Laon Cathedral

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Laon Cathedral

The cathedral of Laon (Notre-Dame de Laon) is one of the main works of (early) Gothic in France . It was built between 1155 and 1235 for the then Laon diocese and is one of the first churches to be built in this style. The church replaced an older 5th century cathedral that burned down in 1112.

The first Gothic ribbed vault was created in the new choir of St. Denis Cathedral, which was built from 1140 onwards . The effect was huge. From then on, the bishops in northern France built Gothic, and the style quickly spread. In just a few years the new cathedrals of Sens (1140), Senlis (1151) and Noyon (1157) were built. Laon Cathedral also belongs to this early phase of Gothic.


The west facade

Laon was the French capital in the 9th and 10th centuries. Twenty to thirty years after Noyon 1150, construction of the Gothic cathedral began here around 1170/80. And here the facade, which was created around 1190, now extends far beyond St-Denis. Laon marks a turning point in the history of the Gothic cathedral facade. Become famous is the utterance of Villard de Honnecourt from the early 13th century .: "I have seen many countries, [...] but in no place have I ever seen such a tower as that of Laon is one." Such towers in The characteristic, openwork shape appear here for the first time, became immediately famous at the time and - although they are also unfinished - have found numerous imitations, for example in Bamberg and Naumburg .

Below the tower floors, slightly offset at the corners of the towers, a dwarf gallery extends over the entire width of the facade . This design element is otherwise considered typical of the German Romanesque, as well as the Lombard Romanesque and Gothic .

In the facade we have a strong interruption of the horizontal, a very dominant central field with the first rose window of the Gothic style and a striking portal zone with three vestibules and deep wall sections on the window floor. There is nothing left of the formerly flat wall surface, the whole facade is set in a powerful dynamic movement, divided into several spatial layers, which as a decisive innovation “rise one behind the other” and are enhanced in the towers. "A triumphant train comes into the input side, and you realize that the later show fronts of cathedrals in Chartres, have been linked in Amiens and Reims to the dramatic model of Laon." . They sought the balance between the balanced, static solution of Paris and the dramatic experiment of Laon.

These towers of Laon are famous not only because of their extensive three-dimensional structure of the masonry, but also because for the first time they transitioned from a square base to an octagonal on the upper floors, which was also often imitated from then on. The upper two floors are octagonal in their core and in front of every other corner there is the large two-story pinnacle with the oxen. With this a moment of rotation has also come into the towers.

Ox on the spiers of the cathedral

The model for this tower shape - or at least a similar building at the same time - on which the builder from Laon perhaps built, is the important cathedral in Tournai in what is now Wallonia in Belgium. Its famous five-tower group is the only example of a planned completion of a five-tower east choir group - consisting of four choir flank towers and a crossing tower. The nave of Tournai was started around 1125, the transept with the towers at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. Century - at the time when the facade of Laon was also begun (the upper floors of the towers were not completed at that time, however). So there may be relationships here, and Tournai may have been the model.

It can be assumed with certainty that the builder of Laon knew the cathedral of Tournai, especially since the bishop of neighboring Noyon was also Bishop of Tournai until 1146. The builders of large cathedrals only took office after a long period of apprenticeship, which included many trips to the main buildings in Western art history.

In the 19th century, the facade was considerably redesigned as part of repairs.

The 16 ox

The towers are divided into a filigree structure and are an absolute rarity in Western architecture: namely the full sculptures of 16 oxen on the top floor that peek out from between the columns. The history of art has of course often thought about what this unique motif means, but has not found a clear explanation.

An earlier view is that the builders wanted to use it to set a memorial stone for the numerous oxen that helped build the cathedral by pulling the stone on countless carts. "Today there is a tendency to more spiritual, more symbolic explanations and suspect more of an allusion to the ox that, according to the Book of Kings, were seen in the courtyard of the Temple of Solomon."


Cathédrale de Laon 14 09 2008 2.jpg

Laon not only has these two west towers, but a total of five (similar to Tournai). Seven were even planned: in addition to the two west towers, two on the transept facades and a crossing tower. That was a completely new idea (on the general meaning of the towers, see Pevsner, p. 160 ff). Eight towers were originally planned for the later construction of Chartres, and ten for Reims. But the commitment to these large-scale projects always decreased significantly after these churches had been handed over to their actual function and that is why there was not a single case of the large number of towers (Binding, p. 140).

The English choir

The choir is much larger than the other early Gothic choirs in France. It looks like a long house and is not closed polygonally, but rectangular. This has something to do with the extremely strong relationship between England and France at the time. At the time, these two countries were not as clearly separated politically as they are today.

Laon Cathedral was built in two major phases. The first began in 1160, the second around 1190. The choir was originally polygonal, so it was almost closed like the other French churches. In the second construction phase, however, the English models were used, which almost without exception have a rectangular choir. One of the reasons for the large size of the English choirs and thus also of the Laon choir is that they should make room for the tombs of the canons who had to be buried in the choir.


Central nave, looking east
Wall elevation of the central nave
Vault with lantern

The longhouse in Laon goes one step further than the one in Noyon: here there is almost no change of supports , only columns. Only in the second and fourth pair of pillars west of the crossing are the pillars supplemented by four slender side pillars each to form a kind of bundle pillars . For the visual impression of a basilica interior, the design of the pillars of the nave is of great importance. Pillars, the edges of which are perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the building and at right angles to it, clearly demarcate the central nave and side aisles and thus emphasize the weight and weight of the walls. Columns allow a diagonal view from one ship to the other. With the Gothic shape of bundle pillars, the edges of which are at an angle of 45 ° to the building axes, a good diagonal view is always given. However, it depends on the diameter of the pillars and the length of the church interior, whether the arcades allow more views or the ships look like narrow gorges. Here in Laon, where there are only columns, the architecture looks much lighter and more open than in Noyon, the gravity of the ground has been removed. The much-cited support system of the Gothic is clearly evident here. The spatial impression is determined by the vertical lines extending from the floor to the vault, which seem to span the yokes and thus the entire building between them. 'Yokes' are the successive spatial units of a church, consisting of a central nave or a side aisle field. The combination of the central aisle field and the accompanying side aisle fields is called a 'travée' in Gothic style.

However, it must be emphasized that there is also a strong horizontal division into four different floors, which is created especially by the fact that the services do not go down to the ground, but sit on the column capitals. This creates the impression that the pillars “support” the upper floors, giving them a slightly floating character. That will change in High Gothic, in Chartres and in Bourges . The galleries that form a dominant horizontal element will be eliminated. And the service bundles will occupy the entire available length of the line: from one column base, i.e. from the ground, across the vault to the other column base on the opposite side. This will emphasize the yoke character of the nave - the room becomes a quick succession of the same spatial units - and it will emphasize the verticalization, the increase in height. Laon has u. a. also "still" galleries, because the vault thrust was absorbed via these galleries in the time before the invention of the buttress in 1160/80.

Such service bundles rise here from the column capitals to the vault ribs . They hardly have a static meaning. They should only make the construction principle of the building clear . Each rib of the vault and the window zone should visibly rest on the column and therefore receive its own service that symbolically guides its weight downwards.

From a purely technical point of view, the vault pressure could of course also have been derived directly in the wall downwards and also via the columns and the buttress outside. Here, however, it is important - and this is also a difference to Romanesque architecture - to make the power flows of such a cathedral visible, to use them as a means of expression in order to underline the character of the building as a representation of active energies. Günther Binding speaks of "illusion architecture" (Binding, p. 293). These are principles similar to those that were already in effect when the 'Wall was split up' in Sens and the wall was transformed into a picture surface. The 12 pillars of the nave, which also mean the apostles of the New Testament, bear the building of this church, which is recognizable for everyone, and symbolizes the order of the divine world on earth (12 is also the completeness and saints number, 12 disciples of Jesus, 12 tribes Israel, 12 hours, 12 months.).

The wall structure is the same as in Noyon, but here it has been preserved in its original form, so without the tracery window in the Lichtgaden. One peculiarity is noticeable in historical retrospect: here there is no longer a clear combination of two bays into one unit as in the case of the cathedrals, but still a six-part vault.

The nave vault shows the crystalline, mathematical clarity with which the entire building is constructed. From the supporting pillars, the movement continues via the services into the vault ribs and then down again on the other side - in other words, the movement tendency goes continuously upwards from both sides.

The plan of the cathedral after Viollet-le-Duc

However, if you look closely, you will see that the number of services that rise from the pillars is not the same. There are alternating three or five services. Ie a certain imbalance of the yokes has remained and in this respect the six-part vault is justified. But you can tell that only a small step is now necessary to compensate for these differences and to make the central nave yokes form an identical row. Notre-Dame in Paris will then take this step .

The church originally had - as is common practice - a round choir with a chapel wreath . The main facade and the facades of the transepts were to be framed by towers. This was only completed on the main facade, the towers on the transept remained fragmentary.

A seventh tower above the crossing should emphasize the impression of the many-towered, heavenly Jerusalem, as it is described in the Bible .

One also puzzles about the reason why the round choir room in the interior was torn down again after 40 years and replaced with a straight wall. This achieves great uniformity: all four "houses" end in such a wall with a rose window - an element that was also used here in Laon for the first time.

The fact that this uniform spatial impression was decisive for the renovation seems to be obvious from another aspect: The builders did not change the style of the new building, although the large cathedrals (Paris 1163, Chartres 1194) meant that other building elements had long been "modern". In Laon, on the other hand, the new choir room and the nave were built in 1200 .

A design element from Laon was not taken up again in later times: the four-part wall structure. Only the cathedral of Soissons (20 years later) and the Romanesque (!) Limburg Cathedral (60 years later) take up this again. The “classic” Gothic wall structure is divided into three parts.

The building has been a listed building since 1840 . The cathedral was restored between 1853 and 1913 .


  • Length: 110.50 m
  • Width: 30.65 m
  • Vault height of the nave: 24 m
  • Height of the crossing tower: 42 m
  • Transept length: 56 m
  • Tower height of the west facade: 56 m
  • Height of the tower of the north facade of the transept: 56 m
  • Height of the tower of the south facade of the transept: 60.5 m
  • Transept width: 22 m


Organ and west window

The organ was built in 1899 by the organ builder Henri Didier (Epinal). The organ case is older. It is the case of the first organ, which was built around 1700. The instrument has 54 stops on three manuals and a pedal . The playing and stop actions are mechanical.

I Positif expressif C – g 3
1. Bourdon 16 ′
2. Bourdon 8th'
3. Salicional 8th'
4th Unda Maris 8th'
5. Principal 8th'
6th Flûte majeure 8th'
7th Flûte chalumeau 4 ′
8th. Fugara 4 ′
9. Flute of fifths 2 23
10. Duplicate 2 ′
11. Basson 8th'
12. Clarinet 8th'
13. Basson-Hautbois 8th'
II Grand Orgue C-g 3
14th Montre 16 ′
15th Bourdon 16 ′
16. Montre 8th'
17th Bourdon 8th'
18th Flûte harmonique 8th'
19th Violon 8th'
20th Prestant 4 ′
21st Flûte douce 4 ′
22nd Great fifth 2 23
23. Duplicate 2 ′
24. Plein Jeu III-VI
25th Cornet II-V 8th'
26th Basson 16 ′
27. Trumpets 8th'
28. Clairon 4 ′
III Récit expressif C – g 3
29 Bourdon 16 ′
30th Cor de nuit 8th'
31. Voix céleste 8th'
32. Viole de gambe 8th'
33. Flûte traversière 8th'
34. Flûte octaviante 4 ′
35. Octavine 2 ′
36. Piccolo 1'
37. Plein Jeu II-V
38. Bombard 16 ′
39. Bombard 8th'
40. Trompette harmonique 8th'
41. Basson musette 8th'
42. Voix humaine 8th'
43. Clairon harmonique 4 ′
Pedale C – f 1
44. Soubasse 32 ′
45. Soubasse 16 ′
46. Flute 16 ′
47. Violoncello 16 ′
48. Fifth 10 23
49. Violoncello 8th'
50. Bass 8th'
51. Corni Dolci 4 ′
52. Bombard 16 ′
53. Trumpets 8th'
54. Clairon 4 ′

Titular organists

Jules Fouquet (1899–1966), Marie Ducrot (1966–2000) and Laurent Fèvres (2000–2010) worked as titular organists at Laon Cathedral . Since September 2010, with the Polish organist and music teacher Lidia Książkiewicz , a foreign musician has held this position at a French church for the first time.

The color in medieval churches

Paint residue

Some details of a lower archway still show paint remains. And here it can be pointed out again that medieval architecture always worked with colors (Binding, p. 285). Unfortunately, one has meanwhile got used to leaving these buildings in the so-called stone-sightedness (Oursel, p. 62: "Stone romanticism") and many visitors therefore believe that this picture corresponds to the original impression. A decree of the Paris prefect from the 13th century decreed that no stone figure may be made that is not decorated with polychrome paint, be it for a church or another location (Binding, p. 286). Not only were the large windows continuously colored, the walls were also partially covered with frescoes and the individual structural elements were color-coded. This can still be seen from the remains of the color that has been preserved. Original paint residues were often found on the organ galleries, where the wall surfaces were covered by the later built-in organ in such a way that they could not or would not be whitewashed.

The issue of color in medieval buildings has long been a hot topic for monument preservation today. We know that a lot was originally painted, especially portals, rose windows and parts of the towers (Swaan, p. 117), but mostly we don't know how , at least not exactly (see Vanished Inventory. The Sculpture Find in the Cologne Cathedral Choir. Cologne 1984 ). We are better informed about the interiors. In general, it can be said that basically the architectural elements are highlighted in color from the base area, for example a service from the service template or the wall. Usually only a few colors came into their own and sharp contrasts were avoided so as not to overlay the effect of the stained glass on the windows. Preferred basic colors were white as well as ocher, red and rose tones (Nussbaum, p. 163).


View of the north tower of the west facade. The ox statues in the upper part are clearly recognizable.
Laon cathedral notre dame 006.JPG
  • Günther Binding: What is Gothic? An analysis of the Gothic churches in France, England and Germany 1140–1350 . Primus, Darmstadt 2006, ISBN 978-3-89678-571-8 .
  • Norbert Nussbaum, Sabine Lepsky: The Gothic vault. The history of its shape and construction . Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich / Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-422-06278-5 .
  • Raymond Oursel, Henri Stierlin (Ed.): Romanesque . Taschen, Cologne, ISBN 3-8228-9524-5 .
  • Nikolaus Pevsner : European architecture from the beginning to the present . 9th edition, Prestel, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-7913-3927-6 .
  • Wim Swaan: The great cathedrals . DuMont, Cologne 1996, ISBN 3-7701-3817-1 .
  • Rolf Toman (ed.): The art of the Gothic. Architecture - sculpture - painting . Könemann, Cologne 1998, ISBN 3-89508-313-5 .

See also

Video Laon Cathedral

Individual evidence

  1. Willibald Sauerländer in: Funkkolleg Kunst, Studienbegleitbrief 1, 1984, p. 132.
  2. Rolf Toman, p. 41.
  3. Katja Schöck: Arranging and restoring - the west facade of the cathedral of Laon and its changes in the 19th century . In: INSITU 2017/2. ISSN 1866-959X, pp. 163-174.
  4. ^ Willibald Sauerländer: Study accompanying letter 1, Funkkolleg Kunst, 1984, p. 134.
  5. More information about the organ

Web links

Commons : Laon Cathedral  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Coordinates: 49 ° 33 ′ 51 ″  N , 3 ° 37 ′ 30 ″  E