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French Gothic - Examples

( Originally Published 1921 )


The unique position occupied by cathedrals in the general social and civic life of Mediaeval times, which is nowhere more pronounced than in France, has been described in the chapter on Gothic architecture in Europe (p. 307). It is important here to remember that the original use and intention of these national monuments was so different from their modern function, which has become purely religious and ecclesiastical, that it is impossible for the reader to appreciate their meaning and value without bearing in mind this wider aspect of old French cathedrals at the time of their building, when there were practically no other public meeting-places. French cathedrals, about 150 in number, were erected in the first half of the thirteenth century out of funds provided chiefly by the laity, and as they did not originate as part of monastic establishments they differ considerably from most English cathedrals in purpose and consequently in plan and design (p. 457). The situation and surroundings of the cathedrals of France also form a marked contrast with those of England ; for French cathedrals were a part of the life of the townspeople and jostled their houses shoulder to shoulder, and were not, as they generally were in England, set apart in a secluded close (p. 309). Browning refers to that-

"Grim town,
Whose cramp'd, ill-featured streets huddled about
The minster for protection, never out
Of its black belfry's shade and its bells' roar."

Furthermore, these national churches, by means of the painted glass of the interior and the statuary of the exterior, served the citizens as an illustrated Bible when few could read, as has been already described under Gothic architecture in Europe (p. 307).

Notre Dame, Paris (A.D. 1163–1235) (pp. 437, 438 A, B, 461 C, E, F), one of the oldest of French Gothic cathedrals, was begun by Bishop Maurice de Sully.' The plan, which either by accident or intention is on a bent axial line, is typical, has wide nave and double aisles, transepts of small projection practically in a line with the aisles, and a notable chevet, the earliest of its kind, with double aisles and surrounding chapels between the buttresses. The choir, transepts, and two bays of the nave were completed in A.D. 1196, while the nave was completed in A.D. 1208 when the west facade was started. The impressive, though sombre interior has a nave arcade with cylindrical columns and Corinthianesque capitals carrying pointed arches and shafts to support the ribs of the lofty sexpartite vaulting. The high triforium was surmounted by an upper triforium with circular windows, which were removed in order to introduce taller clear-story windows, but the circular windows next the crossing were reinstated by Viollet-le-Duc (p. 437 A). The wide-spreading western facade (p. 438 A) is probably the finest and most characteristic in France, and served as a model for many later churches. It has three deeply recessed portals with successive encircling tiers of statued niches, and the central doorway is divided by a pillar with a statue of Christ, while above and across this stretches a band of statues of the kings of France. This is surmounted by a central wheel window of great beauty, 42 ft. in diameter, flanked by high coupled windows, over which again a pierced arcaded screen stretches across the facade in front of the nave roof and connecting the two western towers, which have high pointed louvred openings. It is a facade of distinctly harmonious composition and peculiarly suitable to the flat island site from which it rises alone in its impressiveness, without aid from surroundings and position ; although it has lost some dignity by the removal of the flight of steps which formed a base. The lateral facades are unimposing by reason of the chapels, wedged in between the buttresses (A.D. 1296), which obscure the original design. The east end, however, presents a fairylike appearance with slender flying buttresses and chevet chapels which, with the gabled transepts and delicate soaring fleche, backed by the western towers, form one of the most striking of cathedral groups.

Laon Cathedral (A.D. 1160-1205), a Latin cross in plan, was rebuilt in the early French Gothic style. The nave has an arcade of circular columns with varied Corinthianesque capitals and square abaci to carry pointed arches and shafts to support the ribs of the sexpartite vaulting. The triforium gallery has a high, slightly pointed enclosing arch over two smaller pointed arches resting on a central column ; above this and under the clear-story windows is a second triforium gallery, as at Noyon, thus dividing the nave into four storeys instead of the usual three. The boldly projecting transepts have later two-storeyed chapels, outside the original plan (p. 461 G) . The sanctuary is peculiar in being rectangular as in England, instead of apsidal, due to the influence of an English bishop who held the see in the twelfth century. The great west facade is an architectural masterpiece, with three boldly projecting porches, emphasised by gables and turrets and a central rose window surmounted by blind arcading. Two open traceried towers, square below and octagonal above, form a setting for the so-called miraculous oxen, said to have carted the building stone up the rocky rampart on which stands the great cathedral, which reflects in its style the independent spirit of the citizens. If completed, it would have been a still more striking composition, with two western towers, two towers over each transept, and a central tower—a seven-towered building.

Soissons Cathedral (A.D. 1160-1212), the church of a royal abbey of monks and nuns of high degree, is fully developed Early Gothic, even in the oldest part of the church, viz. the south transept, with apsidal end, clustered columns, narrow pointed arches and shafts which support the vaulting ribs, while the interior is divided into four storeys by the additional triforium.

Le Mans Cathedral is remarkable for an austere nave in the Romanesque style (twelfth century), and for the vast choir (A.D. 1220–54), which is said to be larger than the whole Cathedral of Soissons. It has nave, double aisles, and a notable chevet, with thirteen chapels of unusual projection, of which there is an excellent view from the open space outside the city.

Bourges Cathedral (A.D. 1190–1275) (pp. 441, 460 A), ultra-French in type, is remarkable for the absence of transepts and for shortness in pro-portion to width, and it has a general resemblance in plan to Notre Dame, Paris ; while the nave has triforium, clear-story, and sexpartite vault, 125 ft. high (p. 441 c). The double aisles, in different heights, are unique in France, resembling Milan Cathedral (pp. 501 D, 496 B). The exterior presents an imposing appearance owing to its uniform width, unbroken by transeptal projections, while the west facade, 18o ft. wide, flanked by towers, has five portals approached by a fine flight of steps. The principal portal (p. 441 B) has double semicircular-headed doorways, with deeply recessed jambs and trefoil wall arcading, surmounted by richly canopied niches, and those on the right side still contain statues. A wide-spreading pointed arch spans the whole, in six rings, each filled with saints in canopied niches, and the tympanum has an elaborately sculptured " Last Judgment "—all surmounted by a steep gable enclosing a wheel window and niches. The exterior from the east end reveals a picturesque confusion of innumerable double flying buttresses over the aisles, with pinnacles and other features (p. 441 A) ; while the thirteenth-century stained-glass windows are amongst the finest in France.

Chartres Cathedral (A.D. 1194–1260) (pp. 442, 461 B, 466 A, D, E, G, 460 E), which dominates the town, has an extensive and interesting crypt, a remnant of an earlier church, still used for pilgrimages to the shrine of the Vierge Noire. The plan has a short nave, strongly marked aisled transepts, each crowned with two towers, which, with the two western and two contemplated eastern towers and a central tower, would have made a magnificent pile of nine important towers. The unusual chevet is built above the crypt of the older church, while the spire (A.D. 1506) of the north tower is one of the most beautiful in Europe, and forms a contrast with the earlier one on the south (A.D. 1107). The interior (p. 442 B, c) has a fine nave arcade of circular piers with four shafts, low arcaded triforium surmounted by a clear-story of two-light pointed windows, all crowned with a quadripartite vault, 106 ft. high, in oblong bays—probably the first example in which the square bay was abandoned. The cathedral is remarkable, even in France, for the wonderful thirteenth-century stained glass of its one hundred and thirty windows, and for the profusion of fine sculptured figures in the doorways of the west front and in the triple porches of the north (p. 465 D, E) and south transepts. These famous figures, though somewhat archaic and stiff, are more ambitious than any previous French statuary. The flying buttresses are in three arches one above another, the two lower of which are connected by radiating balusters resembling the spokes of a wheel.

Rheims Cathedral (A.D. 1212–41) (pp. 445, 446) owes its general arrangement to its purpose as the coronation church of the kings of France ; for the nave and aisles of the western arm are broadened out in the eastern arm into a nave and double aisles, so as to include the projecting transepts and thus give space for coronation ceremonies ; while the chevet has a ring of five chapels (p. 445 A, C, G), similar to Westminster Abbey, the design of which was largely inspired by this building (p. 353 D). The western facade, more ornate than that of Notre Dame, Paris, has the usual recessed portals exquisitely carved with some five hundred statues ; the tympana are occupied by rose windows instead of sculpture, and each is framed in by five rings of statues and enclosed by richly ornamented gables, of which the central one contains the group of the Coronation of the Virgin (p. 446). Above the central portal is the magnificent rose window, 40 ft. in diameter, flanked by high traceried openings ; while in the upper stage, instead of the open arcade of Notre Dame, is a band of tabernacled statues of the kings of France, above which rise the two lofty western towers enriched with angle turrets and originally surmounted by spires. The interior (p. 445 B) gives one an impression of vast space, and is grand in the extreme, with its nave arcade of clustered piers (p. 445 J) supporting pointed arches, surmounted by shallow triforium, lofty clear-story (p. 445 D), and fine intersecting vault, 125 ft. above the floor, while in the distance is seen the chevet with its columns. Flying buttresses, over single aisles in the nave (p. 445 E) and over double aisles at the east end (p. 301 E), show how the thrust of the vault is transmitted by arches to piers weighted by pinnacles and statuary. This great cathedral, which was the shrine of religion, the pride of France and a treasure house of art, was long subjected by the German army (A.D. 1914—18) to assault and mutilation unparalleled in the history of any war.

Amiens Cathedral (A.D. 1220—88) (pp. 451 A, 459 B, 461 A, 462 C, H, 465 H), designed by Robert de Luzarches, is generally regarded as the typical French cathedral plan, 450 ft. long and 150 ft. wide internally, with slightly projecting transepts, and a chevet with seven chapels. The side chapels between the buttresses are later additions. The noble interior, which has cylindrical columns with four attached smaller columns, is 140 ft. high to the stone vaulting (p. 301 F). The great glory of this Cathedral—the " Bible of Amiens "—is the wonder of its carved wood-work in the choir stalls, which breaks away from studied lines and soars above like the branches of living trees. Other cathedrals are glorious without in sculptured stone, but Amiens is also lovely within, in carved wood. The western facade is one of the noblest among the wonderful facades in France, and with its serried ranks of statues somewhat resembles Notre Dame and Rheims. The central western doors are separated by one of the noblest of sculptured figures in the world, the " Beau Dieu d'Amiens." The ridge of the external wooden roof is over 200 ft. above the ground. The upper flying buttresses have only one aisle to span (p. 301 D). The tall timber fleche (p. 462 c, H) rises more than 150 ft. above the roof ridge, and forms the crowning feature of this beautiful church.

Bayeux Cathedral (c. A.D. 1150) is remarkable for its twenty-two chapels and immense crypt under the sanctuary, dating from the eighth to the eleventh century.

Noyon Cathedral (A.D. 1157—1228) combines the German triapsal plan and the French chevet, and has a large vaulted triforium.

Coutances Cathedral (A.D. 1254—74) (p. 451 B), on its dominating hill site, is famous for the two western towers and spires, and the beautiful octagonal lantern over the crossing of nave and transepts.

Rouen Cathedral (A.D. 1202—20) (p. 460 c), with its double-storeyed nave arcade and three beautiful towers, Evreux Cathedral (A.D. 1119–1531) (p. 460 B), Troyes Cathedral (A.D. 1214–fifteenth century), grand and wide with five aisles, ancient choir, chevet, and decorated west facade, and Dol Cathedral, a massive pile in the wide-sweeping street, are other interesting cathedrals. S. Urbain, Troyes (A.D. 1262) (p. 462 E), small and exquisite with triple porches ; S. Pierre, Caen (A.D. 1308), with its bold turreted tower, and S. Sauveur, Caen (c. A.D. 1400), with twin naves—both with soaring spires ; and S. Pierre, Lisieux, raised high on its approaching steps, are some among the crowd of wonderful churches which make the church fame of Normandy.

The Sainte Chapelle, Paris (A.D. 1244–47), built by S. Louis, in which the space between the buttresses is occupied by windows, 15 ft. wide and 50 ft. high, is often quoted as a typical Gothic structure. The plan (p. 459 D) was in size similar to that of S. Stephen, Westminster (p. 459 c), which was ruined by fire, and demolished for the rebuilding of Westminster Palace. It has a richly vaulted crypt, and such characteristic French features as the apsidal termination and high stone-vaulted roof.

Beauvais Cathedral (A.D. 1225–1568) (p. 449) was never completed beyond the choir (with chevet) and transepts (p. 449 G), and the site of the proposed nave is partly occupied by the Romanesque church known as the " Basse OEuvre." The roof fell (A.D. 1284), and the choir was reconstructed and strengthened by additional piers (A.D. 1337-47), and in the sixteenth century the transepts were built. There was an open-work spire, 500 ft. high, over the crossing, which collapsed in A.D. 1573, partly because there was no nave to buttress it on the west. The building is of extreme height, 157 ft. 6 ins. to the vault—the loftiest in Europe—and about three and a half times its span. This soaring pile is perhaps the most daring achievement in Gothic architecture, and has been regarded as one of the wonders of Mediaeval France. The structure is held together internally only by a network of iron tie-rods, which suggest that these ambitious builders had attempted more than they could properly achieve, while flying buttresses (p. 449 B, D), in three tiers and of immense thickness, take the vault thrust. The polygonal chevet has seven encircling chapels (p. 449 A, c), and the rich stained-glass windows (p. 449 E) are of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and sixteenth centuries. The south transept facade (p. 449 B), now denuded of statues, is an ornate design in the Flamboyant style, even excelling the western fronts of many cathedrals, and the carved wooden doors are masterpieces of Gothic and Renaissance workmanship.

S. Ouen, Rouen (A.D. 1318–1515) (pp. 460 D, 461 H), of which the choir (A.D. 1318–39) is contemporary with that of Cologne ; S. Maclou, Rouen (A.D. 1432–1500), probably the richest Flamboyant example in France ; S. Jacques, Dieppe (A.D. 1350–1440), and S. Vulfrand, Abbeville (A.D. 1488–1534) are later examples in the north of France, mostly in the Flamboyant style.

Strassburg Cathedral (A.D. 1250–90) (p. 450) has a fine Gothic nave which was added to the Romanesque choir and transepts (A.D. 1179). The beautiful western facade has a recessed portal (p. 450 c), richly carved, as is usual in France, surmounted by an open-work gable and tracery in two planes, above which is a rose window, 42 ft. in diameter, flanked with double traceried windows and two western towers, one of which terminates in an open-work spire, 466 ft. high, erected in A.D. 1439. The north door-way (p. 450 D) has a crown of triple gables, and pierced parapets with intersecting mouldings. Like many an English cathedral it is the outcome of four centuries of work, and one generation succeeded another in adding its part to this triumphal expression of devotional art, which now happily again takes its place among the religious monuments of France:

In the south of France there are fewer churches of the Middle Ages, partly because of the number erected in the Romanesque period, and they differ from northern churches in plan and design, owing to the proximity and influence of Roman buildings.

S. Sernin, Toulouse (A.D. 1096) is five-aisled, but the western portion and the storeyed octagonal tower belong to the Gothic period.

Albi Cathedral (A.D. 1282–1512) (pp. 451 C, D, 460 F), a fortress-church, consists of a large impressive vaulted hall (59 ft. wide), which is the widest in France, with an apsidal end, a series of flanking chapels separated by internal buttresses, and an unrivalled fifteenth-century rood screen.

The Church of the Cordeliers, Toulouse (A.D. 1350), partially destroyed in A.D. 1871, was another example of this type, and has some similarity in plan with King's College Chapel, Cambridge (p. 383). Angers Cathedral (twelfth century) and Poitiers Cathedral (A.D. 116o) are other notable churches of this period.


France is rich in many types of secular Gothic buildings. There is a tendency to think that Gothic architecture was confined to churches, but the style of the period was employed for all buildings alike, whether domestic, military, civil, or ecclesiastical, although the purpose naturally influenced the design.

Carcassonne and Aigues Mortes are conspicuous among the fortified towns in the Gothic style. They have inner and outer walls fortified with towers, dating from the thirteenth century, which still give an idea of a Mediaeval fortress-town, entered through fortified gateways jealously guarded by machicolations, drawbridge, and portcullis. -

Avignon, although the moat has been filled up, is still encircled by machicolated walls and towers (p. 452 D). The town contains the imposing castle with its cliff-like walls, which was the headquarters of the popes from A.D. 1307-77. The famous Pont d'Avignon, with its midway chapel (A.D. 1185), was thrown across the river by the Freres Pantiles, or guild of bridge-builders, to connect the town with Villeneuve.

Mont S. Michel, dating from the thirteenth century and much restored by Viollet-le-Duc, was a fortified monastery rather than a town ; but within the circuit of its walls are secular as well as monastic buildings ; while encrusted on the centre rock is the world-famous pile of the monastery in three storeys, with the so-called " Merveille " and the fascinating " Salle de Chevaliers."


Castles were generally built on mounds above rivers to command valleys, and had thick walls and small windows to resist attack, and thus they present a very different appearance from Gothic cathedrals, with their large traceried windows and forests of flying buttresses. Many castles were pulled down or adapted to make more convenient residences in the Renaissance period, and there are many such castles along the historic River Loire.

The Chateau de Pierrefonds (A.D. 1396) (p. 452 c), restored by Violletle-Duc, gives an admirable idea of other castles of this period. It stands on a rocky height above the village, and its cliff-like walls, 20 ft. thick, rise sheer from the ground, and, like the eight massive round towers, are protected with machicolations and battlemented parapets which surround the buildings grouped round an irregular courtyard, while the entrance is guarded by a drawbridge over the moat.


These are few, as there was little municipal life under the feudal system, and in this France differed from Flanders and Italy. Communal business seems to have been carried on in the market-place or even in churches and cloisters.

The Hotel de Ville, Arras, has an open arcade under a large hall lit by pointed traceried windows, and a characteristically steep roof, containing three storeys of dormer windows ; while the giant belfry rises 250 ft. above the ground ; but all is now in ruins from German bombardment.

The Hotel de Ville, Bourges, was distinguished externally by a Flamboyant tower (p. 455 c) ornamented with tracery, crockets, sculptured figures and windows, and internally the chimney-piece is unusually fine, even for this period (p. 455 F).

The Hotel de Ville, Dreux (A.D. 1537), retains the resemblance to a square donjon with pyramidal roof, and the Hotel de Ville, Compiegne (fifteenth century), is another beautiful example of civic architecture, with mullioned windows, traceried parapet, and central tower, which has also been subjected to German bombardment.


These were originally the great halls in which kings and nobles dispensed justice to their vassals, while ecclesiastical courts dealt with matrimonial cases and laws of inheritance ; but towns with charters eventually obtained their own magistrates. The Palais de Justice, Rouen (A.D. 1493–1508) (pp. 455 B, 456 B), is an exceedingly rich specimen of French municipal architecture and is eloquent of the importance of this old city of the Norman kings. The magnificent hall (135 ft. by 57 ft.), rivalling the Guildhall, London, in size, occupies one side of the building, and has a fine pointed timber roof ; while from the centre of the group rises the tower with traceried windows. The late Gothic facades are crowned with a steep roof and dormer windows—all rather over-restored in A.D. 1876.


The " Maisons Dieu " were attached to monasteries or provided in cities for the treatment of the sick, and for distribution of alms to travellers and pilgrims. The Hospital, Beaune (A.D. 1443), still in use, has a spacious hall with beds along the walls. There are old timber galleries round a courtyard for open-air treatment, thus forecasting modern sanatoria. The gabled roofs, in coloured tiles, have dormer windows with barge-boards and tall finials, while a stair-turret in the angle of the court completes the quaint setting of this quiet enclosed space.


On the introduction of gunpowder, and with the development of the new social order in the fifteenth century, country houses took the place of fortified castles, though they were still called " chateaux." The Chateau d'O, Mortree (p. 455 A), and the Chateau de Chateaudun (rebuilt A.D. 1441) are both stately mansions rather than castles. The Chateau de Blois (east wing) (A.D. 1498–1515) is notable for its fine gateway with double entrance to the court, around which later buildings were added (p. 631). The Gothic spiral staircase of Louis XII (p. 455 E) was undoubtedly the model for the marvellous staircase of Francis I of the early Renaissance period (p. 631). The Chateau de Josselin, Brittany (p. 456 A), although dating from the twelfth century, was rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, and with its circular towers, ogee door-heads, mullioned windows, traceried parapet, and steep roof with dormer windows, forms a picturesque group typical of so many others scattered throughout France.


The " maisons nobles " began to rise in the fifteenth century when French nobles ceased to be merely feudal lords in fortified castles, and erected houses, known to this day as " hotels," planned, as in the country, round a court and with an elaborate facade to the street. The House of Jacques Coeur, Bourges (A.D. 1443) (p. 452 A), is undoubtedly the finest Mediaeval town residence in France. It was built by a merchant prince, partly on the town ramparts, round a central court and has seven turret stairs. The Hotel du Bourgtheroulde, Rouen (A.D. 1475) well exemplifies this type of town house, with its enclosed court surrounded by facades somewhat resembling the Palais de Justice in the same city. The English Embassy, Dijon (fifteenth century), was one of the great town houses of this period. The central court contains an angle turret stair with newel branching into a richly carved head ; while the street facade has some fine figures carved in wood. The Hotel de Cluny, Paris (A.D. 1485) —now a museum—retains its Mediaeval character almost intact, and is a fine specimen of late Gothic. The Chapel (p. 455 H), as seen from the court behind the museum, stands above an arcade which supports on its central pier an oriel window of pleasing proportions with Flamboyant tracery, crockets, and finials.

Smaller domestic buildings still exist as in Cluny, where doors and windows are of the later Romanesque type ; while in S. Lo (p. 455 J), Lisieux, Caen (p. 455 D), Chartres, Beauvais (p. 455 G), and Rouen there are timber houses with carved barge-boards and overhanging storeys to give more room, due to the confined space within the town walls ; but a large number have succumbed to the ravages of time and fire.

Market halls, fortified farm houses, and great timber barns all reveal the development of country life in Old France.

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