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Les Stalles de la Cathédrale de Rouen

 | 
C. Elaine Block
, 
Frédéric Billiet

Sommaire en anglais

The Construction of the Choir Stalls at Rouen Cathedral (1457-1471)

Philippe Lardin

Texte intégral

1This article examines closely the accounts of the Cathedral of Rouen as they trace the history of the construction and installation of a new set of choir stalls in the fifteenth century. The commission of the new set was especially important since lack of funds and military action in this region during the previous century prevented the Cathedral from maintaining the old set. The old seats were in a deplorable condition and some were no longer usable; thus, new choir stalls were badly needed.

2The accounts of the Cathedral of Rouen are extant for most of the years when the choir stalls were being constructed; however, accounts before 1457, during the planning stages and the preliminary work on the stalls, are missing, as are those for the years 1458-59. The accounts that do exist (one rarely finds such well-kept accounts) provide such information as the number of artisans, their problems on the job, the wood purchased, the elements carved, the dates when parts were put in place, as well as the date of the final installation of the choir stalls.

3As early as 1449 the community of canons had looked for a workshop to construct new choir stalls. They had offered a contract to the sculptor Jacques Barbelot; unfortunately, he died before he could start the job. In 1440 Cardinal d’Estouteville had offered partial payment for a new Episcopal seat.

4In 1453 a committee of canons, after seeing a model stall, offered a contract to Laurent Surreau. The committee visited two churches, the one at Sausseure and the other at St Evroult, and they requested stalls similar to those sets. However, that contract was never finalized.

5In 1456 the committee of canons visited the workshop of Philippot Viart, a Norman probably from Rouen, and in 1457 they offered him a contract. Since there were few skilled woodworkers in Normandy, Viart employed carvers from other regions. He encountered various problems with candidates from the North: some did not wish to leave their homes; others refused to work for a new master carver; and some, especially those who spoke Flemish, refused to speak a foreign tongue. In 1461 Viart sought sculptors from St-Denis; and in 1465 he visited workshops in northern towns, including Amiens, Abbeville, Tournoi, Arras, Lille, Brussels and Nivelles in his search for sculptors.

6The work on the choir stalls took fourteen years and was completed in 1471. The workshops of three masters were involved: Philippot Viart (1457-1468), Jean Remond from Cambrai (1466-1470), and Laurent Adam (for the Episcopal chair) from Auxerre (1466 – 1471).

Philippot Viart and His Workshop

7In 1457 six woodcarvers were employed in Philippot Viart’s workshop. They lived and worked in the Hôtel Haut du Doyen, a few hundred yards from the cathedral. Smaller decorations were probably carved at this site and in the sculptors’ private studios. In 1458 Viart presented a model stall to the canons, and they accepted it shortly thereafter. In 1461-62 additional Flemish workers arrived, including Pol Mosselman, who had worked earlier on the stalls. A total of thirty-seven sculptors worked at the cathedral, some for only a few months, while others stayed as long as six or seven years. Each year an average of six to ten carvers, but never more than twelve, worked there. Some were paid by the day; others, by the piece. Some maintained the same wages while others were offered raises.

8This set of choir stalls comprised about 90 seats, and 800 pieces of wood were purchased at Croissy and Tronquey-en-Lyons. Records list payments for twenty-four angels, twenty-four designs of cabbage foliage, saints, an Annunciation, Old Testament figures, the seven cardinal and theological virtues, the “Old Law” and the “New Law.” Toward the completion of the project, a large gallery was built to house the assembled choir stalls.

The Attitudes of the Canons

9Until 1463 the canons seemed to be satisfied with the progress and the quality of Viart’s work. Because he had not yet completed the project in 1463, they served Viart with legal papers, which ordered that he produce three stalls and two pinnacles by the middle of Lent. That was a very modest demand, considering the length of time Viart had already worked. To encourage the woodworkers to speed up their work, a group of canons offered Viart’s men additional food and wine. At the close of 1464, the old choir stalls were repaired. In June 1466, the canons expressed satisfaction that the project was almost completed, and they offered the workers culinary treats and wine. Toward the end of 1466, several seats and part of the woodwork were installed. However, there were problems with the installation, most likely because of incorrect measurements or because the wood had been poorly prepared for carving.

10In 1467 one section of the choir stalls was assembled. Additional wood was purchased and problems of installation were solved. Viart admitted that several pieces were carved incorrectly and had to be replaced. In August 1467, the carvers returned to the Hôtel Haut du Doyen to complete the carvings, but they were forced to accept lower wages. Meanwhile, the old stalls were sold, some of them to the church at Granville. Pol Mosselman died of the plague, and the canons ordered Viart to hire more sculptors.

11In 1478 Viart was fired. He was arrested and some of his assets were seized. Nevertheless, he continued to work on the decorative elements of the choir stalls. In 1468 the canons cut salaries again, and they searched for additional woodcarvers. Both the old and the new workers were lodged at the Hôtel Haut du Doyen.

The Workshop of Jean Remond

12Jean Remond, from Cambrai, moved into the Hôtel Haut du Doyen when Viart moved out. Eleven sculptors worked with him in 1467-68, and twenty-two worked with him in 1468-69. Some of the artisans from Viart’s workshop stayed on; some who had left Viart's workshop earlier returned; and some men came from Cambrai with Remond. Their main task was to repair defective structural elements and sculptures from Viart’s workshop. In May 1468, the North and East sides of the stalls were in place, but they could not be used. While much of Viart’s work was usable, some elements had to be modified or replaced.

13Remond apparently used the large structural elements from Viart’s workshop, but he worked just as slowly as his predecessor. By November 1470, parts of the stalls were nailed in place. Nevertheless, the canons fired Remond and several of his carvers on January 4, 1471. Records show that they continued to buy more wood, and by January 24, 1470, the work on the choir stalls was considered complete.

The Workshop of Laurent Adam

14Laurent Adam arrived in Rouen from Auxerre in January 1466 to work on the Episcopal chair ordered by the Cardinal d’Estouteville. Shortly thereafter he was considered the director of this project. The Episcopal chair was to be “as rich, as complete, as beautiful as possible.” This was a much smaller project than the carving of the choir stalls, so there were far fewer problems with the work. Some carvers worked for the Adam workshop while they were working for either Viart or Remond. The Episcopal seat was installed in April 1469, and the entire ensemble of stalls was assembled on May 29, 1470.

15The workshop provided stable work in Rouen for sculptors for several years. The causes of the long delays are not certain, but they might have been due to problems with the wood. Viart’s workshop might have been responsible for some of the other problems. The accounts document the names of the carvers, the amounts they were paid, the canons’ roles in relation to the workshop. Also, the reader can infer from the extant documents a clear picture of the structure and decorations of the choir stalls as they existed in 1471.

© Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2003

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