Feb 11

Laon, Cathédrale Notre-Dame

1155-1235 France, Laon (Aisne)

The cathedral of Laon, famous for its rectangular choir, the beautiful regularity of its interior and its mighty towers overlooking the surrounding landscape from the peak of a flat-top mount, counts amongst the most important and influential buildings of Early Gothic architecture. Even the widely travelled Villard de Honnecourt, when he came to Laon around 1230, draw the towers and noted on fol 9v of his famous scetchbook "I have been in many lands [...] in no place did I ever see a tower such as that in Laon"
(for those of you wishing to see the full scetchbook, here's the link to the gallica digitization project of the BnF)

Villard de Honnecourt, scetchbook, Laon
Villard de Honnecourt, scetchbook, Paris, BN Ms.fr.19093, fol.9v-10r (Source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF)

The current cathedral is at least the third known building at that site. We know of a Caroligian Cathedral consecrated 800 in the presence of Charlemagne which was replaced by a romanesque cathedral under bishop Elinand (1052-1095). Only after the romanesque cathedral had burnt down during a revolt of the citizens of Laon in 1112, the present church was begun shortly after 1155 under bishop Gautier de Mortagne (1155-1174) to replace the older singed building including its provisionary repair works. The campaign progressed well, starting in the east with the original polygonal choir, followed by the transept and the nave which was completed at about 1180. The facade was erected between 1180 and 1200/10 after the square west of the church building had been bought in 1178/80. 1205 the chapter received the donation of a stone pit in Chermizy which seems to be related to the enlargement of the choir in the years 1205/15. The completion of the transept towers by 1230/35 marks the end of the medieval buildign campaign.


The facade of Laon cathedral is reckoned to be a masterpiece of balanced design and innovation. It is the oldest example of a visually integrated facade design that became the quasi standard for most church facades to follow. For the first time ever the western butresses have been completely concealed within the mural structure resulting in horizontal layers rather than a middlepart flanked by two towers such as, e.g., in Chartres. Beginning with the deep porches of the portals the facade also gains a unique plasticity which is intensified by the majestic rose window of 1210 dominating the central storey. Overlapping forms connect every storey to the slightly recessing next higher level of the facade, providing the ensemble with a stagelike presence. The gables as well as the pinnacles sitting on the buttresses flanking the porches both increase in height towards the central axis, creating an upward dynamics that culminates once again in the rose window.

The Towers

The towers sit on the bell storey whose small arcades mediate between the large window openings of the rose storey and the narrower tower openings. Also there's a change of direction towards the tower helmet showing an octogonal ground plan. The highest levels of the two towers display the famous 16 oxen peeping out between the slender columns of the corner turrets.
The iconographical meaning of the oxen has been the subject of controversial debates for decades and still there's no consensus amongst the scholars. What seems to me the most likely explanation is a legend bequeathed by Guibert de Nogent (ca. 1055 - 1125): During the repair work following the fire of 1112 one of the oxen who was pulling a cart with construction material broke down and died. Before the herder could even think about what to do another ox came galopping by, harnessed himself and started pulling. Then he disappeared before the herder was able to thank the brave animal.


When the new choir of Laon Cathedral was finished around 1215 the building ranked among the largest churches of its time. Extending to an overall length of 118m and a clear height of 24m, it was only surpased by the episcopal churches of Sens (122m/24m, finished after 1184) and Paris (128m/32m, after 1210).
The four storey elevation of the church interior is clearly reflected in the external layout of nave and choir, the sole difference being the slighty larger size and more ornate tracery of the younger choir chapel windows. The buttresses are modest, seeking the proximity of the building and not displaying any pinnacles. The protruding transept streches particularly wide, ending in a two storey chapel on each side. The chapels in turn protrude the transept to an overall length of 30 m thus creating the impression of churches within the church. On the outside they are distinguished by a three storey apse with buttresses.
Comparing the photographs taken back in 1988 and those of 2014 it is uplifting to see how much the building benefited from the restauration work undertaken since 2000 and still on its way when we visited the cathedral 26 years later.

The Portals

Despite their fragmented preservation the sculptures of Laon Cathedral are the most important ensemble of northern French statuary at the turn of the century (Sauerländer). Following the devastation of the French Revolution all jamb statues had disappeared and tympanum reliefs, archivolt statues as well as gable adornements were severly damaged. The lintel of the central portal even had been removed before the revolution in order to give way to a wider entrance. Today's appearance is the result of the vast 1853 restauration campaign. Luckily plaster casts of the tympana and lintels of the side portals had been made before the restauration (today at the Musée des Monuments Francais in Paris). Together with old photographies they provide a good impression of the extraordinary artistic quality of the Laon sculptures. The only original parts still in sitù are the archivolt figures.
The inconographic program runs as follows:
Central portal - tympanum showing the coronation of the Virgin following the scheme established in Senlis (1160s), the archivolts displaying angels, a tree of Jesse and prophets.
Northern portal - tympanum showing the enthroned Mother of God with Jesus, attended by an angel, Joseph and the Magi, to which the lintel adds announciation, nativity and the announciation to the shepherds. The archivolts display Mary and the Holy Spirit, virtues and vices, prefigurations of Mary's virginity. This is the earliest known example of such a vast Marian typology within the context of a church portal.
Southern portal - tympanum showing the last judgement, the lintel adds the segregation of the blessed and the condemned.


Laon Cathedral displays a remarkable regularity in its four storey elevation throughout. The evenness of the elevation is reflected in the cylindrical pilars which omit alternating supports. The wall is being rhythmicized however using a sixpartite vaulting as well as three and five shafts by turns, that connect to the corresponding ribs of the vault. The whole appearance reflects the simplicity of the reform movement, which also shows in the fine but austere capitals and the flat choir (There's no need, as Kimpel/Suckale have convincingly pointed out, to derive this form from English churches as it had a regional tradition as a modesty topos as well).


The Literature on Laon Cathedral is vast and I am giving here only a few. A comprehensive list is provided by Dany Sandron (op.cit).
On the history of the romanesque cathedral see Suzanne Martinet's article "Elinand, évêque de Laon méconnu (1052–1098)", published in Mémoires de la Fédération des sociétés d'histoire et d'archéologie de l'Aisne, vol.36 (1991), p.58–78, esp.73-77 (Link). A nice summary of the historical facts is provided by Werner Schäffke, Frankreichs gotische Kathedralen, Cologne (4)1986, p.98-103.
Willibald Sauerländer's great book Gotische Skulptur in Frankreich 1140-1270, Munich 1970, p. 108-111, Pl.68-71, Fig.48-52 still is a valuable read on the sculpture of Laon.

Regarding architecture I relied mostly on Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, Die gotische Architektur in Frankreich 1130-1270, Munich 1985, p.193-210 and Dany Sandron, Picardie gothique. Autour de Laon et Soissons. L'architecture religieuse, Paris 2001.