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cathedrals in Lorraine
- the three bishoprics
(Toul, Metz and Verdun)

Arms of Lorraine

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double apses
the cross of lorraine
end notes

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The Three Bishoprics - les trois évêchés - were a province in pre-revolutionary France. They were the prince-bishoprics of Toul, Metz and Verdun in the region of Lorraine, to the north-east of France near the German border.

Originally States of the Holy Roman Empire, the dioceses were fought over by Protestant Germans and Catholic French, including Henry II, king of France [1547-1559], until they were awarded to France in 1648 after the Thirty Years’ War.

There are a couple of unusual cathedral design features that are associated with this region - a ‘cross of Lorraine’ floor plan, and double apses.

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“... the German ambassador in Paris asked the French what they are going to do. The French replied that they were going to stand by their Russian alliance. If they had not done so it would have made no difference, for the German ambassador was instructed, if France wished to remain neutral, to demand the surrender of Toul and Verdun to the Germans for safekeeping during the war. It was as if they had demanded Portsmouth and Dover from us as pledges of our neutrality.”
Winston Churchill writing about the break-out of the First World War [written for 5 August, 1939]
(The Second World War broke out officially less than a month later on the 1st September 1939).

Verdun, Metz and Toul were all garrison towns.

Plan of Toul cathedral, including the cloister
Plan of Toul cathedral, including the cloister


Toul cathedral can be described as late Gothic or early flamboyant. Toul is one of the most impressive cathedrals, especially in the east of France. The west facade is topped by very distinctive towers [below right].

The statuary on the west facade was all destroyed during the Revolution.

On 20 June 1940, bombings set the cathedral roof on fire, destroying it and the organ, while the south tower suffered heavy damage during the bombing. The subsequent restoration took more than forty years, with first a temporary roof erected in 1945 and then a permanent roof, built between 1981 and 1993.

Toul cathedral west facade
Postcard dating from prior to 1910

Toul cathedral after German bombing on 20 June 1940

Toul cathedral after German bombing on 20 June 1940
[photograph taken by German soldier, inscribed on reverse, Kerche in Toul]
© abelard.org

One of the ancient customs of this diocese was a celebration termed in ecclesiastical annals as the ‘Sepelitur Alleluia’ [Alleluia buried].

“It is known that, during the seasons of fasting, Alleluia, as being an expression of joy, was not sung in the ancient Church. Hence, to honour the Alleluia, which was dead, as it were, in the time of fast, a solemn funeral was instituted. On the Saturday night before Septuagesima Sunday, children carried through the chancel a kind of coffin to represent the dead Alleluia. The coffin was attended by the Cross, incense, and Holy Water. The children wept and howled all the way to the Cloister, where the grave was prepared, and the solemn rite continued.”
[From Institutes of ecclesiastical history, 1832, by Johann Lorenz Mosheim 1694(?) - 1755. English translation, p.538]

Background facts

Toul Blason: Toul

approximate population : 17,700
average altitude/elevation : 205 m

cathedral dimensions
total length : 98 m
transept length : 50 m
transept width : 15 m
nave height (under the vaults) : 32 m
tower height : 65 m
west facade width : 37 m


Another of the Three Bishoprics is Metz. This town was captured by the Germans in 1870-71. Metz was returned to France at the end of World War One as part of the Versailles Settlement. The Germans invaded again in 1940, being pushed out again in 1944.

The town has a large Gothic cathedral and, with 70,000 sq. ft / 6,496 m² of glass, is said to have the largest glass area in any cathedral. This lends it the nickname of “God’s Lantern”. Some of the glass is 13th and 14th century, but most of it is 20th century and includes some by Marc Chagall.

In France, only Beauvais and Amiens have higher naves than the 41.41 m nave of Metz cathedral. It was given a fashionable neo-classical portal in 1764. Fortunately, this was demolished after a fire in 1877 and was replaced by a neo-gothic front, built between 1898 and 1903.

Plan of Metz cathedral
Plan of Metz cathedral

Unusually, this church is oriented south-west to north east, due to the constraints of the Moselle Valley site. The main west entrance was, therefore, at the south-west. See also cathedral orientation.

Germans are good at destroying beautiful things, even accidently. In May 1877, Metz was under German control. Fireworks in honour of their emperor William II were set off from the roof of the cathedral. The fire caused by the fireworks destroyed ‘the forest’, as well as the roof.

Background facts

MetzBlason: Metz

Vitas bonis;
Mors est malis

White: life to the good;
black: death to the bad

approximate population : 124,000
average altitude/elevation : 172 m
cathedral dimensions
total length : 136 m
interior length : 123.2 m
nave height : 41.41 m
width of nave : 15.6 m
length of transept : 46.8 m
width of transept : 16.34 m
height of north tower (Tour du Chapitre) : 69 m
height of south tower (Tour de la Mutte) : 88 m

double apses

Verdun, Nevers and Besançon each have two apses.


Verdun is the largest Romanesque cathedral in France. Not satisfied with two apses, the builders of Verdun cathedral also gave it two transepts, to be seen in the satellite view below.

satellite view of Verdun cathedral.
satellite view of Verdun cathedral.
The ridge lines of the roof (coloured purple) are a cross of Lorraine.
Usually, the layout for a church is an ‘ordinary’ cross.

plan of Verdun cathedral, by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc
plan of Verdun cathedral, by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc

The cathedral at Verdun also sustained substantial damage during the destruction wrought by the First World War. The western Romanesque apse was partially destroyed by German bombardments in 1916; restoration then took fourteen years from 1919 to 1935. The stained glass windows were destroyed, and were remade by the Maison Gruber. After the end of the war, as the rubble was cleared away, a twelfth-century subterranean crypt was discovered under the ruins. On 21 February 1916, a German shell hit the cathedral and among the rubble of the partial collapse was discovered the Romanesque Doorway of the Lion, whose existence previously had not even been suspected.

The ruins of the Great War - Verdun cathedral
The ruins of the Great War - Verdun cathedral

Marker at abelard.org

The traditional design of a church is in the shape of a cross, with the nave being the upright and the transept being the horizontal bar. The transept of a cathedral can be obscured by side chapels, as for instance in Amiens cathedral. To study cathedral plans, French cathedral plans is very helpful.

plan of Amiens cathedral
plan of Amiens cathedral

Background facts

Verdun Verdun town blason

approximate population : 20,000
average altitude/elevation : 570 m

cathedral dimensions
nave length : 94 m
nave width : 12.4 m
width at transept : 37 m
height under vaults : 18.5 m


About 180 miles/290 km to the southwest is another cathedral with a double apse design at Nevers.

Satellite view of Nevers cathedral.
Satellite view of Nevers cathedral.
Notice the kink in the nave.

Plan of Nevers cathedral
Plan of Nevers cathedral

Nevers has an unusual west front. It also has one of the most impressive apse buttressing in France (see also Bourges and Le Mans cathedrals).

Buttressing at the eastern end of Nevers cathedral
Buttressing at the eastern end of Nevers cathedral

An excellent panorama of the interior can be seen at learn.columbia.edu.

Looking towards the eastern apse in Nevers cathedral.
Looking towards the eastern Gothic apse in Nevers cathedral.
Below: looking towards the western Romanesque apse.
[These panoramas require that a Quicktime plug-in be installed on your computer. This installation takes about 10 minutes.]

Looking towards the western apse in Nevers cathedral.

The RAF accidently bombed Nevers cathedral on the night of 15th - 16 July, 1944; The bombs exploded in the cathedral which, of course, smashed all the original stained glass. This destruction has resulted in the cathedral now having various bright modern glass of dubious quality. The modern glass artists are Raoul Ubac, Gottfried Honegger, Claude Viallat, Jean-Michel Alberola and François Rouan. One hundred and thirty modern windows have been fitted, and the repairs to the cathedral took about thirty years.

Nevers cathedral after accidental bombing by the RAF in 1944
Nevers cathedral after accidental bombing by the RAF in 1944

Background facts

Nevers Nevers town blason

approximate population : 41,000
average altitude/elevation : 175 m

cathedral dimensions
nave length : - m
height under vaults : - m

Besançon: Cathedral of Saint-Jean

Besançon is about 200 km / 125 miles south of the region of Lorraine.

Satellite view of Besancon cathedral
Satellite view of Besançon cathedral

Another double-apsed cathedral, also far south of the Three Bishoprics region.

Floor plan of Besancon cathedral
Floor plan of Besançon cathedral

This cathedral also has an elaborate astronomical clock (1860) with 70 dials and 122 indicators, considered one of the masterpieces of the genre.

Located in the loop of an oxbow on the Doubs river, the citadel city of Besançon is said to have been the first green town in France. Besançon is also well known as a city of art, having what is said to be the most important art museum outside of Paris. It also has a major Vauban Unesco World Heritage site.

Background facts

Besançon Besancon town blason

approximate population : 118,000
average altitude/elevation : 260 m

cathedral dimensions
nave length : 65 m
height under vaults : - m

Note: Rodez cathedral, in Aveyron, Languedoc, also has a double apse.

the cross of lorraine

A cross of Lorraine is a christian cross with two bars instead of one.

cross of Lorraine
original cross of Lorraine modified cross of Lorraine - the parochial cross

This cross was a pre-heraldic emblem of the Kingdom of Hungary, being used on their coins at the end of the 12th century before being included in the royal arms.

Originally known as the cross of Anjou, the double cross of Lorraine has been part of the family emblems of the dukes of Lorraine, since 1473. Then René II, son of Yolande d’Anjou became duke of Lorraine. The cross of Anjou (then sometimes called the cross of Jerusalem), was included on seals, coins and on the Tapestry of the Apocalypse.

During the siege of Nancy in1477, Duke René II used the cross as a rallying point and symbol. When the siege was lifted, the cross became very popular in Lorraine, its name being changed from from ‘cross of Anjou’ to ‘cross of Lorraine’ by heraldists in the 16th century.

The original version with equal length cross bars is also sometimes called the cross of Burgundy.

There are all sorts of tales about the origins of the cross of Lorraine, most of which will be just stories. Here are some of them.

One theory of the cross’s origin is that it represents a reliquary containing a piece of the true cross, revered by the Dukes of Anjou, from Louis I (1339-1384). This reliquary, stored at Baugé, had a double cross.

Another theory is the cross had its origin in the double transepts found in some churches.

Much weight is given to the idea that the double cross is symbolic of the cross to which Jesus was attached. In this hypothesis, the second, smaller cross represents the titulus, the name label ordered by Pontius Pilate to be placed on the cross. [On the label, the abbreviation INRI was written. this is short for Iesus Nazareus Rex Iudeorum - Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.]

Between 1871 and 1918, and between 1940 to 1944, the northern third of Lorraine was annexed to Germany, along with Alsace. During those periods, a modified version of the cross served as a rallying point for French ambitions to recover its ‘lost’ provinces. This historical significance lent it considerable weight as a symbol of French patriotism.

In June 1940, the modified cross became the symbol of Free France, thanks to Lieutenant Commander of Argenlieu Thierry, who wrote to General de Gaulle that the Free French needed a cross to fight against the German swastika.

There are two versions of this cross, the original version where the cross bars are of equal size and spaced widely apart, and the more recent version, also known as the parochial cross, with a smaller and a larger bar quite close together.

Marker at abelard.org

The French region of Lorraine consists of four départements, Meurthe-et-Moselle (54), Meuse (55), Moselle (57) and Vosges (88).

Meurthe-et-Moselle Meuse Moselle Vosges
Meurthe-et-Moselle Meuse Moselle Vosges

end notes

  1. prince-bishopric
    When a bishop (or archbishop) held one or more secular titles concurrently with their religious office, their title was prince-bishop and their religious domain was called a prince-bishopric. As well as being a bishop or archbishop, they may have been a prince (or other superior person, like a duke) of a local secular territory (which for a prince was called a principality). The secular territory may coincident partially or totally with their diocesan jurisdiction.

  2. Meanwhile, the Germans had at that time already initiated their invasion of France through Belgium (the Schlieffen plan). The Schlieffen Plan was an early 20th-century German plan aimed at rapidly knocking out France - it failed in 1914.

  3. This a large list of panormas of cathedrals and other historic buildings in France and elsewhere, from Columbia University New York. It is a marvellous resource, enabling you to have a 360° walk around buildings you might otherwise never visit.

    Another web page of interest to cathedral studiers has about forty floor plans of French cathedrals.

  4. The Département of Averyon is in the historic region of Languedoc, which was part of the Occitain region of southern France. Nowadays, Aveyron is in the north-east of the administrative region of Midi-Pyrenees.

  5. The Verdun cathedral plan is taken from the Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1856) by Eugène Viollet Le-Duc (1814-1879).

    The French original in nine volumes has been scanned by Project Gutenberg. These are very good quality scans, far superior to other scanned copies. By clicking on one of the links, you are taken to a page giving the choice of reading online or downloading to an electronic reader like a tablet. Further, there is a choice between downloading copies with or without images.

    Finally, don’t forget that this book is in French!

    This Dictionary is an excellent resource, discussing the development of early French architecture in minute detail, and with Viollet-le-Duc’s numerous and meticulous illustrations.

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