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Les Stalles de la Cathédrale de Rouen

C. Elaine Block
Frédéric Billiet

Sommaire en anglais


Texte intégral

  • 1 For photographs to accompany these articles please consult the analogous articles in French.

1Early in the morning of December 26, 1999 a violent storm passed from the ocean at the west to the mountains at the east of France. Millions of trees were downed, forests were decimated and it will take many years, for example, for the park of Versailles to regain its former glory.

2Little was said about other damages; one was to the cathedral of Rouen in Normandy. Shortly before Sunday mass, the storm raged through Rouen and toppled a nineteenth century tower, one of four that framed the cathedral spire. The twenty-eight ton tower fell forty meters, leaving a large hole in the roof before it crashed into the cathedral choir, splintering several choir stalls in its path. Fortunately the cathedral was empty; only the sacristan, outside the choir, was preparing the cathedral for the services.

3Scaffolding remained in the choir for several months as the roof was repaired. The damaged carvings were removed into a chapel and awaited attention from experts who first had to decide which splinter of wood belonged to which carving. This assignment was accepted by Art de l’Etat, under the direction of Marcel Fancelli. This talented family, engaged in sculpture from the time of the Italian Renaissance restored the choir stalls of the Cathedral of Saint-Claude, one half of which were totally destroyed by fire in 1983. Several photographs of the burned stalls are included in this issue of Profane Arts. We were fortunate to arrange an interview with Marcel Fancelli in his office so that we could learn some of the problems, and the progress of this work. The choir stalls will not be restored and reinstalled before the year 2003.

4The choir stalls, now 66 in number of an original approximation of 98, were commissioned by the Cardinal d’Estouteville in 1441. At that time, a chapter of canons participated in the religious services of the cathedral. Kristiane Lemé, in her article, describes their life in the fifteenth century. While they had lived as a community, by the fifteenth century they lived mainly a secular life in their own houses and ran their own businesses. The large number of misericord carvings of local occupations shows the commercial life in fifteenth century Rouen. These carvings may also show the businesses of the canons who belonged to this cathedral chapter!

5There were problems with the carvers and the stalls took longer to make than was anticipated. While some of the carvers were from the local area, some came from Flanders and the results can be seen in the Flemish carvings on the stalls – “casting roses to swine”, “outgaping the oven”. These carvings can be compared, with the proverbs in Bruegel’s incredible painting now in the Berlin National Gallery. Professor Lardin describes the recurrent problems of the carvers and how they were resolved in his article on the daily work on the choir stalls.

6The fifteenth century stalls looked very different from those we see today. The mobile seat is still there as well as the misericords, the carvings beneath the seats, since their position protected them from much vandalism. However, the arm-rests, of seated figures in action, are all missing their heads. We can still identify an organ player and a fruit vendor but many of these small carvings have been mutilated beyond recognition. We can get an idea of their original themes by looking at the arm-rests of another church in Seine-Maritime, Blainville-Crevon. The arm-rests there show figures in the same position as the Rouen figures and they are also in action.

7The original choir stalls also had dorsal panels behind the high row of stalls. These protected the canons from the winds and the cold and also acted as a sounding board for the psalmodies that were dominant in the liturgy. We have little notion how these panels were decorated. They probably had a canopy and probably a crest. There may have been small statues in niches on the back panels, or arches with decorations of foliage, heads, animals or grotesques. Lardin indicates that the cathedral accounts specified payment for several Old and New Testament scenes and also figures of saints. Dorsal panels of must church choirs have disappeared, either through the vandalism of the Huguenots, or the edicts of various religious councils, ordering the choir to be opened to the eyes of the congregations.

8The first time I saw the Rouen cathedral, soon after the Second World War ended, there was a barrier around the cathedral and the sidewalk was littered with stone that had been on statues and other parts of the façade and the towers. At that time I had never heard of misericords but of course they too were hit in the war. Madame Sylvie Leprince was kind enough to make available to me an astounding number of documents dealing with various restorations of the choir stalls. One, of particular interest, dealt with the restoration of ten choir stalls damaged during the bombing of Rouen in 1944. They were restored in the nineteen fifties and have been in the archbishop’s palace ever since, absorbing as much dirt as possible in that immense building. I have summarized the information from this document in the article on the choir stalls now in the archbishop’s palace. Their eventual destination is the proposed museum of the “oeuvre de la Cathedral” which adjoins the portail des libraries on the north side of the cathedral.

9In order to get an idea of how differently we may look at these misericords we asked a number of medievalists to choose one photograph of a misericord and to react to it in any way they pleased. One is a specialist in missionaries, another in falconry. One has written on the Bayeux tapestry and one is an expert on Bruegel. A work of art must by definition be many faceted and viewers come away with different reactions and have even seen different things in the same work of art. The Rouen misericords are no exception. They have been studied several times, but there has never been a book, which included photographs of the entire ensemble.

10We have proposed that on Patrimony day, the third weekend in September, that these magnificent works of art which reveal an extraordinary glimpse into medieval Rouen be opened to the public and that some misericord experts be invited to guide the viewer through these stalls to understand more about fifteenth century Rouen and to enjoy this bit of patrimony in Normandy.

11The staff of the Profane Arts is deeply indebted to Yves Lescroart, former conservator of Haute Normandie and to his colleague, Sylvie Leprince. They not only spent time with us describing the events that led to the choir stall catastrophe in December 1999, but also made available many documents that made possible this special issue of the Profane Arts. We also wish to thank the Faculty of Letters of Rouen University for making available meeting space and for letting us use of their audio-visual facilities, as well as their parking lot! Our thanks also to Marcel Fancelli for permitting us to tour his laboratory and to speak with us on the process of restoring the Rouen choir stalls. We are most grateful also to Mme Franco who followed this book most graciously through its many stages from first draft to publication.


1 For photographs to accompany these articles please consult the analogous articles in French.

© Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2003

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