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Cathedrals 8 : Senlis
how a typical cathedral changes through the ages

Senlis cathedral in th 16th century

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senlis cathedral
senlis construction history
 background facts 
end notes

As with many gothic cathedrals, fashions changed and ambitions grew. So when there was more money in the coffers and it was time to embellish, new parts of the cathedral tended to be in the latest style, while the gothic style was developing rapidly.

The gothic cathedral at Senlis is probably the third oldest after Saint-Denis in northern Paris and Noyon Cathedral, also in the Picardy region.[1] You can see these changing styles in Saint-Denis and in Senlis.

At Senlis, the west facade is simple and seems a million miles from the decoration at Amiens just seventy years later. But move around to the south or north facades, and you move from simple gothic to developing rayonnant.

West facade of Senlis cathedral [image probably circa 1915]
West facade of Senlis cathedral [image probably circa 1915]

By the second half of the thirteenth century, construction at Senlis could be regarded as finished, and maintenance and restoration work began. The terrible fires that ravaged so many churches with their ‘forest’ of roof framework spurred new building work, often in a new variant of gothic architecture.

North facade of Senlis catedral
North facade of Senlis cathedral

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Plan of the Cathedral of Senlis

South facade of Senlis cathedral
South facade of Senlis cathedral
[see also section on perspective in Arras cathedral page]

construction history

This history is typical for gothic cathedrals - building progress depends on the funds available at any one time, and that progress is often diverted by fires, fashion and civil strife.

date Financing Events, work done Fires
1153 Louis VII Reconstruction started of previous church fallen in ruins  
1168 Louis VII made a new donation    
1180   Choir finished  
1184   Cathedral almost finished  
1196 Chapter becomes rich from donations Construction and decoration continues.  
1st half 13th century Many donations of lands, jewels, silver from kings, bishops, powerful lords    
by 1238   Tapestries and silk cloths covered the walls from the grand entrance to the master altar. Other items included an organ and thirty candelabra.  
1240   radical change
Central spans removed, pillars shifted a bit, and built the transept. Tower added to south bell tower.
1342 1/4 or 1/6th of diocese revenues to be applied to repairs. Construction finished, start of maintenance period.  
end 14th century   Capitular room and library built to the south [in green on plan]  
1417     Fire in the roof space melted lead roofing and badly effected belfry and bell tower, vaults remained intact.
1465   large chapel of Saint-Jacques or of Bailli [in blue on plan], to north of choir  
June 1504     radical change
Fire started by lightning set ablaze wooden roof structure, the belfry and high parts of the cathedral. Central nave vaults collapsed, spire threatened. Lead flowed in the streets, the fire burning for two days.
1505 Donations from “rich and generous inhabitants”. Bell tower and spire consolidated, belfry re-established, bells installed. Lantern above transept crossing and choir tribunes shored up.  
1507 Salt tax, raising 1,200 pounds annually for six years, and extended further..    
1506-1515   West walls of transepts built, and the turrets at their extremities, then the chapels on south side, large windows of choir and nave.  
1513-1515   Much roofing replaced in lead, small tower roofed in slate.  
Furnishing and decoration continued at the same time as construction:
1515   Stained glass of high windows.  
1517   Five windows at end of choir replaced by painted glass showing the history of Mary.  
January 1519   Master altar blessed. Soon after, the altar was covered by a great dais supported by four antique columns.  
1520   Painter Jacques Charles decorated dais with gold and azure blue.
First stone laid on south transept facade.
September 1524   Stalls finished.  
December 1528   Furnishing of choir finished.  
1532   Rood screen decorated with gold, and its figures painted.  
1534   Organ redone. Transept vaulting finished, as was the west rose, as well as lead and slate roofing.  
1536   Four bells cast and placed in north tower.  
1560   North transept portal finished.  
All these works had entirely changed the cathedral’s appearance. Although, at least in the lower parts, the interior looked like a 12th century construction, most of the exterior had all the characteristics of the flamboyant style.
1751   radical change
13th century porch of central doorway demolished.
1758-1765   Major repair works done. When these did not obliterate sufficiently traces of the fires and restorations ....  
1777   radical change
... an Italian, Dominique Borrani, was commissioned to whitewash the entire cathedral.
1787 The quotation drawn up was for 51,400 pounds, but the cost ended up as 65,000 pounds, which was only paid off after the Revolution. radical change
Interior reworked in “18th century taste”: metal grills to the choir and ambulatory entrances; marble decoration put on the floor, around pillars, on the master altar, and on chapels to each side of choir; a balastrade closed the sanctuary; high wood stalls on side of the choir.[4]
1789-1799 French Revolution, petering out in the later years.
1791   radical change
Chosen as the premises for warehousing relics, reliquaries, sacred vases, paintings, sculptures taken from other disused churches.
1793   radical change
Grills removed, doorways mutilated, all paving stones removed,the stalls, chairs, the organ case were removed and sold.
Later, the building was used as a Revolutionary meeting house and for balls and public entertainments, then an army silage store.
Rubbish heaped on the floor, stained glass smashed, roof in a bad state.
30 May 1795
[11 prairial an III]
  Decree to stop the profanities. Silage taken to a neighbouring church, and the keys returned to the Catholics.
A grand cleaning and restoration started.
1837 Notre-Dame classified as historic monument
1845-1846   Despite being an historic monument, sculptor Robinet enthusiastically replaced the heads and many other details of the west doorway that had much suffered during the Revolution.  
1847-1848   a chapel to the Virgin, highly decorated with paintings by Bruslé, replaced the smaller axial apsidal chapel.  
1865-1867   High windows replaced; rose window tracery replaced, which lifted balustrades on south facade; sacristy restored.  
  Donations used to restore the old capitular room, sacristy and several chapels, to add furniture, to replace wood altars with ones in stone.  

Senlis, being behind the front lines, appears to have been unaffected by the two world wars (to be confirmed).

Background facts

Senlis Senlis coat of arms

approximate population : 16,000
average altitude/elevation : 75 m
(ranging from 47m to 140m)

cathedral dimensions
exterior length : 76 m
interior length : 70 m
nave width : 28.5 m
height under vaults : 23.5 m

Marker at abelard.org

end notes

  1. Construction started on Saint-Denis in 1122, on Noyon Cathedral in 1140, and on Senlis Cathedral in 1153.

  2. del.
    Del. following the name of the draughtsman is an abbreviation for the Latin word delineavit, he drew.

  3. Although the words ‘bell’ and ‘belfry’ seem related, the bel- portion of belfry was not connected with bells until comparatively recently.

    The word ‘belfry’ goes back to a prehistoric Common Germanic compound. The second part of the compound is the element *frij-, meaning “peace, safety”; while the first element is either *bergan, meaning “to protect”, giving a compound meaning of “a defensive place of shelter”, or *berg-, meaning “a high place”, and giving a compound meaning of “a high place of safety, a tower”.

    The Old French word derived from the Common Germanic compound is berfrei. First this meant “siege tower”, and later “watchtower”. Warning bells were used in these towers, thus the word was also applied to bell towers.

    In Old North French, berfrei mutated to belfroi. This, in turn, caused English speakers to think of the native Old English word belle (Modern English, bell), and in Middle English became belfry meaning “bell tower”.

  4. Dominique Borrani similarly whitewashed Chartres cathedral, the Abbey of Saint-Denis, Saint-Eustache de Paris and Saint-Maclou de Pontoise, altogether a right little vandal.

  5. By 1915, some may say fortunately, hardly any of this decoration remained except the statue of the virgin Mary by Miotte.

  6. Translation of
    Law of 11 Prairial [May 30, 1795] Order of the Board
    Regarding the restitution of churches - 11 Prairial (May 30, 1795)
    Over a period of several months the churches for all will be reopened in a manner more or less accepted and controlled [...].

    Article 1 : “Citizens of municipalities and parts of municipalities of the Republic have provisionally free use of buildings not destroyed, that were originally used for the activities of one of religious groups [cultes]. The buildings can be used under the supervision of the constituted authorities, both for meetings ordered by law and for religious activities”.

    Article 2 : “The buildings are returned for use by citizens in their current state, usually empty and dilapidated, the citizens having the responsibility to maintain or repair the building.

    “If several different religious groups laid claim to the same place, then it should be used communally, the most suitable days and hours for each group being fixed by the municipality.”

    But the generosity of the Convention had its demands and downsides:
    Article 5 : “No-one can fulfil the ministry of any religion in the said buildings, unless he is awarded the deed before the municipality of the place where he wants to practise, submitting to the laws of the Republic. The religious ministers who contravene this present article, and the citizens who have been called or admitted therein, will be punished by a thousand pounds fine, through a police court.” Bulletin of Acts, No. 878

    The priests who, during the French Revolution, refused to swear allegiance to the Civil Constitution of clergy, would continue to avoid these acts of submission, which were contrary to their idea of the Church and to their conscience.

    Loi du 11 prairial an III [30 mai 1795] arrêté du directoire

    Au sujet de la restitution des églises - 11 prairial (30 mai 1795),
    Période de quelques mois réouverture des églises par tous – de manière plus ou moins admise et contrôlée, mais arrêt à nouveau avec le Directoire.

    L'article 1er : « Les citoyens des communes et sections de communes de la République auront provisoirement le libre usage des édifices non aliénés destinés originairement à l'exercice d'un on de plusieurs cultes. Ils pourront s'en servir sous la surveillance des autorités constituées tant pour les assemblées ordonnées par la loi que pour l'exercice de leur culte. »

    L'article 2 : « Ces édifices étaient remis, à l'usage des citoyens dans l'état où ils se trouvaient, c'est-à-dire vides et ordinairement délabrés, à la charge de les entretenir ou réparer.

    « Si des citoyens de la même commune exerçant des cultes différents ou prétendus tels, réclamaient concurremment l'usage du même local, ce local devait leur être commun et les municipalités, auraient à fixer pour chaque culte les jours et heures les plus convenables. »

    Mais cette générosité de la Convention a ses exigences et son revers :
    L'art. 5 « Nul ne pourra remplir le ministère d'aucun culte dans les-dits édifices à moins qu'il ne se soit fait décerner acte, devant la municipalité du lieu où il voudra exercer, de sa soumission aux lois de la République. Les ministres des cultes qui auront contrevenu au présent article, et les citoyens qui les auront appelés ou admis, seront punis chacun de mille livres d'amende, par voie de police correctionnelle. » Bulletin des Lois, n° 878.

    Le prêtres réfractaires continueront de se soustraire à ces actes de soumission, contraires à leur conception de l’Eglise et à leur conscience.

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