Notre Dame de Rouen

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Notre Dame de Rouen facade

With the Tour Saint Romain to the left and the Tour de Buerre to the right, the facade is an amazing set of towers, pinnacles, statues and porches. It is therefore no surprise that it was often painted by the impressionist Claude Monet. The painter composed a series of 28 paintings of the Western facade at different times of the day. The two tall towers contrast with other renowned cathedrals in France as they do not rise above the aisles, but at the sides. The Tour de Beurre (tower of butter) was erected towards the end of the 15th century. Its name derives from the word for butter which was banned during Lent. For those diocesans who hoped to escape this drastic religious rule, permission was given for them to keep on eating ‘fat’ in return for a donation of six deniers Tournois – which were used to pay for the erection of the tower. Note that the left tower does not match the later right “Tour de Buerre”.


A church was already present at the location in late 4th century, and eventually a cathedral was established in Rouen. It was enlarged by St. Ouen in 650 and visited by Charlemagne in 769. All the buildings were destroyed during a Viking raid in the 9th century, Rollo was baptized here in 915 and buried in 931 as was his son William Longsword in 942, Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) further enlarged it in 950, and his heart was buried here in 1199. Richard’s heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy, the entrails in Châlus (where he died) and the rest of his body was buried at the feet of his father at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.

Notre Dame de Rouen tomb of Rollo

Rollo (846 – 931), baptised Robert and so sometimes numbered Robert I to distinguish him from his descendants, was a Norse nobleman of Norwegian or Danish descent and founder and first ruler of the Viking principality in what soon became known as Normandy. His descendants were the Dukes of Normandy.

William Longsword

William I Longsword (900 – 942) was the second “Duke of Normandy” and son of Rollo. The title duke (dux) was not in use at the time and has been retrospectively applied to early Norman rulers. William was known at the time by the title count (comes) of Rouen.

Notre Dame de Rouen tomb of Richard the Lionheart

Richard I (1157 – 1199) was King of England from 1189 until his death. Although he only spoke French and spent very little time in England (he lived in his Duchy of Aquitaine in the southwest of France, preferring to use his kingdom as a source of revenue to support his armies), he was seen as a pious hero by his subjects. He remains one of the very few Kings of England remembered by his epithet (lionheart) rather than Richard I, and is an enduring, iconic figure in England and France.

Construction on the current building began in the 12th century in the Early gothic style for Saint Romain’s tower, front side porches and part of the nave. It was only finished in 1580 and was made famous by the light studies of Monet. The cathedral seems to have a long history of bad luck, it was struck by lightning in 1110, 1284, 1625, 1642 and 1822 and it had fires in 1200, 1514 and 1727 in addition to the damage in WW II.

Notre Dame de Rouen central portal

In the late 16th century the cathedral was badly damaged during the French Wars of Religion: the Calvinists damaged much of the furniture, tombs, stained-glass windows and statuary (note the headless and missing statues above the central portal). The cathedral was again struck by lightning in 1625 and 1642, then damaged by a hurricane in 1683, the wood-work of the choir burnt in 1727 and the bell broke in 1786. In the 18th century, the state nationalized the building and sold some of its furniture and statues to make money and the chapel fences were melted down to make guns.

Notre Dame de Rouen WWII

The spire was destroyed by lightning in 1822. The cathedral was named the tallest building (the lantern tower with the cast iron spire of the 19th century) in the world (151 m) from 1876 to 1880. In the 20th century, during World War II, the cathedral was bombed in April 1944. Seven bombs fell on the building, narrowly missing destroying a key pillar of the lantern tower, but damaging much of the south aisle and destroying two rose windows. One of the bombs did not explode.

Notre Dame de Rouen bullet damage

A second bombing (before the Normandy Landings in June 1944) burned the oldest tower, called the North Tower. During the fire the bells melted, leaving molten remains on the floor. In 1999, during a violent wind storm, a copper-clad wooden turret, which weighed 26 tons, fell into the church and damaged the choir. All over town, you can see pitting of the buildings from bullets as seen in the photo above.

Notre Dame de Rouen central nave

The interior is suitably awe inspiring as you can see in the photo above. It is still amazing to me that people built these cathedrals a thousand years ago.

Notre Dame de Rouen stained glass

The stained glass windows are beautiful, although some are missing from the tragedies of the past. Some windows are still decorated with stained glass of the 13th century, famous because of a special cobalt blue colour, known as “the blue from Chartres“.

Notre Dame de Rouen stained glass

A picture of the entire window does not do justice to the artisanship of the stained glass. It is like a fireworks dispay that just keeps going up into the air.

All the old stained-glass windows were taken down in 1939, at the start of the war, as a precaution to prevent them from being destroyed and were sent to the basements of the castle of Niorte. As in all the great Gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows play an essential role in Notre-Dame cathedral, Rouen. In this building, whose design dates back to the end of the twelfth century, each generation has sought, through stained glass, to enhance the complementary roles played by light and sacred images and by the harmony uniting the architecture and the stained glass windows.

Notre Dame de Rouen rose window

The remaining rose window, the others were destroyed in WW II.

Notre Dame de Rouen monks staircase

The staircase to the church library and archives and monks living quarters.

Notre Dame de Rouen organ

The cathedral had a strong musical tradition since the Middle Ages. Its choir was famous up to the French Revolution for singing from memory. The first major organist to work here was Jean Titelouze, the so-called father of the French organ school, who occupied the post of the titular organist in 1588–1633. Around 1600 in collaboration with the famous Franco-Flemish organ builder Crespin Carlier, Titelouze transformed the organ of the cathedral to one of the best instruments in France. Some 80 years later the legendary organ builder Robert Clicquot restored and enhanced the instrument. New organs were built by Merklin & Schütze (1858–60) and, after World War II, by Jacquot-Lavergne.

Notre Dame de Rouen lady chapel

One of the most famous attractions inside Rouen Cathedral is the Chapelle de la Vierge or “Lady Chapel”.

Notre Dame de Rouen statues

This is a line of statues that look as if they came from the outside of the cathedral.

Notre Dame de Rouen side

This is a view of the monks quarters (I think) from outdoors on the side of the cathedral.

Notre Dame de Rouen side exit

This is a lovely little courtyard housing a side exit.

Notre Dame de Rouen night view with moon

And finally this is the illuminated cathedral at night with the moon.