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cathedrals 1:
Rouen and Monet

Rouen Cathedral, façade - image credit: Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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New translation, the Magna Carta

rouen cathedral illustrated
rouen cathedral
rouen, 1908
the window of st julian the hospitalier
rouen cathedral plan and dimensions
note from abelard
 background facts 
end notes

rouen cathedral illuminated

“ From the end of June to mid-September, every evening at nightfall the cathedral square is to become a theatre of light. In a highly original creation, the façade of the monument will be transformed into a huge painter's canvas, where colours inspired by Claude Monet's famous cathedral series will be projected. The City of Rouen and its Heritage and Tourism department are behind this initiative involving a National Monument.”
[From July to mid September.]

Painting with lights is becoming a popular spectacle in France. Poitiers Cathedral was a previous subject for such show, demonstrating how medieval craftsmen painted the statues on the cathedral main façade. The colours have since worn away through the centuries. It is only a modern fashion to have bland, naked stone inside and outside Christianist ritual buildings.

The show at Rouen has a large easel set up outside the cathedral on which a dozen of Monet’s paintings are projected in synchronisation with the changing lightshow.

rouen cathedral

Despite being painted about thirty times by Claude Monet in various light and weather conditions, Rouen is not one of the very most spectacular French cathedrals, but it is well worth a visit, especially since a large amount of the stonework has been restored. Five thirteenth-century stained glass windows have survived foreign invaders and the depredations of time.

Rouen cathedral in evening light. Image credit: Olga's Gallery Rouen cathedral in morning light. Image credit: Getty Foundation Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet. Image  credit: www.usc.edu/
Rouen cathedral in evening light Rouen cathedral in morning light Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet

You may find two excellent photographs, one showing Rouen Cathedral and its siting in the town and surroundings. (There is an accompanying potted history, which is coloured by the site-owner’s personal hobby.) The other shows the Nave of Rouen Cathedral, with detailed description of the cathedral’s interior architecture.

Rouen cathedral is one of the great structures of France, but was greatly damaged during the second World War. It has been heavily restored since then.

A great deal of damage was done during the invasion, but fortunately much of Rouen’s glass had been removed to safety. Three other Rouen churches with important sixteenth century glass were St. Godard, St. Vincent and St. Patrice. The building of St. Vincent was smashed beyond recovery, but its glass may now be seen in the extremely modern, boat-like new church of Ste Jeanne d’Arc. Of course, Rouen was involved in the disgraceful martyrdom of Joan of Arc (1412 - 1431).

Rouen is situated on the Seine, 82 miles/130 km northwest of Paris, and about 55 miles/88 km from Le Havre on the coast, at the mouth of the Seine. The old city, situated on the right bank, has been called Ville-musée (museum town) in view of its great many ancient buildings.

I am using the city of Rouen as the first cathedral town in this series of documents of stained glass and cathedral architecture. While the stained glass in the cathedral is not among the best collection in France, Rouen has a great variety of churches with glass from several eras and much other interesting history. Some may find a day or two visiting this ville-musée a good introduction and orientation before submitting to the shock and awe of visiting the top sites.

Saint Maclou Church, Rouen Saint Ouen Church, Rouen
Saint Maclou Church, Rouen
note the rare five-aisle construction
Saint Ouen Church, Rouen

Stained glass window from Rouen cathedralrouen, 1908

“Upon approaching Rouen one is sure to be struck by the insolent daring of its situation. Lying on a sloping plain beside the river, it seems to disdain the well-nigh impregnable site afforded by the steep cliffs which rise just to the northeast. The history of the city bears out the audacity of its location. Through all the centuries its inhabitants concerned themselves so continuously in conquering other peoples that little time was left in which to consider the security of their own homes.” [p;249]

“Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Rouen when viewed from a distance is the great number of its spires that shoot up above the housetops, earning for it the sobriquet of the City of Churches.” [p.250]
Quoted from Stained Glass Tours in France by Charles Hitchcock Sherrill, John Lane Company, 1908.

left: one of the five remaining 13th century windows,
in the ambulatory of Rouen cathedral.


A story window in the Cathedral at Rouen.

outline marking the positions of events in the associated story window.
key to the story panes in the St Julian the Hospitaller window

the story window of st julian the hospitaller

In jewel-like blues and reds, this early 13th-century stained-glass window in Rouen cathedral tells the tragic story of St Julian, who accidentally murdered his parents and founded a hospital in penance.

Like a comic strip, the stained glass window - made in about 1220-1230 when the ambulatory was finished - tells the story of Julian the Hospitaller. As with all medieval stained glass windows, this windows reads from the bottom to the top: as you look upwards the glass is more luminous, most of all when that look approaches the last quadrilobe that shows Heaven.

“[...] The nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert, who saw the Rouen window, was inspired by the narrative embedded in its thirty panels to create his own fictional representation of Saint Julian, which he published in 1877 in the volume Trois Contes. The iconographic tradition, represented in paintings, miniatures, sculpture, and tapestry, as well as in stained glass, makes clear the legend's most memorable features. Julian himself is usually portrayed as a hunter with a sword at his side and a falcon in his hand, reminding the viewer that the prophecy of murder occurred during the course of a deer hunt. Of the two scenes most frequently depicted, the first shows Julian in the act of killing his parents and the second has him carrying the leper across the river to the hospice maintained by Julian and his wife.”

“That Flaubert saw the window in his native city of Rouen is certain. Teasing out his relationship to and use of the other source materials which he may have utilized for his highly imaginative transformation of the legend is less easy. It is known that he read his friend Langlois' account of the Julian window, as well as a French translation of LA [Legend Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine], but there has been considerable disagreement as to whether he actually read (or was capable of reading) a manuscript of the thirteenth-century French prose life, which he may have come across during a visit to the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1875 at a time when he was having difficulty with the writing of his own Julian tale. The reader who is interested in this puzzle about the relationship of a great nineteenth-century novelist to the Middle Ages, as well as in the heated opinions of those who have tried to trace the path of his inspiration, may find a detailed and scholarly discussion in Bart and Cook, Legendary Sources, pp. 29-93. A recent English translation of Flaubert's Trois Contes is Three Tales, trans. Krailsheimer. ” [Quoted from libr.rochester.edu]

Flaubert was inspired by drawing of Espérance Langlois made in 1832 which is included in the book Essay on painting, written by Hyacinthe Langois.

For a pane-by-pane analysis of the story window of Julian the Hospitaller.

rouen cathedral plan and dimensions

Interior floor and window plan of Rouen Cathedral
Interior floor and window plan of Rouen Cathedral

  • interior length: 136.86 m
  • exterior length: 144 m
  • transept exterior: 57 m
  • transept interior: 53.65 m
  • nave: 60 m
  • choir: 34.30 mRouen cathedral
  • western façade: 61.60 m
  • nave: 24.20 m
  • central aisle:11.30 m
  • transept: 24.60 m
  • choir: 12.68 m
  • tower Saint-Romain: 82 m
  • tower Beurre: 75 m
  • transept tower: 51 m
  • central spire, above transept tower, total height: 151 m
  • northern transept arm: 28 m
  • southern transept arm: 28 m
  • central aisle vaulting: 28 m
  • side aisle vaulting:14 m
  • choir: 28 m
  • central spire weight: 600 tonnes

For more on naming the parts of a cathedral, as well as information on cathedral construction.

note from abelard

This page is the first of a series, planned mainly around my interest in stained glass. This series is not designed for comprehensive information on the history and architecture of these great buildings. Sketches of such data can be found in the Michelin Green Guides, and more depth in a multitude of sources.

As with France section in general, my intention is to give you my own idiosyncratic view of these places. As you will know from elsewhere, I am no fan of noisy, smelly cities and I tend to go into these towns primarily to observe the stained glass.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, when the most magnificent of these structures were assembled, it has been calculated that approximately one-third of the gross national product (GNP) of France was devoted to building about eighty cathedrals and five hundred other large churches. They are a monument to the age.

Background facts
RouenRouen coat of arms approximate population : 111,805
average altitude/elevation : 15 m
cathedral dimensions
• exterior length: 144 m
• length, transept exterior: 57 m
• length, nave: 60 m
• width, western façade: 61.60 m
• width, nave: 24.20 m
• height, central aisle vaulting: 28 m

Also about the city of Rouen:
the 6th bridge at Rouen: Pont Gustave Flaubert, new vertical lift bridge

end notes

  1. There are free shows, lighting up the Cathedral from early June to late September every year.
    June, July: from 23:00/11pm
    August: from 22:30/10.30pm
    September: from 22:00/10pm
    Further information is available from the Rouen Tourist Office:

  2. See also the references to Bourges in Gothic cathedral and church construction.

  3. The French word is hospitalier. This word can have several meanings.
    As an adjective [describing word] it can mean of a hostipal, or hospitable (welcoming), or charitable.
    As a noun [naming word], one meaning is a founder or worker in a hospital - a place where people are made welcome and cared for. Another meaning is a member of a charitable order, particularly one associated with medical care such as the order of St. John. In the UK, there is a derivative called the St. Johns Ambulance Brigade, whose members provide primary first aid at public events.

  4. Flaubert’s La Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier available in French in two parts:
    part 1 part 2
    A translation into English of the Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller.

  5. The Tour Beurre, or Butter Tower, was so named because it was believed that the tower’s construction was paid for out of the dispensations granted to those who did not wish to fast during Lent. As part of the dispensation, these people were allowed to drink milk and eat butter.
    The Butter Tower contains fifty-six bells.

  6. The central lantern tower, combined with its spire, is the tallest in France at 151m or 495 ft. Building started in the thirteenth century, the spire being raised in the sixteenth century. The present cast iron spire was raised in 1876 to replace the previous wooden spire, covered in gilded lead, which had been placed there in 1544.

    From Rouen, It’s [sic] History and Monuments, A Guide to Strangers by Théodore Licquet, 1847, reprint 2007

    “We cannot give too many praises to the zeal of M. de Vansay, prefect of the department at that time: the misfortune happened on the 15th september, and already on the 26th of the same month, the government having been informed and solicited by that magistrate, ordered M. Alavoine, one of the best architects, to go to Rouen, and confer with the prefect on the means of remedying the havoc caused by the fire. Early in the year 1823, the roofs of a aisles had already been repaired; and a portion of the nave had been covered with lead, by the 15th march of the same year. The roofs of the choir and of the whole transept, were also soon repaired; but, for these parts, a copper covering was preferred as being more solid and less liable to be destroyed. The raising and renewing the lantern was terminated in 1829.

    “From this new platform, the pyramid will rise majestically in the air, and of it we already discover thirteen floors (the pyramid will be completed with one more), each of four metres fifty centimetres, that is to say a height of fifty eight metres, or about one hundred and eighty feet. The spire of the church was first erected of stone but was overthrown by the electric fluid, after that, it was twice built of wood, and both times it became the prey of the flames; to rebuild it with wood would have been gathering materials for a third fire, but now it is made of cast iron and in open work. At the summit of the spire, there will be a small lantern surrounded by a gallery for the purpose of meteorological observations. The total weight of the spire when completed, will be 600,000 kilogrammes, or about 1,200,000 pounds. It is composed of 2,540 pieces, not including 12,879 iron pins[13]. Lastly, this magnificent pyramid will reach an elevation of 436 feet; that is to say 40 feet higher than the former, and will only be 13 feet less than the highest pyramid of Egypt[14].

    “[Footnote 13: The whole of these pieces of iron were cast at the foundery at Conches, a small town, which is situated at about twelve leagues from Rouen, and the expense is valued at 500,000 francs.]

    “[Footnote 14: For the description of the archbishop's palace, see the chapter on the civil monuments.]”

    The spire also has 812 steps inside it. These could be climbed, if you have the nerve, but we are not sure whether this is still permitted.

marker cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
marker gothic cathedral and church construction
marker cathedrals, an illustrated glossary
marker Chartres - wonder of the world
marker Notre Dame de Paris, Paris
marker lantern towers of Normandy and elsewhere
marker history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
marker Auch cathedral choir and stalls
marker Rouen and Monet
marker at France pages Dax and church iconography marker photographs, Dax
marker Bazas - iconography and architectural styles
marker Poitiers, neglected masterpiece marker photographs, Poitiers / photos 2
marker Angers, heart of the Angevin Empire marker photographs, Angers
marker Laon, the midst of the gothic transition, with added oxen marker photographs, Laon
marker Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
marker Notre Dame of Lausanne
marker Senlis - how a typical cathedral changes through the ages
marker Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees
marker Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

marker Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
marker Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
marker cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
marker cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
marker Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals

marker Germans in France - Arras cathedral
marker Germans in France - Reims cathedral
marker Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral
marker Germans in France - Noyon cathedral
marker Germans in France - Cambrai cathedral
marker Germans in France - Soissons cathedral

marker cathedral plans, and facts
marker stone in church and cathedral construction
marker using metal in gothic cathedral construction
marker cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
marker cathedrals and cloisters of Franceby Elise Whitlock Rose
marker the perpendicular or English style of cathedral
marker Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France
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