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Les Stalles de la Cathédrale de Rouen

C. Elaine Block
Frédéric Billiet

Sommaire en anglais

Another Medieval Work in Wood at Rouen: the Friezes of the Aitre Saint-Maclou

Sylvie Bethmont-Gallerand

Texte intégral

1Choir stalls were not the only masterworks of the medieval wood carver. He also sculpted decorations on the facades and the interiors of private homes and even sculpted fine furniture. The church furnishings were therefore similar to that produced for the lay population.

2One vestige of Rouen sculpture, still remarkably conserved although most of the original structure has disappeared, is the wood frieze of the Aitre St Maclou The rectangular St. Maclou lies between the streets Martinville and Géricault. The galleries surround the center of the cemetery where the dead were shrouded in bare earth. Bones came to light when new graves were opened near ground already used. Out of respect for the dead, the bones, anonymous through the decomposition of the flesh, were placed in a charnel house; after a time they were piled up to the roof. While there were other cemeteries in France St. Maclou is unique in the richness of its décor and the complexity of its iconography on the friezes and wooden posts.

3This study aims to show that this charnel house, used by the dead and the living, presented through its décor, an equivalent to a book on death. Multiple dimensions of funeral rites are shown through liturgy, processions and also through social and pedagogic activities which took place in the Aitre. The bones were preserved for several centuries.

4It is anachronistic to think of the sculptures of the Aitre as macabre or morbid. Two books, The Art of Dying, and The Tract on the Art of Dying Well are witness to a new spirituality that appeared at the close of the Middle Ages with the sermons of the cleric Gerson. These books were read by clerics and laics and were translated throughout Europe in the early sixteenth century.

5Study of the art of “living well” could only illuminate the “art of dying well”. The last instants of life, the agony and accompaniment of liturgical gestures and last sacraments, invite the reader to “die well”, the only payment for eternal happiness.

6In addition to the illustrations in texts, «macabre» images often with human skulls and symbolic objects such as mirrors are interspersed. Beginning in the fifteenth century these images were popular in most of Europe, especially with a classical theme of “vanitas”. In the Aitre, many skulls crowned with foliage and the sphere of the inverted world, evoke this theme. Visitors to the Aitre can see a didactic program conveying the idea that “Death equalizes everyone”. The cross in the center of the Aitre conveys the global meaning of the ornamentation.

7All the motifs on the wood friezes relate to the sculptures on the pillars. One pillar shows the entry of death into the world through the fall of Adam. Another announces Resurrection of Man through Christ. Classical figures, the Sibyls, putti and crowned heads on columns show the influence of the Renaissance at the Aitre.

8The double «dance macabre» decorating the pillars shows, as do the engravings of this subject, that Death is an equalizing force. Society is divided into two groups, ecclesiastics on the Eastern pillars and laics on the west side. The laics include an emperor, a king, and rich men. On the other side a double cross implies the presence of the Pope. He is followed by two bishops with crosses, Benedictine and Carthusian monks and two dead carrying a sarcophagus. The engravings in editions published by Guy Marchand are similar. If these images appear to be unique as sculptures they actually were not isolated examples in the Middle Ages. The sculptures on choir stalls include a number of macabre objects and symbols of “vanitas”.

9The motifs decorating the friezes, which represent objects relating to death may be classified according to different moments from instants before death to funeral.


10Most crosses are processional and accompany the priest and his aides to the house of the dying person or to his funeral. A panel of the pews at Fawsley (England) shows a dead person jumping from his coffin. While he is enveloped in a shroud his bare chest is covered with a large cross. The coffin is decorated with a cross sculptured on the lid or on the fabric covering the coffin. In certain illuminations, a processional cross is placed in the margin below Adam’s skull at Golgotha.

11Several elements are crossed in the Aitre friezes, especially long bones. Artists have often placed cruciform leg bones juxtaposed to Adam’s skull. (Fig. 1).

12Containers of holy oil for extreme unction in the form of small houses: Images which accompany the Office of the Dead show the priest’s assistant carrying the small coffers and a padded plug to put holy oil on the body of the dying.

13Candles, candlesticks and torches. (Fig. 2). The sick man holds a lighted candle at the moment of death. Last communion is held in a room lit by candles and candles light the way when the coffin is taken to the church, in the church and on the way to the cemetery.

14Books: Prayer books comfort the dying and their families. Priests read books at the foot of the coffin, while singing the Office of the Dead and at the cemetery. However, sometimes the burial ritual is without priest and according to modest rites.

15Sacred Vessals: The lidded vases contain the host for last rites. On a frieze on the west side of the Aitre, a vase leans against the world upside down, with no cross. (Fig. 3). This world symbolizes wordly perversions and is also carved, with cross on bottom, on a sixteenth century misericord at the church of St Maurille at Ponts-de-Cé (Maine-et-Loire).

16Coffins, open or closed, decorated with a cross. (Fig. 4). In the fifteenth century the dead were generally wrapped in a shroud and not buried in a coffin. At the parish of St Maclou the bier, candlesticks and other burial accessories were lent by the parish. A figure representing death carrying his attribute, a coffin and mounted on an ox is carved on a misericord at the church of St-Adrien at Pocé-surCisse (Indre-et-Loire).

17Different kinds of pails for holy water: A canon holds his asperge on a false arm-rest at the Cathedral of Amiens (1508-1509). (Fig. 5).

18Vestments (Fig. 6): The stole represents the «yoke of Christ». For burials, the stole is black.

19Ringing of Bells, clocks (Fig. 7): Bells announced the passing of a corpse. Little bells were rung at the head of funeral processions. Small bells, sometimes shaken by angels in manuscript marginalia, served to make the devil flee. The tintinabulum, a series of bells, which gives the tone to the other instruments, figures on a quadrilobe on the stalls of Cologne Cathedral.

20Utensils of the Gravedigger: Axes. Spades, picks.

21Gravediggers are often depicted in the non-biblical illustrations of the Office of the Dead. They gather the bones and arrange them in the ossuary. A «vanitas» scene on a misericord at Ludlow (England) shows the fragility of life. It includes the same objects we see on the St. Maclou frieze: bones, skulls, spade and pick, a coffin, a pail with holy water.

22Human bones (Fig. 8): The gravediggers unearthed bones after the flesh had disappeared so we see carvings of clean jawbones, skulls, ribs, leg, arm and other bones. We see skulls, the epitome of the vanitas scenes on many choir stalls. A skull forms a pendant above a dorsal panel at Beverley Minster (Angleterre). At Coulanges (Loir-et-Cher) a sixteenth century misericord shows a skull covered by a veil. At St Bertrand-de-Comminges the patriarch Abraham, on a dorsal panel, crosses his legs and rests his left foot on a skull. On the same ensemble, Fortitude is sculpted on a dorsal panel also with her foot on a skull, signifying the triumph of Faith over death. At Chaumont-enVexin (Oise), on a sixteenth century misericord the head of a young girl juxtaposed with a skull represents “The Young Girl and Death”.

23Symbolic objects accompany figures of death and vanitas scenes.

  • Spades and arrows - attributes of death personified - appear on tombs and walls of cemeteries.
  • Mirrors are juxtaposed with instruments of the passion – nails and whips (Fig. 8) Sixteenth century misericords at Lorris (Loiret) include motifs like those at the Aitre. On the arm-rests, angels holding mirrors alternate with monks holding instruments of the passion.
  • An inverted purse on the Aitre frieze is similar to the motif on a misericord on the high stalls at St-Jean-de-Maurienne (Savoie) where money falls from a purse. Nearby a fool holds a mirror. A monk gazes at an image of his skull on his bauble on a Misericord at the abbey of Orbais (Marne), dated 1520.

24Posts (Fig. 9) supporting the ossuary have Renaissance decor of ribboned crowns. Instruments of the gravediggers are sometimes crossed. Bones on the vertical posts are mainly crowned skulls. There are also busts in the classical style and winged putti on the capitals of these columns.

25Death at the Aitre is not only tied to periods of the plague or of wars. These tragic episodes fostered various types of meditation on death and helped to standardize images by the end of the fifteenth century. Conservation of bones in the ossuary, open to the public, resulted in a cult of Death which was forever present.

26The organization of the Aitre recalls the rites for the dead by putting the living in contact with the images of the dead and their ultimate corporeal transformation. The décor of the Aitre St. Maclou is not just simple ornamentation. The interaction between the living and the dead, between actual death and its visual representations encourage contemplation, here primarily of the Resurrection. The ossuary proposes a moral lesson, which ties the stages of the good death to the memento mori awaiting Salvation. The living, supported by this hope, can offer their prayers, their suffering, and all the offering for the dead that thus provide them with vigilant protection.


27Aitres were generally constructed when the cemetery around the church was filled. The Rouen Aitre was authorized by Philippe le Long in 1335

28The cemetery of St Maclou continued to grow. Epidemics and the plague, which lasted in Rouen for the entire year of 1348; caused the death of a third of the population. After several enlargements the Aitre was endowed by the administrators in 1526, including the north, south and west galleries, which are the ones that were painted and sculpted. Later additions, such as the south gallery imitate the décor of the sixteenth century. The Huguenots, who sacked Rouen in 1559 and 1562 mutilated the sculptures on the posts of the north, east and west galleries. The south gallery, donated by a priest, was only built in 1651.

29Like the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris the dead were not the sole occupants of the Aitre. Many of the activities in the medieval cemetery, showed little respect for the dead nor for the holy ground.

30In 1659 Priests lodged in the north gallery. A boys’ school followed with a school for poor girls not long after. In 1705 a free school was established for the parish children. An extra gallery was built in 1744 to accommodate the increasing number of pupils. Exterior staircases, still in use, provided access to the upper levels. A fire in 1758 caused some destruction and traces of restoration can be seen on the sculpted friezes. Two hundred calm years with monks, were interrupted by the Revolution in 1792. The administration of the parish St Maclou repossessed the Aitre at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

31Starting in 1781, there were no further burials in the Aitre. The large cross remained in place and trees were planted. The current cross replaced the original in 1818. In 1858, the galleries, threatening to crack under the weight of 850 children were repaired and strengthened.

32At the start of the twentieth century the measures to separate church and state affected the function of the Aitre school. In 1911 a hostal for young girls was installed. After a period of abandonment, the city of Rouen became owner in 1927. A museum was installed and then the city offered space to the School of Beaux-Arts which has been in the Aitre since 1940.

© Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2003

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