‘Town of a hundred steeples,’ Victor Hugo once wrote about Rouen. Today there are still no less than 30 active Rouennais churches, of which four stand out: Notre Dame de Rouen Cathedral, the St. Ouen Abbey Church, the Saint Maclou Church and the Ste. Jeanne Church—each remarkable for different reasons.
The most renowned, of course, is Notre Dame de Rouen Cathedral, for several reasons. Begun in the middle of the 12thcentury, it incorporates the base of a north tower in the west portal that is in the Romanesque style, contrasting remarkably both with its flamboyant (flame-like) Gothic crown, and the even more flamboyant Gothic south tower, which is known as the butter tower. That name derives from its financing through the sale of indulgences to parishioners who wished to skip Lent. The contrast by itself is dramatic, and so is the 151-meter spire that rises from the cross of the cathedral. From 1886 to 1880, it was the world’s tallest structure!
Paralleling its remarkable architecture are the tombs of three remarkably important persons to be found in the choir: Rollo (the first Duke of Normandy), William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy and King of England), and Richard the Lion-Heart (King of England and Duke of Normandy). Tombs of less famous but still notable persons also abound throughout the rest of the cathedral.
Not least of its distinctions is the fact that Claude Monet painted nearly 30 paintings of the cathedral’s west portal in different types of light, perceived at different times of day, weather and seasons. Seeing it at different times is an instructive way to enter the master’s mind and behold both his intentions and to appreciate his talent.
When many people see the church of the St. Ouen abbey, they mistake it for the cathedral, such is its size and visual impact. Indeed, the Benedictine abbey of which it was a part was one of the most important in France. The dormitory of the monks was substantial enough that, after the French Revolution, it was taken over and converted to what is still today the city hall of Rouen.
Work on the St. Ouen Church began in 1318 and was mostly completed in the 15thcentury, imparting a primarily flamboyant appearance. One of its most distinctive features is the extraordinary amount of light that suffuses its interior. Its most famous resident is a large organ built by Aristide Cavaillé Coll in 1890, which is among the largest and most powerful organs in France.
Tucked away in the small Barthélémy plaza and surrounded by many of the half-timbered buildings for which Rouen is renowned, the flamboyant Saint Maclou Church holds several distinctions: it is probably the flashiest of flamboyant Gothic structures in France, and it sports a very unusual five portal west entrance, surpassing the usual three portals that were derived from ancient Roman structures and which served as the model for most Gothic church entrances.
Many churches were built to demonstrate the wealth and good taste of the parish each was intended to serve. St. Maclou is one of those. It has a spire that does not challenge the cathedral spire’s height, but it is still impressive. The décor inside echoes the grim realities of a near-by neighbour of the church, the Saint Maclou charnel house, where victims of bubonic plague (the black death) were brought to breathe their last.
Rouen’s odd-ball church is one devoted to Joan of Arc. Erected next to the site of her pyre in the Old Market Square, it was completed in 1979. It is said to have the appearance of an upside-down ship, which is further said to be a common feature of early Christian churches, which were often built by naval carpenters. Others compare its sweeping lines to the flames that consumed the saint. Perhaps you can accept those explanations, but they do not sit well with me.
I am of the opinion that Joan is perhaps the most enigmatic and inspiring person in French history. No-one has ever come close to explaining how a young woman with no apparent experience or connection to military affairs managed to lead several thousand poorly paid, untrained and poorly-armed Frenchmen to victory over vastly superior, well-equipped, well-paid and battle-hardened English forces.
That she accomplished that not once nor twice, but repeatedly is one of the true mysteries of French and European history. I find it sad that her commemoration next to the place where she perished is as whimsical and lacking in reverence as it appears to be. That there is a covered market incorporated into the structure of her church seems to me to add insult to injury. You do not need to be Catholic to understand that Joan merits better than that.