Rouen Cathedral

“Everything changes, even stone,” Claude Monet said of the cast of light upon medieval stone. Between 1892 and 1894, Monet painted the facade of Rouen cathedral more than thirty times. Like his haystacks and poplars, this was one of his major series of paintings. In these works, Gothic architecture becomes the canvas for changes in light and atmosphere. Monet places a rumination of the ephemeral upon a backdrop of the timeless. After taking the train from his home in Giverny, Monet would seat himself in the textile shop across the square from the western portals. Though canvases were often reworked later, they began as observational and daily contemplations of the play of light across the many curves, points and figures that adorn the cathedral face. Like many of the most famous Japanese prints, these paintings were done in a series that could easily be called Thirty Views of Rouen Cathedral. Like the peak of Fuji mountain as an emblem of Japan, Gothic architecture encapsulated a kind of solemnity and national significance in France. The paintings themselves are architectural through Monet’s use of thickly mixed paint. As James Elkins eloquently described it in his book What Painting is: “It is as if the paint were limestone, and Monet had rebuilt the cathedral on the canvas itself … the projecting paint casts harsh shadows as if it were real carved stone … [in one detail], a ledge of paint stands in for a cornice on the actual cathedral … [the paint] is almost pure pigment, worked in grumous paste of solvent and medium” (Elkins 103). Rouen Cathedral is the ecumenical see of the archbishop of Rouen, the pontificate of Normany. A church has existed on this site since the late fourth century. In the 9th century, the church was burned by the vikings. Rollo, leader of the conquering forces, then founded Normandy. He was baptized and then buried here. The current church was begun on the first of October, 1063, in the presence of William the Conqueror, but the cathedral in the twenty-first century is a melange of styles and building projects across more than eight centuries. It now has two towers at the West facade, St. Romain’s Tower (north) and the so-called Butter Tower (south), which according to legend was named for the indulgences that funded it, sold so that people might continue to enjoy butter during the month of Lent. The medieval-era cathedral portals include some rather unusual imagery, including Salome dancing before Herod. In 1822, the wooden Renaissance spire was destroyed by lightning. A new spire, this one of cast iron, was erected in the later 19th century. Just a few years before Monet painted his series on the church, Rouen cathedral was the tallest building in the world (1876-1880).  Much of the cathedrals original stained glass survives, as do the burials of the viking Rollo, Mathilda of England, and the heart of Richard to Lionheart (home is where the heart is …). Those who visit Rouen Cathedral are rewarded for exploring the many nooks and crannies. For instance, slipping out the north entrance of the church reveals with booksellers’ portal, which has a marvelous Last Judgement tympanum. The stone framing this entrance is alive with irreverent images just like one might find in the margins of the medieval manuscripts sold by the guild who provided the funds.


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November 2, 2018