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cathedrals 5:
Laon - the midst of
the gothic transition,
with added oxen

Statues in the tower of Laon cathedral

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New translation, the Magna Carta

Laon cathedral
buttresses and tribunes
a ‘barn’ church
plan of Laon cathedral
why the oxen?
stained glass windows - the roses
stained glass windows - the lancets
"A rare moment" by Anita Virgil
background facts 
end notes
documents on cathedrals and stained glass:
Some of the sixteen statues of bullocks on Laon cathedral.
Some of the sixteen statues of bullocks
on Laon cathedral (circa 1905)
Laon's cows in September 2005. Image credit: engineera
A similar view in September 2005
Image credit: AEngineer

Laon cathedral sits on a high, steep hump of limestone in the midst of the rolling, northern plain of the French wheat belt. It is a beautiful cathedral, in a beautiful position; and badly neglected like so many French public monuments, being damaged by the ravages of pollution. The two images above show this clearly. The nearest bullock has now lost its head, the other animals and floral carvings are badly decayed, while the top balustrade is cased in planking, fixed with bolts, to prevent it falling further apart.[It is possible that the decay had already started at the time of the earlier picture, the top of the balustrade looks as if it may be secured by a plank.]

General view of Laon cathedral

Many of the cathedrals started with plans for a Christmas cake of towers and spires, but usually the builders ran out of enthusiasm and money before the original plans were completed. However, at Laon the builders have made at least a good effort with five towers: the two wonderful constructions on the west facade, then the two rather less ambitious towers at the western side of the transepts, and lastly the stubby effort over the crossing of transepts and nave. This last never did end up with a leaping spire.

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

buttresses and tribunes

Laon is one of the earliest gothic cathedrals, and as such it is transitional in its design. It does not have all of the recognised attributes of the fully-flowered gothic cathedrals. At Laon, the buttresses are not fully exposed, in contrast to the glories of buttressing at Le Mans and Bourges.

Flying buttresses, close-up
Flying buttresses at Laon cathedral [image corresponds to shaded area in diagram below]

Laon cathedral has an upper tribune gallery that helps constrain the high nave walls from bulging outwards.

cross-section of Laon cathedral nave, showing hte unusual four-tier construction.
Cross-section of Laon cathedral nave, showing the unusual four-tier construction

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

a ‘barn’ church

You will see that later, for example at Bourges, the second storey of the apse was inset and the side aisle had become taller. Instead of a tribune, the second storey glass now shone down on the main church, rather than being obscured in the tribune. Laon also differs in that it is the only other ‘major’ French cathedral that has a square east end, like the barn church at Poitiers.

chevet, Laon cathedral
chevet, Laon cathedral

These two cathedrals list high among my favourites for their peace and quiet dignity. Unlike many of the widely known cathedral stars, Laon and Poitiers cathedrals are not overwhelmed to the same degree by tourists. Laon cathedral also has advanced sexpartite vaults in the nave. With its square apse, the bays of the nave march the whole length of the cathedral, giving an open vista of over 100 metres.

Plan of Laon cathedral
Plan of Laon cathedral

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

why the oxen?

There are various suggestions why sixteen bullocks are included on the twin west towers of the cathedral exterior. Twelfth century legend has it that, when the earlier church was being built, a haulage team taking equipment to the foot of the cathedral building works just could not climb up the hill. Suddenly, they saw their team had been reinforced by a bullock who, once the providential mission was completed, disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared. It is said that the famous bullocks were added to the towers in memory of this miraculous intervention. However, this legend apparently relates to the restoration works of the previous church, burnt down in 1112. More prosaic is that the bullocks glorify the enormous labour done by these sturdy helpers of the thirteenth century architect when building the current cathedral.[1]

After the Revolution [1789 on] the bishopric of Laon was removed, so the cathedral became merely the local parish church. Nowadays, there is no hesitation in calling this building a cathedral.

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

West facade of Laon cathedral
(circa 1920s)
Bullocks near the top of one of two towers on the West facade of Laon cathedral (circa 1930s)

West facade of Laon cathedral the portal the portal three-part portal at Laon cathedral
A bullock watching over the fertile valleys below.

stained glass windows - the roses

Click on thumbnail images below to go to larger image versions

Interior of Laon cathedral, showing its four levels. Image credit: Michael Leuty
four tiers of colonnades

East rose window at Laon cathedral
East rose and lancets

credits on page of full versions, as necessary

East rose
East rose

West rose
West rose

North rose
North rose

Being an early Gothic cathedral, Laon has less glass compared to later buildings. The glass is mostly original thirteenth century stained glass (with some 19th century ‘restorations’). There are four rose windows - east, west, north, south. The east facade, above the main altar, has a large rose window, together with three large lancets below. The west rose window matches the east one in its structure. The rose window in the north transept is filled with medallions. The south window is more interesting for its structure than for its glass.

Sadly, the west rose is partially hidden by the organ. The west and east roses are of very similar patterns, varying only at the centre as can be seen on the enlargements.

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

The east rose was dedicated to the glorification of Mary, who is shown in the centre crowned and sitting on a throne, carrying baby Jesus and holding in her right hand the mystical rose, a flaming scarlet flower. To her sides, are two prostrated angels, their hands joined/reaching, while higher up, two other angels sing praises/spread incense. Above her are shown: to the right, the prophet Isaiah (his name is on a scroll) who announced that Jesus would be born from a virgin; to the left, John the Baptist carrying the holy lamb.
The twelve medallions in the first circle represent the apostles, sitting on rainbows, barefoot and with haloes. Their names are written on the banner that each is holding in the right hand, they carry a book in the left. The twenty-four medallions of the second circle feature the Elders of the Revelations/Apocalypse, also sitting on rainbows, with crowned heads. They carry a phial, symbolising the prayers of the saints, and in the other hand a musical instrument: viol, rote***, harp, tambourine, psalterion***.

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

The north rose contains scenes representing the sciences as understood and practiced in the thirteenth century - the trivium and the quadrivium - the sciences and the liberal arts. Only Geometry, Arithmetic, Dialectic and Astronomy are original glass. The others were remade in 1865 [some say 1856], copying statues from the west facade.
The young women sit on benches: Philosophy in the centre, then going clockwise from twelve o’clock - Rhetoric writing on a tablet on her knees; Grammar, with the rods with which she threatens the little children seated at her feet; Dialectic; Astronomy, holding a bushel [8 gal, 36.4 ltr] for observing the stars by reflection when filled with water, or simply to recall that, at that time, this science fixed the dates for sowing; Medicine; Geometry and Music.[It is uncertain whether the window is as it was originally, because Philosophy, Rhetoric, Medicine and Music were missing before the 19th century restoration.]

The current cathedral building was completed in 1230, replacing the previous church destroyed by fire. There are a few carved pieces apparently from the original building in the local Laon town museum.

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

stained glass windows - the lancets

On the East facade [1], the three lancets, still with their original glass, illustrate:

Right lancet
24 yoked medallions representing the life of Mary and the childhood of Jesus, sometimes on two neighbouring medallions [part of a Biblia Pauperum]

1 the Annunciation
2 The Visitation
3 & 4 The Nativity
5 & 6 The annunciation to the shepherds
7 & 8 The adoration of the Wise Men
9 & 10 The presentation to the Temple and the purification of Mary
11 The fleece of Gedeon
12 The burning bush
13 & 14 The flight into Egypt
15 & 16 The return of the Wise Men
17 & 18 Daniel prophesying the fall of the idols [‘concordant’ item from the Old Testament]
19 The sacrifice of Abel and of Cain [‘concordant’ item from the Old Testament]
20 The presentation of Mary to the Temple
21 & 22 The massacre of the innocents

Central lancet
This follows the life of Jesus from his entrance into Jerusalem until the Ascension.
There are a series of five four-lobed medallions that alternate with five circular medallions.
Some have several scenes

1 The triumphal entrance into Jerusalem
2 The Last Supper
3 The washing of feet
4 Jesus in the Garden of Olives
5 The kiss of Judas
6 Jesus before Caïphe
7 The flogging of Jesus
8 Carrying the cross
9 The crucifixion
10 Putting the body of Jesus in the tomb
11 The ‘holy’ women at the tomb
12 Peter and John at the tomb
13 the disciples of Emmaüs
15 The ascension
Left lancet
Twenty-six yoked medallions containing scenes of martyrdom and the legend of Saint Theophile.

The first six represent the life and martyrdom of saint Etienne [Stephen]
1 Etienne is made deacon by two apostles
2 Etienne proclaims the new religion in the presence of a doctor and a high priest who are
   sitting on a stepladder and wearing Jewish caps.
3 Etienne standing between two guards, having been summoned to the Sanhédrin [3] before the
   high priest, who condemns him
4 Jews grab Etienne by the hair and drag him to the place of execution
5 & 6 Etienne is stoned by his accusers, who have heaped their clothes at Saul’s feet, who is sitting.

On the other medallions is shown the miracle of Theophile:
1 Theophile, vidame [2] of the bishop of Adana, in Sicily, talking to his master
2 Disgrace of Theophile, who is removed from his functions; a third person, sitting at the feet
   of the prelate, has already replaced him
3 Theophile (whose name is at the base of the medallion) goes away, drawn by the spirit of evil.
   Devils appear to him, one holding a turncoat’s [renégat] parchment to sign, the other a step
   ladder to take Theophile when he is called by Satan
4 Theophile negotiates with a witch who promises to help him call up Satan
5 Theophile in the presence of Satan, whose appearance terrifies Theophile. Theophile has on
   his knees the book of magic with which he called up Satan
6 He renounces God and signs a parchment in blood, and presents Satan this pact
   concluded with him
7 Theophile, again a vidame because of the pact, distributes gold. He has a devil beside him who encourages him
8 Theophile, vidame, receives a fish as rent from vassals of the bishop
9 He oversees the building of a church
10 Theophile goes into this church
11 He kneels before a statue of Mary
12 Mary appears to him and, on her entreaties, he renounces Satan
13 Mary expels Satan, hitting him with the shaft of a cross
14 She returns to Theophile the pact he had signed with Satan
15 Theophile hands over the document to his bishop
16 The bishop absolved Theophile of his crime, lowering his pastoral staff over him, who is
     kneeling and groveling
17 From the pulpit, with two acolytes holding the crozier and cross, the bishop tells his
     congregation about Theophile’s miracle
18 & 19 Death of Theophile. His body, covered in a habit, is placed in a shroud helped by two
     people. The bishop sprinkled blessed water, accompanied by a clerk carrying the cross
    of his profession.

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

A Rare Moment

by Anita Virgil, USA

[8] Oxen on Laon cathedral Oxen on Laon cathedral [8]

"Laon is built on a high mesa from which the view extends over miles of rolling fields . . . From the tower of the cathedral at the highest point of the town the carved stone heads of cows, instead of gargoyles, gaze in bovine serenity over the landscape."
[The Guns of August, p. 420]

But early on an August morning of 1914, far below the same stone cows gazing across the bucolic panorama below, sat Maréchal Joffre observing the red-trousered French army battle the Germans who were on the march to Paris. Three hours later, satisfied the French soldiers were displaying adequate élan, Joffre had his chauffeur drive him to a station restaurant to enjoy "a good lunch."


Marechal Joffre

Apportez-moi filet de boeuf saignant
pommes de terre frites
et une bouteille de Bordeaux.

the uniforms were woolen on that broiling day
the battle was lost by the French
the war continued four more years

Anita Virgil is a major American haiku poet since 1969. Her haiku, senryu, haibun, haiga, tanka and essays have appeared internationally in haiku magazines, haiku anthologies, textbooks and journals. 
From 2004, most all her works appear online.   Google: Anita Virgil.

[A Rare Moment : first published in Haibun Today, Vol 9 No 1, March 2015 ]


The Guns of August
by Barbara W. Tuchman
Quoted from Bantam Books, 1962, pbk, p. 420

he Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Presidio Press, pbk, 2004

ISBN-10: 0345476093
ISBN-13: 978-0345476098

$7.19 []
£3.87 []

Kindle edition
Penguin, 2014
9840 KB
$7.74 []

marker at cathedrals 5:Laon

an interesting video on Laon cathedral (in French)

4:19 mins

Background facts
Laon approximate population : 27,230
average altitude/elevation : 175 m
cathedral dimensions
total length : 110.5 m
nave width : 30 m
vault height : 24 m
north tower : 60.5 m
south tower : 56 m

Marker at

end notes

  1. Freely translated from La cathedrale de Laon by Lucien Broche, 1926.

  2. Vidame: Officer appointed by bishops to handle their temporal interests, both judicial and military, from which activities bishops were forbidden. In due course, the appointment became hereditary and sometimes the title transmuted in to viscompte.

    Occurring mostly in the 11th and 12th centuries, by the 13th century, the post was near defunct, as French kings curtailed their powers. The vidame’s duties included managing and protecting the estates of the bishopric, administering the episcopal jurisdiction in the bishop’s name, to representing the bishop different courts, leading the bishop’s troops in battle.

  3. Sanhedrin: ancient Jewish court system, the Jewish ‘Supreme Court’.

  4. Yoked medallions are two medallions partially joined together.

  5. Lancet: pointed, as seen in the arches and windows with a pointed head introduced in the Gothic period of architecture. [From the point of a lance, or spear.]

  6. A crozier is the large shepherd’s stick carried by a bishop, or carried for him. The crozier is generally very lavish, gilded in gold and topped by an ornate hook. Shepherds use a long stick with a big hook at one end to catch individual sheep. In christianism there is a notion that the priest are like shepherds, caring for their flock or in this case their congregation, of which the crozier is the symbol.

  7. In stained glass, a medallion refers to circular or other shaped section of a window, generally one of many within the overall window design, that contains a figure or figures.

  8. Image credits:
    On left: Wikimedia Commons, Acroterion (Laon cathedrzl)
    On right: 1900s postcard from archives

  9. Translation: "Bring me rare beef fillet, fried potatoes and a bottle of Bordeaux."

  10. envoi
    an author's concluding words.

    marker cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
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