The West front façade of Rouen Cathedral is impressive: framed by two tall towers, it is characterised by airy magnificence. The three portals are surmounted by beautiful Gothic features: gables, rose window, statues, turrets, and open screens of the most elegant tracery.
The West Front façade
For many decades the West front façade was hidden behind scaffolding and its stoned blackened by air pollution. The recent restoration of the façade and the removal of all scaffolds revealed the stunning display of Gothic architecture to the people of Rouen who had never seen their cathedral so truly majestic.
The West front of Rouen with the arrangement of its large bay enclosing the rose window and flanked by tiers of statues, recalls definetely the façades, earlier in date, of the English cathedrals of Wells, Salisbury and Lichfield (according to French writer M. Enlart). It holds the record of the longest church façade in France (61 metres). Construction took several centuries from the mid-12th century (Tour St. Romain) to the beginning of the 16th century (Portal of Notre-Dame).
The West front is framed by two tall towers: Tour St. Romain to the left and Tour de Beurre to the right. Between these is seen the spire of the Lantern Tower which rises from the crossing of the transept. The space between the two towers is covered with arcades adorned with lacy Flamboyant Gothic stonework and topped by open canopies and pierced gables.
The West Portals of Rouen Cathedral
The West front of Rouen Cathedral comprises of three main portals: the Saint-Jean portal to the North, the Notre-Dame portal in the centre and the Saint-Étienne portal to the South.
The central portal
The main portal, also called Portail Notre-Dame, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is the highest of the three portals of the façade.
The tympanum is decorated with statues forming a ‘Tree of Jesse’, the Family Tree of Jesus. It has been greatly damaged by the Calvinists during the Wars of Religion. Some statues have been decapitated at the French Revolution. The archivolts from the inside to the outside are decorated with statues of patriarchs and prophets.
The door were created by Nicolas Castille in 1512.
The Saint-Jean Portal
The left portal is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The jambs are adorned with graceful foliage in a pure style. Its tympanum is the only one of the cathedral’s three portals that remained intact.
The tympanum explains the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.
The lower register represents Salome performing a balancing act before King Herod, the execution of John the Baptist and the presentation of his head on a platter.
The upper register shows John being taken into heaven in ecstasy.
Above the tympanum, between the pointed arch and the discharging arch, is represented the baptism of Christ in a special shadow effect set on a cut-stone motif.
The Saint-Étienne Portal
The right portal – Porte Saint-Étienne – is dedicated to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The tympanum comprises of two registers. The lower register shows the lapidation of St. Stephen in the presence of Saul and the upper register a Christ in majesty.
The upper part of the façade
The upper part of the façade above the portals the façade comprises of a rich and beautiful display of Flamboyant Gothic features.
The Great Gable
The central portal is surmounted by a great gable covered with tracery and bas relief. It is flanked by two buttresses which are linked to each other by an elegant gallery with pointed arches.
The Rose Window
The majestic rose window is found above the central portal and is partly concealed by the great gable.
It was created at the end of the 14th century by the cathedral’s master architect, Jean Périer. The pattern of the rose window represents flames which directly refers to Flamboyant Gothic.
The Nave Gable
Above the rose window is a gallery decorated with a row of pointed arches with pinnacles and canopies. This is finally topped by the gable of the nave, richly adorned with sculpture and fretwork. This gable seems to crown the central part of the monumental façade of Rouen Cathedral.
The monumental statues
Above the portals on both sides of the great rose windows are 70 monumental statues from 1362 to 1421. This unique arrangement in France is reminiscent of British cathedrals (Rouen was occupied by the English until the Hundred Years’ War). The statues depict Saints, patriarchs, king, prophets, apostles, bishops and angels.
Although they survived the French Revolution (unlike the statues of the gallery of Kings in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris), they have greatly suffered from industrial pollution since the end of the 18th century. They were restored in the mid-2010s and those who were replaced by copies displayed in the south side of the ambulatory.
Between the Tour Saint-Romain and the Tour de Beurre, the space is filled with seven arcades decorated with tracery. They rise to pierced gables that are crocketted and topped by small statues.
The slender columns flanking the arcades are also terminated by small crocketted pinnacles.
The summit of the façade is completed by four turrets. They are all similar and end with spires of beautiful design and open carving. Two of them were added at the beginning of the 20th century.
The West front of Rouen Cathedral is flanked on each side by two soaring towers: the Saint-Romain Tower and Butter Tower.
Find out more about Rouen Cathedral.