Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
The Cathedral of Sens

SAINT-ÉTIENNE (Stephen) of Sens is the first cathedral which is Gothic throughout (figs. 139-142); yet the ambulatory, the earliest part to be constructed, was not designed originally to have ribbed vaults. Construction may have been started as early as 1130, but certainly by 1140. Sens is located seventy-five miles southeast of Paris on the borders of Burgundy, Champagne, and the Île-de- France. Sens, a wealthy Roman capital, preserved its renown in the Middle Ages. The Archbishop of Sens had jurisdiction over the bishoprics of Chartres, Paris, Orléans, and others.

Archbishop Henry Sanglier ( 1122-1142), close friend of Saint Bernard, started the work on a new cathedral. No evidence exists concerning the progress by 1140, when throngs descended on Sens to witness the scheduled debate between Saint Bernard and Master Abélard on the essence of the Trinity. Likewise, no accounts reveal the status of the construction in 1152, when the momentous synod which resulted in the decree of separation of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine was held in Sens. But the choir of Sens was certainly finished by 1163, at which time the exiled Pope Alexander came there for a stay of eighteen months. On April 19, 1164, the Pope consecrated an altar in the choir.

The nave of Sens (fig. 139) was completed between 1175 and 1180. Many restorations and changes were carried out following the disastrous fire of 1184, which devastated much of the town and damaged the superstructure of the cathedral. The clerestory windows of the choir were enlarged and the outer sides of the vaults were heightened around 1230. At this time flying buttresses were added. Soon after 1310 the windows of the nave were increased in size. Three oval chapels were added to the simple ambulatory in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and elaborate Gothic transepts were built in the sixteenth century.

The main vessel of Sens consists of five square bays, three in the nave and two in the choir (figs. 139-142, 144, 146). These bays are crowned by six- part vaults which spring from complex major piers. The intermediate supports are paired columns. Two square aisle bays flank each nave bay (fig. 146). The crossing is distinguished from the other bays by its four-part vault. The original short transepts, with single chapels extending eastward, have been completely transformed by the sixteenth-century additions. The original plan (fig. 140 was compact and essentially transeptless. Remains of the simple ambulatory, without radiating chapels, can be seen in two areas (fig. 141). In the plan and simplicity of its original spaces and in its original lighting, the east end of Sens had none of the precocious character of the Saint- Denis choir.

In its proportions the present nave of Sens seems squat, 81¼ feet tall by 49½ feet wide (fig. 139). The wide space would seem even lower if the vaults were restored to their original curvature. The desire for an abundance of light does not seem to have been a motivating factor in the design. The resulting relative darkness of Sens is in marked contrast to Saint-Denis. The large square bays, clearly determined by massive piers, give the space a compartmented character reminiscent of the domed churches of southwestern France (see Souillac, fig. 81). The rhythmical movement is

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