Explore Rouen Cathedral, France tallest church!

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Rouen’s most prestigious monument is indeniably the lofty and imposing cathedral. It is one of the most exquisite pieces of pure Flamboyant work existing. It is also the tallest cathedral in France with its spire reaching 151 metres high. Standing at Place de la Cathédrale, Rouen Cathedral appears in all its glory, with a stunning west front comprising of two mighty towers: Tour de Beurre and Tour Saint Romain.


Description and Facts about Rouen Cathedral

Of the cathedral, author Ruskin wrote:

It is the most exquisite piece of pure Flamboyant work existing. There is not one cusp, one finial, that is useless, not a stroke of the chisel is in vain; the grace and luxuriance of it all are visible— sensible, rather, even to the uninquiring eye; and all its minuteness does not diminish the majesty, while it increases the mystery of the noble and unbroken vault.

Rouen Cathedral Floor Plan copyright French Moments

Rouen Cathedral Floor Plan by French Moments

Seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Rouen

The Archbishop of Rouen has its seat in the Rouen Cathedral and is one of the 15 archbishops in France. Legend has it that Nicasius founded the shrine circa 250. This disciple of St. Denis suffered martyrdom in Normandy.

As the archbishop also bears the title of Primate, the cathedral is also a primatial church.

Rouen is also the only city in France to have an adjoining archiepiscopal palace still occupied by an archbishop today.

Cote Sainte Catherine in Rouen 07 copyright French Moments

Rouen Cathedral seen from Côte Sainte-Catherine © French Moments

Height record

Until 1876 the world’s tallest building was the cathedral of Strasbourg with its bell tower reaching 142 m. With the addition of the new cast iron spire on the lantern tower, Rouen became the tallest building in the world (151 m), a record yielded to Cologne Cathedral just four years later in 1880 (157 m). Rouen keeps the record of being the tallest cathedral of France.


Rouen Cathedral: A bit of History

Model of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Model of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The existing cathedral was not the first standing on the site. In the 11th century, Rouen had built a Romanesque edifice. We know that Archbishop Maurille dedicated the sanctuary in 1063.

Following excavations ran from the end of the 19th century, archeologists discovered the Romanesque crypt. This is the only archaeological remains of the former cathedral. According to scholars, it would have been of similar size as the famous abbatial church of Jumièges, whose most celebrated ruins lie some miles away from the city of Rouen.

When Gothic style was trending!

When Gothic architecture started to be fashionable in Western Europe, the religious authorities decided to replace the Romanesque building with a more prestigious one. It would show the world the greatness and prestige of Rouen, then one of the largest cities of Western Europe.

Less than a century after the dedication of the Romanesque cathedral, archbishop Hughes of Amiens planned the construction of the new building. Starting from the facade, and then gradually covering the Romanesque nave with a Gothic one… until a fire devastated the whole district during Easter 1200, destroying everything that remained of the Romanesque cathedral.

The cathedral of Rouen (Porte de la Calende) © French Moments

The cathedral of Rouen (Porte de la Calende) © French Moments

Cathedral builders completed the Gothic nave between 1234 and 1237 and the side chapels around 1265-1275. The monumental western façade took a rather long time to build (1370-1450).

1478 saw the completion of Saint-Romain tower. However its counterpart – the Tour de Beurre – took longer (ended in 1506). As for the Lantern Tower at the crossing of the transept, architects topped it in 1557 with a gilded lead spire reaching 128 m.

During the Wars of Religion, the Huguenots sacked the cathedral in 1562, hence the absence or deterioration of statues.

Rouen Cathedral at the French Revolution

During the French Revolution, the new authorities in place transformed the cathedral into a Temple of Reason.

View of the Cathedral of Rouen before 1822

View of the Cathedral of Rouen before 1822

In 1822 thunder hit the lantern tower of the cathedral, destroying the Renaissance spire. The present-day spire replaced it in 1876.

The damages of WW2

In 1944 Allied bombing during the week before D-Day did a lot of damage to the cathedral, which was hit by seven bombs. Fortunately, one of them, which landed in the choir, never exploded.

The other six bombs destroyed the South aisle of the nave and the chapels. One of the four pillars supporting the lantern tower and its spire was seriously damaged.

Urgent repairs were made to prevent the spire form crashing down onto the building.

As for the nave, it remained firmly in place, thanks to the counterweight of the flying buttresses of the Sainte-Catherine Chapel.

On the 1st June 1944, the Saint-Romain tower caught fire and its bells fell. It took several years to repair the cathedral and reopened in 1956.

Tour St Romain after the 1944 Allied bombs © crédit photo Deutsches Bundesarchiv 1944

Tour St Romain after the 1944 Allied bombs © crédit photo Deutsches Bundesarchiv 1944

Rouen Cathedral nowadays…

The violent storm of December 1999 damaged the lantern tower and the choir when the North-east turret weighing 26 tons fell in the cathedral.

On the 30th May 2015 the restoration work on the West front ended with the removal of scaffolding. For the first time, the people of Rouen and visitors alike were able to admire the cathedral in all its glory.

Since 2017 restauration works focussed on the cathedral’s spire. The renovated spire is to change colour by the end of January 2020. Its former dark colour will give way to a grey-green-blue tint, much more aligned with its history.

Rouen cathedral around 1830 (Tour de Beurre)

Rouen cathedral around 1830 (Tour de Beurre). Drawing by S. Prout, engraving by W. Wallis


Exterior of Rouen Cathedral

The beauty of Rouen Cathedral is best appreciated from the Place de la Cathédrale without forgetting the portals of the transepts (Calende and Librarians), as well as the soaring Lantern Tower.


The West Façade

The West front of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Rouen Cathedral’s West front © French Moments

With the Tour Saint Romain to the left and the Tour de Beurre to the right, the facade is an amazing set of towers, pinnacles, statues and porches.

It is therefore no surprise that it was often painted by the impressionist Claude Monet. The painter composed a series of 28 paintings of the Western facade at different times of the day. His work is exhibited in various museums spread between:

  • America (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Getty Center, Los Angeles), and
  • Europe (National Museum of Serbia, Belgrade, museum of Cologne, Germany, Fine Art museum, Rouen and musée d’Orsay, Paris).

These details that make it a grand sanctuary

The two tall towers contrast with other renowned cathedrals in France as they do not rise above the aisles, but at the sides.

The two porches of the aisles follow the early Gothic style but their tympana are an addition of the 13th century. The main porch was the last Gothic element added to the cathedral, built to reinforce the facade which had been subsiding after the erection of the Tour du Beurre.

The three portails of the West façade © French Moments

The three portails of the West façade © French Moments

The rose window above is the fourth replacement and dates back to just after the Second World War.

West Front Façade of Rouen 03 Cathedral copyright French Moments

The rose window and the main gable of the West Façade © French Moments

Niches house rows of statues on both sides. There are two galleries of statues in the South and three in the North, a unique feature in France, although common in England. This is evidence of British influence in the Gothic style of the cathedral.

Monumental Statues of the West façade © French Moments

Monumental Statues of the West façade © French Moments

The higher part

Fine Rayonnant and Flamboyant style gables decorate the façade’s higher part. At the top of the facade, pyramid-shaped pinnacles crown the whole ensemble.

West Front Façade of Rouen 06 Cathedral copyright French Moments

The higher part of the West Front © French Moments

Find out more about the West Façade of Rouen Cathedral.


La Tour de Beurre

Tour de Beurre © French Moments

Tour de Beurre © French Moments

The Tour de Beurre dates back to the end of the 15th century. Its name derives from the word for butter which was banned during Lent.

The last storey is a Gothic marvel as it transforms the squared plan to an octagonal one. Scholars believe that the architect of the time wished to complete the tower with a stone spire. However the canon priests were too scared of the cost of such a work and demanded that a refined balustrade be built instead.

Find out more about the Tour de Beurre.


La Tour Saint Romain

Tour Saint-Romain © French Moments

Tour Saint-Romain © French Moments

On the northern side of the facade lies the mighty Tour Saint Romain, four centuries older than its counterpart. Work on the tower started in 1145, so it is the oldest part of the Gothic construction. Its last storey, in Flamboyant style, clashes with the rest of the more sober building. The Saint Romain tower burnt down on the 1st June 1944, after Allied bombing the day before. Its unusual axe-like roof, covered with slates and decorated with a gilded image of a sun, has been reconstructed only recently.

Find out more about the Tour Saint-Romain.


The Lantern Tower, the glory of Rouen Cathedral

Lantern Tower © French Moments

Lantern Tower © French Moments

The last addition of major importance to the structure of the cathedral was the 19th century cast iron spire on the lantern tower. Reaching a height of 151 metres, it replaces a former lead-covered timber Renaissance spire from the 16th century, which burnt down in 1822.

Interestingly the huge tower follows the traditional characteristic of Gothic style in Normandy, having a lantern tower at the crossing of the transept.

50 years needed to build the structure!

It took some 50 years to construct the existing cast iron spire. Between 1880 and 1884, architect F. Marrou added four beautiful copper-clad wooden turrets around the spire at the base of the lantern tower.

However the North-east turret weighing 26 tons was missing following the violent storm of December 1999 which also damaged the choir and the stalls in its fall. The three other turrets were removed for maintenance and safety purposes before being replaced in 2012.

Find out more about the Lantern Tower of Rouen Cathedral.


The Librarians Portal

Librarians portal © French Moments

Librarians portal © French Moments

The Librarians Portal (Portail des Libraires) is situated in the North end of the transept of Rouen Cathedral. Once the private access for the canon priests to the cathedral, the portal is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture in Normandy. Its name refers to the transcribers and calligraphists whose shops once occupied the courtyard.

Find out more about the Librairians Portal.


The Calende Portal

Calende Portal © French Moments

Calende Portal © French Moments

The Calende Portal (Portail de la Calende) is situated in the South end of the transept of Rouen Cathedral. Richly decorated, the portal dates to the 15th century.

Find out more about the Calende Portal.


Rouen Cathedral’s buttresses

Flying Buttresses © French Moments

Flying Buttresses © French Moments

Elegant flying buttresses ornate with pinacles surround the nave on both sides.


The Cathedral’s Chevet

The Cathedral's Chevet © French Moments

The Cathedral’s Chevet © French Moments

The chevet of the cathedral ends with the Lady-Chapel (1430-1538). Between the buttresses and their pinacles are pointed windows topped with gables. On the roof of the chapel stands a statue of the Virgin from 1541.


The cloister-court

Cour d'Albane, Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Cour d’Albane, Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

On the northern side of the cathedral lies the garden of the cloister-court. Only a few arches of the cloister were built on the eastern side. Moreover the green space which occupies the courtyard is now known as Cour d’Albane and was recently renovated.


Inside the cathedral

The Nave seen from the Choir © French Moments

The Nave seen from the Choir © French Moments

On entering the cathedral, the eye ranges an uninterrupted view of the whole length of the cathedral through a vista of lofty pillars and pointed arches.

Scholar Bond consider the interior of the cathedral of Rouen to be curiously Romanesque in plan:

Its nave bays are four-storied, an upper and lower pier arch with small triforium and clerestory. The upper pier arch might also be regarded as a triforium, for a passage-way runs along the sill of the arch and is continued behind the main piers on an elegant group of shafted corbels. These were originally intended to support a vault of a lower aisle. The east end is more dignified and has simpler factors, clerestory, triforium and pier arch. The glass is magnificent, dating from the thirteenth century.”


The Cathedral’s Nave

The Cathedral's Nave © French Moments

The Cathedral’s Nave © French Moments

The nave dates back to the 12th century and the aisles and vaults to the 13th century. The nave includes 11 spans with a total length of 60 metres.

The height to the vaults reaches 28 metres, which is much lower than the cathedral of Metz (41 metres) and France’s record at Beauvais Cathedral (48m).

Vaults of the nave © French Moments

Vaults of the nave © French Moments

Like in Laon Cathedral, architects built the nave with a four-storey elevation (a characteristic of early Gothic), in contrast to the late Gothic style which adopted three. When the early Gothic focused attention downward (like in Rouen), late Gothic altered this tradition by drawing attention upward, to the heavens.

Four-Storey elevation in the Nave © French Moments

Four-Storey elevation in the Nave © French Moments

Eleven clustered columns and ten pointed arches on each side support the walls of the nave.

Pointed arches of the nave © French Moments

Pointed arches of the nave © French Moments


The side aisles of the nave

North side aisle © French Moments

North side aisle © French Moments

Eight chapels border the North side aisle (St. Mellon, St. John, St. Sever, St. Julian, St. Éloi, Chapelle des Fonts, St. Nicholas, and St. Anne), and seven border the South side aisle (St. Stephen, St. Leonard, St. Peter, St. Colombe, St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and Chapelle du petit Saint Romain).

South Aisle © French Moments

South Aisle © French Moments

One of them, the Saint-Sever chapel on the northern side aisle, features the oldest stained-glass windows of the church, dating back to the 13th century. Called the ‘Belles Verrières‘ as soon as the 14th century, they are the works of Guillaume Barbe circa 1465.

The Belles Verrières stained-glass windows in St Sever Chapel, Rouen Cathedral © Giogo - Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3

Belles Verrières stained-glass windows in St Sever Chapel, Rouen Cathedral © Giogo – Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


The Great Organ

Great Organ of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Great Organ of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The Jacquot Lavergne factory built the great organ in the 1950s. Its inauguration took place in 1956. You will find it above the main entrance of the West front and under the great rose window.


The Transept

South Transept © French Moments

South Transept © French Moments

The two arms of the transept meet at the crossing where France’s tallest spire rises.


The North Transept

At the northern side of the transept, the “Librarian Portal” (Portail des Libraires) once provided a private access for the canon priests. They could then return to their quarters safely. The rose window by Guillaume Nouel dates to the end of the 14th century. It is the only one, out of the three found in the cathedral, to have kept its colourful stained-glass.

The North transept features a unique monumental Gothic staircase: the “Librarians’ Stairs” (Escalier des Libraires). It once led to the library and to the archives of the chapter.

Escaliers des Libraires in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Escaliers des Libraires in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Guillaume Pontifs built the first two flights in 1479. The two last, also in Gothic architecture, date to 1788 to give access to the new floor of archives. The delicate and beautiful staircase has all the boldness and lightness which peculiarly characterise French-Gothic style.

Detail of Escalier des Libraires © French Moments

Detail of Escalier des Libraires © French Moments


The South Transept

The southern side of the transept opens onto the “Calende Portal” (Portail de la Calende). To the right side, two stained-glass windows from the Renaissance decorate the portal.


The Lantern Tower

Lantern Tower from the inside of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Lantern Tower from the inside of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Four clustered pillars support the lantern tower above the crossing of the transept. The presence of a lantern tower at the crossing of the transept is a frequent feature in churches in Normandy (St. Ouen in Rouen, Bayeux) and in England (Canterbury, Gloucester, Salisbury, Winchester).

Find out more about the Lantern Tower.


The Choir

Choir in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The Choir © French Moments

The choir of Rouen Cathedral is ascended from the transept by five steps. It comprises of 14 soaring pillars and extends on 5 spans. With its pointed arcades and elegance, it is the most sacred part of the cathedral.

The main altar is a table built in Aoste marble supported by the symbols of the four evangelists who wrote the four books of the Gospel: Matthew, Luke, Mark and John.

In the choir is also located the throne of the bishop – called ‘cathedra’, as the church is the See of Rouen’s archbishop.

Philippot Viard and Flemish cabinet makers sculpted the wooden stalls from 1457 to 1470. Out of the 96 stalls originally installed in the choir, only 66 remained today.

The choir has a organ from the Renaissance and furnishing was replaced following the bombings of 1944.

The choir is inclosed all round with a screen of iron which replaced a copper gilt one destroyed in 1793.

The choir of Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Another view of the cathedral’s choir © French Moments


The ambulatory

South Ambulatory in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The cathedral’s South ambulatory © French Moments

The ambulatory surrounds the choir and is lightened by beautiful stained-glass windows from 1220-1230. The South side of the ambulatory is lined by statues that originally stood on the West front façade. In fact, copies replaced them onto the façade as restorers considered them too fragile or two damaged to be put back there again.


The recumbent statues of the ambulatory

The ambulatory contains the tombs of a few Dukes of Normandy, many of them are recumbent statues, that is life-size statue sculptures dressed in their daily costume lying supine. In other words, recumbent literally means “lying in repose”.

Rollo (Rollon)
Rollo Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Rollo Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The recumbent statue of Rollo (or Robert) is a copy as the original was destroyed during the war. Rollo is Richard Lionheart’s ancestor, the founder and first ruler of the Viking principality which became known as Normandy.

Richard the Lionheart (Richard Cœur de Lion)
Richard Lionheart Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Richard Lionheart Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The recumbent statue of Richard the Lionheart only contains his heart. His bowels are buried within the church of the castle of Châlus-Chabrol in the Limousin and the corporeal remains at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon and Saumur, in the Loire Valley. Richard is featured as a young man with his eyes opened. His feet rest on a lion which was the symbol of the Resurrection in the Middle-Ages. Finally a Latin inscription on the tomb reads:

“This place holds the heart of Richard, King of England who was named Lionheart and died in the year of 1199.”

Henry the Young (Henri le Jeune)
Henry the Young Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Henry the Young Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The tomb of Henry the Young looks similar to that of his brother Richard. It also dates from the 13th century.

William I Longsword (Guillaume 1er / Guillaume Longue-Épée)
Guillaume Longue Epee Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Guillaume Longue Epee Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The recumbent statue of William Longsword, son of Rollo, dates from the 14th century.

Hugh of Amiens (Hugues of Amiens)
Hugh of Amiens Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Hugh of Amiens Recumbent Statue in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The tomb of Hugh of Amiens, archbishop of Rouen was built into the wall. Under an arcade bordered by angels, the recumbent statue shows the mitre, the ring and the crozier which are the symbols of the bishop’s authority. In fact the Romanesque-style tomb is France’s oldest recumbent statue in France and dates back to the 12th century (which is older than the Gothic cathedral of Rouen).

John Lancaster (Jean de Lancastre)

In the ambulatory is a commemorative plaque of John Plantagenet also called John Lancaster, the Duke of Bedford. Locals regarded him as Joan of Arc’s murderer. He owed his right to a tomb inside the church, to his duty as a canon priest of the cathedral after Joan’s death. However the Calvinists destroyed the original tomb during the wars of religion.


Stained-glass windows

Stained-Glass windows in Tour de Beurre in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Stained-Glass windows in Tour de Beurre in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

On the northern side of the ambulatory, some 13th century stained-glass windows can be admired, such as those telling the legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller, which inspired French writer Flaubert in his book ‘Three Tales‘ (Trois Contes). They are famous for the peculiar cobalt blue colour, known as ‘the blue from Chartres‘.

Stained-glass windows of Saint Julian the Hospitaller in the northern ambulatory, Rouen Cathedral © Giogo - Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3

Stained-glass windows of Saint Julian the Hospitaller in the northern ambulatory, Rouen Cathedral © Giogo – Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

All the old stained-glass windows were taken down in 1939, at the start of the war, as a precaution to prevent them from being destroyed and were sent to the basements of the castle of Niort.


The Lady Chapel

Lady Chapel in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

Lady Chapel in Rouen Cathedral © French Moments

The Lady Chapel is situated in the apse. When the original chapel became too small it was decided to rebuild it in 1302 in Rayonnant Gothic. The new sanctuary was longer, higher and brighter. It is lighted by nine windows executed in 1485 full of rich painted glass, representing mainly portraits of the archbishops of Rouen in their robes. The chapel contains the Renaissance tombs of the cardinals of Amboise, of the Prince de Croy (Archbishop of Rouen from 1824 to 1844) and of Louis de Brézé, Seneschal of Normandy who died in 1531). Behind the altar stands a large altarpiece sculpted in the 17th century and dedicated to the Virgin.


Rouen Cathedral in painting

The impressive sanctuary of Rouen Cathedral has been the subject of numerous paintings, notably by the Impressionist artist Claude Monet.

Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet (1892-1893)
Rouen Cathedral painted by Claude Monet on display at the Orsay Museum Photo by French Moments

Rouen Cathedral painted by Claude Monet on display at the Orsay Museum. Photo by French Moments

The West front with its amazing set of towers, pinnacles, gables, statues and porches was often painted by Claude Monet. The impressionist painter composed a series of 30 paintings of the Western facade at different times of the day. His work is exhibited in various museums spread between America (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Getty Center, Los Angeles) and Europe (National Museum of Serbia, Belgrade, museum of Cologne, Germany, Fine Art museum, Rouen Fine Arts Museum and Paris’ Musée d’Orsay).

Rouen by Richard Parkes Bonington (1825)

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The Cathedral of Rouen by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1832)

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Chevet of Rouen Cathedral by William Parrot (1860)
Chevet of Rouen Cathedral by William Parrot

Chevet of Rouen Cathedral by William Parrot

The Cathedral seen from rue de l’épicerie by Camille Pissaro (1898)

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Quai de Paris and the Cathedral by Johannes Bosboom (1839)

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The city of Rouen from the Left Bank by Charles Fréchon (1900)
Rouen Cathedral and Rouen from the Left Bank by Charles Fréchon

Rouen Cathedral and Rouen from the Left Bank by Charles Fréchon

Rouen from afar by Camille Corot (19th C)
Rouen by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

The outskirts of Rouen by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot


Rouen Cathedral: more info

Here’s a few website and blogs about Rouen Cathedral that you might find useful:

The cathedral is open on Monday from 2-7pm (6pm in Winter), Tuesday to Saturday from 9am-7pm (6pm in Winter) and on Sunday from 8am-6pm.

  • Our pages on ROUEN CATHEDRAL


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    About Author

    Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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