Notre Dame De Rouen: The Test of Time
When I was a little girl, my parents took me to visit the Little Brown Church in Nashua, Iowa. The church was built during the Civil War (makes sense, given the uptick in prayer around that time), and it still stands today. I felt immensely excited to explore a building that greeted humans all the way back in 1862. I marveled at the candle-lit, cozy space, imagining the decades’ worth of things that had transpired there. The weddings, funerals, family gatherings, baptisms, prayers, tears, and laughter. Even as a little girl, I felt such strong ripples of history inside that church. It was the oldest building I had ever stood in…
…Until I went to New York City about fifteen years later. There, I visited St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity which was built in 1766. Back then, it was the tallest building in New York. Alexander Hamilton (“we are waiting in the wings for youuuuu!”) drilled troops on the lawn for the American Revolution. George Washington visited the church on his inauguration day, and he frequented St. Paul’s when New York served as the nation’s capital. While I stood in that building and looked out the window, my head spun at how the view must have changed over the years. What must it have looked like when George Washington, sitting in his pew (preserved still today), stared out that exact same pane, turning his wheels about our new nation’s trials?
Old buildings, particularly churches, just have a thing for me. An energy. Although many old churches are quiet and empty now, they provided centers for their townships back in the day. In addition to spiritual needs, churches met governmental needs, charitable needs, town meeting needs, and I’m sure plenty of directional needs (“yeah, just hang a right at the church and tie your horse off nearby”). All that activity leaves quite a stamp on the historical energy timeline, so I find churches are excellent little time portals, allowing me to slip into the shoes of those past generations (you can learn more about my obsession with that here). And until my thirties, St. Paul’s remained the oldest building I had ever set foot in.
Then I visited Europe. One thing the old world certainly boasts over the new is preserved history. In America, real estate moves in and the history goes out. Although they do exist, it’s hard to find buildings much older than sixty or seventy years. Standing in a building that existed during the Revolution is quite an exceptional treat.
In Europe, it’s almost laughable (who am I kidding? It’s completely laughable). And for someone who likes old churches, Europe was an absolute gold mine of ornate, beautifully carved, astounding works of churchy art, all housing centuries of history inside. These churches had things from time periods I never thought I’d come in contact with. Tombs from the Crusades. Scrolls predating printing presses. Architecture from the Middle Ages. Robes worn by some of the earliest priests and bishops.
Rouen in particular knocked my history nerd socks off in the church department. Especially Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen. I got interested in the place because my husband told me a king’s heart was buried there. Not like, a carving or statue of a king’s heart – an actual King’s heart (King Richard I – or Richard the Lionheart, who ruled England in 1189 until his death in 1199). Between that and the fantastic architecture, we braved the uncharacteristically hundred-degree heat that summer, and we made our way towards the big cathedral. And I do mean big cathedral. It was the biggest church I’d ever seen, dwarfing any mere mortal who stood before it. It was so big I didn’t have the right lens on my camera to fully capture it.
The same might be said about the history. When I entered Notre Dame de Rouen, I picked up a guidebook to direct me through the labyrinths of sweeping corridors, tombs, stained glass works, and historical artifacts. When I opened to the “brief history” page, my jaw almost went to the floor. “Brief” didn’t seem like the right word to describe a church that had seedlings sprouting all the way back to the third century.
Back then, Notre Dame de Rouen started as a private home donated for worship in the Christian religion’s earliest days, with a double basilica later built on the site. In 396 A.D. (I mean seriously….) a bishop of Rouen erected an official church building and linked it with the original structure. All was well until 911 A.D., when Vikings came knocking about and ransacked the entire site. That’s right. Vikings.
Although parts of those original structures survive today, they are mostly underground. In 1000 A.D., the son of Duke Richard I had the entire church rebuilt upon those ruins. This “new” version was slightly more impressive than the previous, with a massive cathedral design that didn’t differ much from the church we know today. It would actually serve as a prototype for many European churches to come. When builders completed it in 1063, some random gentleman named Duke William attended the church’s dedication. Like the sanctuary he stood in, he too would build a name to last through the ages…
While the site itself did last for centuries, only the crypt of this era’s cathedral remains. Because it wasn’t until the later Middle Ages that churches were really built to last. The present Notre Dame de Rouen took shape in 1145 A.D., ushering in the age of Gothic Cathedrals. This time, people figured out that strong internal structures and roofing designs would keep the cathedral standing a lot longer. You know, in case of any more Vikings. Builders reinforced the cathedral with a system known as rib vaulting. I’m no architect, but the basic idea is building a firm inner structure to support the outer, more ornate part of the building. Giving the church a skeleton, you might say.
Cathedral Rouen’s vaulting system got its first major bench test in 1200, when a fire broke out and ripped through the city. While most of the buildings in the community burned, the cathedral suffered only minor damage. So little that the master builder just shrugged his shoulders and continued his work once the smoke cleared.
I mean, I can’t really blame him for putting his head down and powering through. The task before him was a behemoth. Thanks to pesky interruptions like natural disasters and wars, it didn’t see completion until 1250.
But a work of art is never truly finished. Through the rest of the 1200s and into the 1300s, builders added ample embellishments such as extra spires, wider, more ornate stained-glass, and choir lofts. Which is neat, if you think about it. It’s like each generation gave this massive structure its own little bit of flare. And all while France and England descended into mass chaos with religious revolutions and the Hundred Years War. Then came the countless lightning strikes, storm damages, and other acts of God that picked away at the cathedral bit by bit.
Through the 1400s, builders and designers struggled to keep up with the crumbling carvings and decaying center pieces. More towers went up, the main door was demolished and reinforced, and the gorgeous rose window came in the late 1400s. In 1514, some careless workers accidentally set one of the spires ablaze, and that too had to be rebuilt.
As mankind left the Renaissance and crept towards a more modern and enlightened(ish) era, they still couldn’t shake off one of the biggest curses. War continued to wreak havoc on Europe, and Notre Dame de Rouen took a lot of hits from that. The Reformation saw another ransacking of the Rouen Cathedral, the French Revolution exposed it to yet more upheaval, and the spire caught fire once again in 1822. Then the World Wars rolled through…
While Notre Dame de Rouen escaped World War I, World War II was a different story. A bombing in April of 1944 completely leveled large portions of the historic cathedral. The entire south aisle collapsed, the pillars supporting the spire saw massive structural damage, and many of the priceless glass windows didn’t survive. As if that wasn’t bad enough, another bombing set fire to the church on June 1st of the same year. The tour pamphlet stated of that fire – “Words fail one to tell the distress of the people of Rouen beholding such a disaster.” Well, as we all watched Notre Dame Paris burn on live television, I think we can agree with the sentiment. The wholesale destruction of a building so old is indeed heartbreaking, a true loss to history and time.
But humans, as much as we destroy things, also have immense talent and courage to build them back up. So the builders of Rouen got to work in restoring their beloved cathedral. The pamphlet states again – “The courage, faith, and craftsmanship of 20th century builders was, by no means, unequal to their fathers.” A short comment on the total dedication and back-breaking work that hundreds of people committed to restoring Notre Dame de Rouen to their war-battered populace. And in 1956, their efforts saw enormous success when the fully restored cathedral once again admitted worshippers for services, weddings, ceremonies, and other celebrations of resurrected life.
Whew…. That’s A LOT of history to pack into a few short paragraphs. When you step into a building that old, the same space that millions of people over hundreds of years have stood in, something takes hold. It isn’t just about the number of years that have passed between them and me, although that blew my mind on its own. It’s more about how similar we really are underneath it all. Like me, they too were frail humans with life dreams, hurts, and happiness. To think how many tears have washed that cathedral, how many knees have hit the floor in devastation, how many wedding trains have swept down the aisle, and how many songs of praise have echoed from the lofts. Each from a beating human heart, unique in its own sweet way.
And some very interesting people have walked those corridors at Notre Dame de Rouen. Some fought in famous battles, served on royal courts, and even wore crowns. A few of these figures reside there still. Like William the Long Sword (there’s a name) who ruled Normandy from 927 until his assassination in 942. Henry the Younger, one of the only English kings to be coronated while his father (Henry II) still lived, also has a tomb in Notre Dame de Rouen. Which is interesting, since his brother was Richard the Lion Heart, whose heart we went to the cathedral to see. The cathedral also holds the tomb of Georges I of Amboise, a Rouen cardinal and prime minister figure of the 1400s, who oversaw the construction of Rouen’s famous “butter tower.” Pierre de Breze, a famous French soldier and royal counselor of the early 1400s, is entombed in the cathedral too.
In the hundreds of years it has existed, Notre Dame de Rouen has seen some incredible faces, and it has endured an awful lot. Each generation has presented its own challenge to that ornate and beautiful building, yet it still stands tall over the city of Rouen. It still welcomes every visitor into its charming embrace, handing out water to drip on your forehead, candles to light in the sanctuary, and quietly guarding all that precious human history. Perhaps thanks to that clever rib vault system, and the determination of builders over the centuries, Notre Dame de Rouen has withstood the test of time.
And you know what else has? Humans. We have been through an awful lot together, my friends. Especially in the last few months. Some of it is a painful reckoning with our own wrong doing, and some of it is just rotten bad luck. But like that mammoth cathedral, we are taking the punches, we are staying on our feet. We have built buildings to survive the centuries, and we can build a society that will too.
Take a walk down the vast, open aisles of Notre Dame de Rouen. Let those walls and vaults whisper to you. They have amazing stories to tell, even if you aren’t spiritually inclined. Let it remind you that each and every one of us is our own little cathedral. We can use this Pandemic trial and time of unrest as a chance to reinforce, to put in some lovely stained glass and some sturdy rib vaults. With the courage to rebuild, we can come out more beautiful and stronger on the other side.
Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen Visit
The Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen: a Guided Visit – A.M. Carment-Lanfry
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on France and Europe – click here