Notre Dame de Laon (Dennis Aubrey)


Notre Dame de Laon is one of our favorite Gothic cathedrals, but it has a reputation for being, well, unreligious. Viollet-le-Duc likened it to a civic hall where people “could unite and enjoy spectacles more or less profane.” The great writer Huysmans felt that nobody could pray there, and that “its soul has fled forever”. Dorothy Noyes Arms, who loved the cathedral, felt that even when full for a celebratory mass, the cathedral would never generate the spiritual ferment of Chartres nor be filled with flickering devotional candles.

La cathédrale de Laon, (Aisne, France) vue depuis la branche sud est de la ville haute, Photograph by Pline (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

La cathédrale de Laon, (Aisne, France) vue depuis la branche sud est de la ville haute, Photograph by Pline (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

On the other hand, Notre Dame de Laon is a superb early Gothic construction started around 1155 during the period of time that the cathedrals of Sens, Noyon and Senlis were being built. The builders were still feeling their way around this new form of architecture. The eleven bays of the nave progress in a stately manner down the impressively long nave. There are another ten bays in the choir. This gives the impression of great length, especially when compared to the relatively low vault height.

As a matter of comparison, Notre Dame de Paris (416′ long, 110′ high) has a length to height ratio of 3.8:1. Notre Dame d’Amiens (438′ long, 141′ high) has a ratio of 3.1:1. Notre Dame de Laon (362′ long, 79′ high), on the other hand, has a ratio of 4.6:1.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame has many indications of being early Gothic – most noticeably there are still tribunes over the rather short side aisles. Because there are four levels to the elevation – the arcade, the tribune, the triforium, and the clerestory, the only direct lighting in the nave comes from the clerestory windows.

Another indication that this is a transitional church is that there are both round and pointed arches in the structure. The nave arcades are ogive and the tribune, triforium and clerestory arches are round. Notice how the single arcade bay yields a double bay in the tribune and a triple bay in the clerestory. This gives a wonderful rhythm to the structure.

It is interesting to note also that there is no balustrade in the tribune arcades. The passages open unobstructed straight out to the nave. My suspicion is that this was to allow light from the tribune windows to penetrate more fully to the nave. This gives an open visual impression even if it must be a bit harrowing to stand on the open edge.

Choir elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Choir elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

The nave vault is also transitional – a sexpartite vault spans two bays instead of a quadripartite vault that spans a single bay. It is interesting in this shot to see the effect of all the round arches. They seem to somehow pull the vault lower, to keep it more earthward.

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The choir is quite interesting for a number of reasons – first, the east wall is flat and adorned with a magnificent rose window. There is no chevet, there are no radiating chapels, and there is no ambulatory. Instead, there is a long ten-bay arcade with side aisles, just like the nave. This is truly a cruciform church with short transept arms to make the cross.

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The straight side aisles in the choir show clearly the solid, powerful columns and the flat east wall in the distance. We can see here more evidence of the early nature of the Gothic – there are no windows in the side aisles.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

In the flat east wall of the choir, there is a stained glass ensemble consisting of the rose and three lancets. The early 13th century lancets lancets are from the school of Chartres and feature the Annunciation, Visitation, and the Nativity. The visual effect from the nave is quite interesting because the windows occupy most of the space in that wall. It quite literally appears as a light at the end of a tunnel.

East rose window, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

East rose window, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I are quite fond of these early Gothic cathedrals where the builders found their way to the new architecture that would soon culminate in the masterpieces of Amiens, Chartres, Bourges and Reims. In those structures, the nave arcades would rise higher and be fitted with window ensembles, the tribune level would disappear and the clerestory rounds would change into a rose with two lancets. And the crowning achievement, the structures would be covered with the quadripartite vaults. This would allow for greater wall space dedicated to windows, more elongated piers and pillars and give the sensation of stone climbing to the heavens.

View from choir side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

View from choir side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

Laon, Senlis, Auxerre, and Sens may not have the same soaring effect as their more famous successors, but they paved the way. It was here that the earthbound Romanesque gave way to the heaven-soaring Gothic.

Location: 49.564374° 3.625100°

12 responses to “Notre Dame de Laon (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Magnificent photographs. I wish I had such images when I taught my medieval and survey courses. This church is extremely important to the development of Gothic for all the reasons you have documented. I am not sure of the significance of length of the bulding to the height of the vaulting. They appear to be mostly 3:1 or 4:1 if rounded off, but I think the ratio of a bay to its height might be more significant, as well as the ratios of the segments of the bay wall from the nave through the double “triforium galleries” and clerestory. That is a graduate student problem. Since this is a transitional church, like Sens and Senlis, I would not be surprised if the Golden Mean was applied as it was known to these early masons and held as an architectural “secret.” Most impressive however, are the master works you have captured so well. Thanks. This is a major contribution especially for those of us who cannot take a side trip from Paris.

    • Darrell, I don’t think that there is any particular significance to the ratio of length to height except that it was indicative of the early nature of the Gothic. As the style developed and the heights increased, that ratio decreased. Glad you liked the church, though. Laon, Senlis, Sens, and Auxerre are among our favorites, precisely because they show the development from our beloved Romanesque.

  2. wonderful. truly great shots. i wonder if you took any of the western exterior with its famous animals? they would be great to see. lovely work, and a helpful commentary too.

  3. I thought for a moment the ‘side aisle’ picture was of a cloister, but I can see it isn’t now. Are there no windows on the external wall to that aisle – perhaps it backs onto monastery accommodation?
    Another fine set of pictures, I particularly like the last one here.

    • Stephen, that image is of the side aisle in the apse and there are no windows there. In the side aisles of the nave, there are some windows between the various chapels. I don’t think that there are monastery accomodations there; the cathedral sits in a parvis as I remember.

  4. These buildings a like a drug Dennis and so beautifully photographed. I have had access to similar places in England but living so far north – very few option up here. I keep adding many of your locations to my bucket list in hope for the future.

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