision and the most interesting observations of the evolution and transformation of the Gothic Style. We can thus measure all the way gone, discuss the results and appreciate the findings either as far as construction or décor are concerned, over three centuries. Laon is the mother of a long lineage and it is easy to see the diversities offered by the façades of Paris, Chartres, Amiens and Reims, knowing they were all influenced by Laon. The nave under sexpartite vaulting (end of the XIIth century) is 53.50 m long, that is considerable, and has eleven bays with aisles. The transept, very much jutting out, is fringed with side aisles and appears almost halfway on the length of the cathedral. The choir (early XIIIth century) extended in 1205 and influenced by Cistercian churches, has ten bays  and is 45 m long. It does not end in an apse but a straight wall, called "chevet plat" in French, with three lancets and a beautiful rose, all with superb stained glass windows.   

There are five extraordinary towers: two crowning the West façade, two at the ends of each arm of the transept, and a lantern-tower at the crossing (according to Norman mode). Seven were originally planned. In 1793, the spire of the South-West tower was demolished. There are 5 sculpted portals: 3 at the Western front, and two on the South and North transepts. The towers are on an octogonal plan with perforated bodies for the last two storeys. They present jutting out aedicules on their cut off corners, supported by columns and colonettes.  It is on the galleries of the last storey that the 16 charming life-size oxen can be admired. The main façade owes its grand character to the 3 deep porches. These announce a mystery, through the play of light and shade, as you enter the sublime edifice. The statue of Notre-Dame de Laon that was once on the central pier is now in the Museum of Denver, Colorado. Above the gables, reigns an alignment of eight lower windows, partially occulted. Above, the rose appears in majesty and has, on each side, a window framed with deep hood-moulds. The same rose can be found in the choir that is a straight wall as said before. Over the whole width of the façade runs a fine perforated gallery. It is slightly higher in its central portion above the rose. The religious iconography of the main portal represents the Glorification of the Virgin; at the North portal: the Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi and at the South: the Last Judgement. Inside, the nave obeys the typical layout of the four superimposed parts: grand arcades, tribunes, triforium and higher windows or clerestory. The large vaults include two bays and are sexpartite. The décor of the capitals in the nave is simple and consists of large beautiful leaves with crooks and hooks. The capitals in the large tribunes are more adorned but remain similar to the Romanesque decorative trends. The Cathedral Notre-Dame de Laon was restored in the XIXth century by Emile Boeswillwald in 1853 under the supervison of Viollet-le-Duc who saved the edifice from downfall. The portraits of both restorers can be seen on the piles of the porches, as well as the Superintendant of Fine Arts of the time Monsieur de Nieuwerkerke.

Built at a time when Gothic architecture did not yet break away from former traditions in both its structure and sculptural decoration, the cathedral of Laon can be considered with Notre-Dame de Paris as the last monument with a Romanesque design built in the Gothic Style.

Façade of Notre-Dame de Laon. 

 Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/71/Cath%C3%A9drale_Notre-Dame_de_Laon.jpg

The nave under sexpartite vaulting with large tribunes, triforium and clerestory.

 Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Interieur2_kathedraal_Laon.JPG

The West Front portals.


 Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bf/Picardie_Laon3_tango7174.jpg

The moving life-size oxen in the towers at Laon Cathedral.


Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c9/Tour_Cath%C3%A9drale_de_Laon_150808_3.jpg

Notre-Dame de Laon from the North-East. 


Image source:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Cath%C3%A9drale_de_Laon_14_09_2008_2.jpg

Tower of the transept.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/Laon_Cathedral_south_tower.jpg

South Tower of the façade with the oxen.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Laon_150908_B.jpg

 Laon Cathedral.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Cath%C3%A9drale_Notre-Dame_de_Laon%2C_vue_de_loin.jpg

Stained glass window in the choir.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Vitrail_Choeur_Laon_260808_6.jpg

The cloisters on the South.

Image source: http://architecture.relig.free.fr/images/laon/ecloitre_arcbout.jpg

Choir and "chevet plat".

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Autel_vitraux_cath%C3%A9drale_Laon_1.JPG

Viollet-le-Duc and Boeswillwald, the two restorers of the cathedral in the XIXth century.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Laon_cathedral_notre_dame_012.JPG


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