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
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CHAPTER 12
The Cathedral of Laon

THE CATHEDRAL OF LAON, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, rises dramatically from a thin ridge which dominates the surrounding, fertile plains (figs. 171, 172). Laon is twenty-seven miles northwest of Reims and sixty miles northeast of Paris. Both town and cathedral have had an intense, stormy history. A church founded by the Archbishop of Reims toward the end of the fifth century was the first structure raised at Laon. During the ninth century the last sons of Charlemagne battled the Capetians on this Carolingian site. There, on April 25, 1112, occurred one of the bloodiest revolts of the Middle Ages. The commune of the bourgeoisie and merchants rose up against Bishop Gaudri, who had annulled their charter. The commune burned the house of the treasurer of the cathedral chapter, and the fire then spread, burning the church of the tenth or eleventh centuries. The King of France, bought by the Bishop of Laon for a higher price than that offered by the commune, helped in the recapture of the town. Following this successful counterattack, there was more slaughter as the nobility took revenge. Soon afterward the peasants had their opportunity to devastate the town.

Three months after this disastrous conflict, seven canons and a group of lay clerics left Laon on a pilgrimage through France, carrying relics: a piece of the dress of the Virgin, a fragment of the sponge of the Passion, and a piece of the True Cross. Miracles were performed and funds raised. Later the entourage spent seven months traveling in England. With these funds a reconstruction of the previous church was undertaken, and the church was consecrated on August 29, 1114. This structure, however, was not large enough for the growing cathedral school, which was winning acclaim all over western Europe, nor was it of sufficient size to serve the expanding population of Laon. The prosperity of the town centered in the famous cloth industry, whose products were exported as far as Egypt. Revenue also accrued from the strategic location of Laon on the main route between Flanders and the Île-de-France to the south. With the re-establishment of the commune of Laon in 1130, together with the expansion of commerce, it was clear that a much larger cathedral was needed.

The present Cathedral of Laon was begun by Bishop Gautier de Montagne in the late 1150's. Work started in the south transept, and by 1170 the choir and the transept were almost finished. In 1178 a second architect-builder supervised the construction of the two eastern bays of the nave. A third building campaign, probably with a third architect, included the construction of the rest of the nave and the façade, lasting from around 1190 until 1215. The paired towers on each transept and the square lantern tower over the crossing would seem to have been planned from the outset, although the towers themselves may have been built by the second, or more probably the third, architect. In 1205 the choir, which was a simple polygonal mass with a single ambulatory (see plan, fig. 163), was demolished and the present, long, flat-ended choir added (fig. 169). Also, in the thirteenth century, flying buttresses were added to the entire cathedral, and structures including sacristy and small chapter house were fitted into the areas between the choir and the chapels opening off the east sides of the transept. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, private chapels

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