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 18
The Cathedral of Soissons

AFTER THE DESIGN of Notre-Dame at Chartres was established in the years immediately after 1194, High Gothic architecture in and around the Ile-de-France seems to have evolved in two major directions. Some masters resisted the innovations of Chartres and re-used many Early Gothic features in new combinations (see bibliography: Bony article). Other master builders either came directly from the Chartres workshop and designed new structures or were profoundly influenced by the new High Gothic synthesis of Chartres. The master of Soissons, as Carl F. Barnes, Jr., has clearly demonstrated in a recent article (see bibliography), was a member of the Chartres atelier (figs. 238-244). He came to Soissons in the late 1190's, perhaps as early as 1197 but certainly by 1200. He brought with him many of the new ideas of the Chartres master. However, a study of Sois. sons and comparisons with Chartres reveal many differences in design which emphasize the originality of the Soissons master within the format established by the master of Chartres. Further, the presence of the just-completed twelfth-century transept seems to have had an effect on the thirteenth-century design of the choir and nave.

Soissons is just sixty miles northeast of Paris and thirty-five miles west of Reims. The south transept was begun in 1176 on land donated by Nivelon de Chérizy, who became bishop in 1176. The superstructure of the transept was probably completed before the new master arrived from Chartres in the late 1190's. Roul d'Oulchy, the provost of the chapter from 1193 to 1208, donated three chapels. An inscription preserved at Soissons proves that the choir was completed by 1212, for the canons celebrated Mass for the first time on May 13 of that year. Work seems to have progressed quite rapidly after completion of the choir; the nave was completed about 1225 and the façade by 1250. The façade of the north transept and the west towers are fourteenth-century.

A comparison of the naves of the cathedrals of Chartres and Soissons (figs. 219, 236) demonstrates many similarities of design. In elevation the sides of the nave at Chartres show a tall nave arcade below and a clerestory of the same size above, the two separated by the horizontal band of the triforium. This was the new High Gothic proportion established by the Chartres master and repeated almost exactly in the choir and nave at Soissons. Within this general proportion, various aspects of the Chartres treatment are repeated: the bay elevations in both cathedrals have the same flat planes; the arcades of the triforia are on the same planes as the spandrel walls of the two nave arcades. The clerestory windows are handled similarly by the two masters: the windows are embraced by remnants of wall and organized as two lancets with an oval aperture above. In spite of all these features which prove that the master of Soissons came from the workshop of Chartres, there are many differences between the two designs. Soissons (fig. 236) seems much lighter and less mural than Chartres (fig. 219). The massiveness of Chartres has been transformed at Soissons by a thinner and more elegant treatment of walls and supports. The actual height of the nave vaults from the pavement at Soissons is less than that at Chartres ( Soissons, 97 1/2 feet; Chartres, 116 feet); yet the greater width of the Chartres nave gives the inte

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