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cathedrals 6:
la Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon

From the 13th century Redemption panel

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New translation, the Magna Carta

cathedral construction and dimensions
stained glass
astronomical clock
the organs
to see in the cathedral
 background facts 

The cathedral of St Jean was called La Primatiale because, from 1079 the Archbishop of Lyon was Primate of the Gauls, exercising judicial supremacy over the main archbishops of France. The name La Primatiale continues even now, though the archbishops of Sens and Paris and their provincial dioceses have not been subject or subordinate to the Archbishopric of Lyon since the French Revolution.

Romanesque and Gothic in its style, Lyon cathedral reflects in its architecture and styles both the story of the city of Lyon and the very long building process, which took over four centuries.


1175 or after,
Archbishop Guichard (1165-1181):
started construction, in Romanesque style, of the cloister wall, together with the walls of the apse, the two lateral chapels and the transept.
Cathedral construction was on fields reclaimed from the banks of the river Saône.
Jean Bellesmains (1182-1193), successor to Guichard:
opened both lateral chapels of the chancel to worship
built up apse and chancel to the triforium
started work on the west side.
Archbishops Renaud de Forez (1193-1226) and Robert d'Auvergne (1226-1234) oversaw:
construction of the eastern arches of the nave and of the triforium of the transept
building, in Gothic style, of vaults of apse and transept
construction of both eastern tower and first four bays of the nave (two double bays) with their sexpartite vaults.
Sexpartite ribs in the vaulting of the nave at Lyon cathedral
1245, completion of stained glass windows in the chancel and both rose windows in the transept.
These had been given by Dean Ernout.
13th Ecumenical Council held in the cathedral after Pope Innocent 4th had fled to Lyon from the besieged city of Rome.
1274, 14th Ecumenical Council convened by Pope Gregory 10th and held in the cathedral
1316, coronation of Pope John XXII
End of the 13th century to first third of the 14th century
the other four bays (two double bays) of nave and lower section of the facade completed.
Archbishop Pierre de Savoie (1308-1332)
commanded production of 280 medallions for the western facade, illustrating episodes from the Old and New Testaments.
The towers of the western facade built by architect Jacques de Beaujeu.
Archbishops Jean de Talaru (1375-1389) and Philippe de Thurey (1389-1415):
oversaw completion of sexpartite vaults of last bays and facade rose window (1392)
End of the 14th century
Henry de Nivelle, stained-glass master, directed production of western/facade rose window.
15th century, top section of the facade and towers completed,
1481, statue of God the Father placed at gable top.
End of 15th century to beginning of 16th century
The chapel de Bourbon is built on the south side, in flamboyant Gothic style.
(chapel named after Cardinal de Bourbon and his brother Pierre de Bourbon, son-in-law of Louis XI, who ordered its construction).
1562, the cathedral is devastated by Calvinist troops headed by Baron des Adrets during the Religion wars.
All statues in the alcoves of the facade destroyed
All angels in the three portals decapitated.
1600, 13th December
King Henri IV of Navarre visited to Lyon, so he could meet his fiancée, the Italian Marie de Medici, on her way from Marseille.
Henri approved of Marie at first sight, and married her straight away in Lyon cathedral.
18th century
Medieval stained glass windows in nave and in tympanum of main portal destroyed on Canons’ orders in order to enable the passage of processions.
1789 on, during the Revolution
cathedral received further deteriorations.
Between 1791 and 1793, Bishop Lamourette ordered modifications to the chancel, in particular the destruction of the rood screen [that divides the choir from the nave].
1845 to 1861
Restoration works by architect Tony Desjardins, intended to complete building unfinished by 15th-century master-builders. Works proposed included roof raising, spires on eastern towers and a new interior decor, in order to give a similar appearence to classical Île-de-France cathedrals.
1861, high-pitched roof completed, and starts a long debate continuing to the 1880s,
with archaeologists opposing architects on restorations as proposed inViollet Le-Duc’s theories that had little respect for a building’s original physiognomy.
1935-1936, the chancel is restored in its medieval layout.
September 1944, Liberation of Lyon
All stained glass windows that had not been removed were destroyed. Fortunately, the oldest glass was put away safely.

cathedral construction and dimensions

The site originally chosen for the cathedral was too small. The site actually used was available in good part because, being reclaimed from the river Saöne, it was not very solid. Thus today, the cathedral lists slightly to the south, with cracks in the transept and the choir.

The building is partly built with blocks recovered from Roman monuments that had collapsed in the ninth century, particularly from the old forum. When the building of the cathedral finished at the end of the 15th century, it had become notable for its flamboyant Gothic features. The facade, completed in 1480, was cleaned in 1982.

The cathedral: 80 metres/262 feet long
including choir: 20 metres/66 feet long
Total aisle width: 26 metres/85 feet
including main nave: 19.3 metres/63 feet wide
Nave arches: 32.5 metres/106.6 feet
choir arches: 24.3 metres/79.7 feet.
Facade towers: 44 metres/144 feet
These are topped by an oak cross 4 metres/13 feet high.
Bell tower (Burgundy tower)
A Burgundy oak frame supports 6 bells, the largest weighing between 8,000 and 9,000 kg /17,600 and 19,800 pounds and measuring 2.07 metres/6.8 feet in diameter!

The cathedral’s interior chronicles the history of its construction. The apse and the choir are Romanesque, but as the visitor moves to the front (west) entrance, the construction becomes more Gothic.

Floor plan of Lyon cathedral
Floor plan of Lyon cathedral. The thin lines mark the ribs of the roof’s vaulting.

Panel showing the history of the Redemption, twelfth century
Panel showing the history of the Redemption, twelfth century


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Chapels, as numbered in plan above:
I Chapel Saint-Pierre/ Chapel of the Virgin II Chapel Saint-Thomas III Chapel of the Annunciation
IV Chapel Saint-Michel V Chapel Saint-Denis & Austregesille VI Chapel Notre Dame & Saint-Jean-Baptiste
VII Chapel of the Fonts VIII Notre-Dame of the Haut-Don / the Cross IX La Madeleine
X Chapel of Saint-Raphael XI Chapel of Saint-Sepulcre XII Chapel of the Bourbons

Stained glass

The Lyonnaise region is less rich than other regions in old stained glass. However, Lyon cathedral retains a complete and strong run of very lovely specimens from the twelfth to the fifteenth century: in the apse, the lateral chapels of the choir and the arms of the cross (the transepts).

In the Chapel of the Virgin [originally called the chapel of St. Peter/Saint-Pierre], there is stained glass dating from the end of the twelfth century. The earliest glass, the chapel’s west window, shows the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul.

The next oldest stained glass at Lyon are the thirteenth century windows of the lower level of the apse. There are seven large bays containing seven brightly lit panels, centred around a panel on the Redemption, shown on the left.

The central panels of the Redemption window each have supporting, smaller panels on each side that develop each central scene and show the mystical significance. The smaller subjects show either events from the Old Testament or symbolic animals. Traditionally, mankind’s sins are redeemed/cancelled out by the death of Jesus.

The panels show, from bottom to top. In the list below, for each entry, the central medallion is decribed first, then the left medallion, and lastly the right medallion:

  1. The Annunciation, with the unicorn, symbol of the Incarnation of Jesus and Isiah showing the text: Ecce Virgo [concipiet] - here the Virgin conceived;
  2. The Nativity, with the burning bush and the fleece of Gideon;
  3. The Crucifixion, with the sacrifice of Abraham and the bronze Serpent;
  4. The Resurrection, with Jonah expelled by the whale and St. Epiphane’s lion of Phisiologus;
  5. Mary, John and two other apostles watchng the Ascension; with a symbolic eagle showing the sun in its claws, and Charadrius (or Calandre) turning its head towards a dying person to heal them, the flying into the sun’s rays (the eagle is, apparently, te only bird capable of flying straight to the sun without being blinded);
  6. The other apostles contemplating Jesus going up to heaven, with two angels holding banners;
  7. In the almond-shaped peak, Christ trimphant carrying his cross, on each side adored by an angel.

During a first restoration in 1844, the order of the panels was unfortunately inverted, and in 1904 when the lead was again renewed, they were remained in this disorder. However, more recently, the panels have been returned to the correct progression.

  • The founding saints of the Church of Gaules - St. Pothin, St. Irene, St. Polycarpe
  • Life of John the Evangelist
  • Life of John the Baptist. Glass presented by archbishop Renaud de Forez
  • the Redemption (central window - here, to the left), giving a resumé of the redemption of the world. The fourteen small subjects to each side show events in the Old Testament or symbolic animals.
  • Life of St Etienne
  • Childhood of Jesus, the Virtues and Vices
  • Resurrection of Lazarus

In the upper part of the choir, the cleristory presents a sucession of prophets. Unfortunately, they have been over-restored..

Prophets stained glass windows.

In the clestory of the apse, are depicted the twelve apostles, all over restored, except for Peter and Paul. In the centre is Jesus and Mary, crowned and sitting on two thrones, with their feet on the arms of the town of Lyon. This window dates from the very end of the 13th century.

There are several rose windows in the Notre-Dame cathedral.

  • High above the choir, the north rose [illustrated below] is small, containing eight medallions, of which only the top three are very old.

The north rose at Lyon cathedral

  • The western rose at the cathedral entrance [illustrated below] dates from 1392, and shows the Easter Lamb surrounded by the life of saint Jean-le-Baptiste, and that of saint Etienne, the saints for whom this cathedral is named.

The central rose window at Lyon cathedral, from the exterior
The west rose window at Lyon cathedral
Above: from the exterior
Below: from inside the cathedral
The central rose window at Lyon cathedral

  • Northern transept rose [shown just below], dates from the 18th century. In the centre, an allegory of the triumphant Church holding the cross and chalice. Occupying two concentric rows of twelve medallions are the Good and the Bad angels, kneeling in adoration before Jesus sitting at the summit, else falling head first. In one of the outside lobes, on the west and just below the horizontal line, is the donor of the glass, Arnoud de Colonges, Canon from 1241 to 1250, holding the rose he gave to the cathedral. An inscription names him: Li doïens Ernous me fecis (sic) facere.

North transept rose

  • Southern transept [méridionale] rose, dates from the 18th century [shown just below]. In the centre, the Holy Spirit. In the inner ring of twelve small medallions are small angels holding parchments rolls and small pots. the exterior ring contains twelve medallions, representing, to the right, the Original Sin in the Earthly Paradise, and to the left, Redemption, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection.
Meridional, or south, transept rose

The colour of stained glass of each window is appropriate to its position. The South transept windows have colder, violet and green colours to offset the heat of the sun, while those in the North transept are predominately warm and red.

  • In the 15th-century chapel of the Bourbons [XII], there is a late Flamboyant spiral rose window. There are also two large bays of which the upper parts still have their orginal glass.

19th century engraving of the Chapel of the Bourbons, with Flamboyant spiral rose window on the left.
19th century engraving of the Chapel of the Bourbons, with Flamboyant spiral rose window on the left

Modern glass wiindows replacing that destroyed by German bombing.Some stained glass windows were destroyed by the German occupation and have
been replaced by modern glass, like the example to the left.

The astronomical clock in Lyon CathedralAstronomical clock

Built by N. Lippius of Basle, this clock was finished in 1598. The mechanism is wrought iron, and includes a perpetual calendar and a religious calendar - the clock can calculate the dates of all saints’ feast days up until 2019, as well as the position of the stars above Lyon. The perpertual calendar is accurate until 3008! There is also an oval minute face. Several moving figures [automatons] ‘come to life’ momentarily at noon, two and three o’clock. The automatons include animals and a scene depicting the Annunciation.

Height: 9.35 metres/30.6 feet
Width: 2.2 metres/7.2 feet






The transept organ, with the astronomical clockThere are two organs. The current main organ was built in 1841 by the company Daublaine et Callinet with the neo-gothique style case designed by Bossanet et revised by Desjardins. From 1852, organ builder Pierre-Alexandre Ducroquet worked on the instrument.

The transept organ was built in 1974 by Jürgen Ahrend, who built the organ for the Church of Reconciliation, Taizé. This organ is based on the idea of a form that is both strong and unified. It was designed according to principles of French classical organ building.This organ was designed and built entirely in Leer (in East Friesland). In 1979, it was disassembled and stored in a barn at Blondiaux Manziat (Bresse). In 1981, it was installed in the church of the monastery Cluniac Payerne (Switzerland), and since 1996, installed in the north transept of Lyon cathedral.

Left: The transept organ, with the astronomical clock



to see in the cathedral

Chapel of the Bourbons, south aisle
Flamboyant architecture and rose window of the late 15th century
Front portals have medallions depicting the Creation, the life of St. John, and the signs of the zodiac.
Stained glass in upper row of windows dates from 1501.
18th century stalls: when the choir was refurnished after the revolution, these stalls were purchased from the abbey at Cluny, which had put them on sale.
High altar
two crosses commemorating the union of the Greek and Latin Churches - the Union of Lyons, proclaimed at the 14th Ecumenical Council in 1274.
Entrance to sacristy, south transept
fine 18th century grillwork
distributed throughout the entire building and on exterior doorways
Background facts
Lyon Lyon coat of arms

approximate population : 480,660
average altitude/elevation : 175 m

cathedral dimensions
80 metres/262 feet long
choir: 20 metres/66 feet long
total aisle width: 26 metres/85 feet
main nave: 19.3 metres/63 feet wide
nave arches: 32.5 metres/106.6 feet
choir arches: 24.3 metres/79.7 feet.
facade towers: 44 metres/144 feet
(These are topped by an oak cross 4 metres/13 feet high.)
bell tower (Burgundy tower)
A Burgundy oak frame supports 6 bells, the largest weighing between 8,000 and 9,000 kg /17,600 and 19,800 pounds and measuring 2.07 metres/6.8 feet in diameter!

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Some reference keywords/tags:
cathedrale,Lyon Cathedral,Cathedrale,Primatiale,photos,image,images,photograph,picture,pics,France,Gothic architecture,statue,iconography,symbol,Amiens,Poitiers,Bourges,Tours,Beauvais,Rouen,Notre-Dame de Paris,Chartres,Dax Cathedral,

end note

  1. A city’s population varies, depending on what is counted as the population. Thus, for Lyon, one can find the following data :
    city : 480,660
    urban area : 1,422,331
    conurbation : 1,757,180.

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