A Chronology for Auxerre Cathedral

Harry Titus

Wake Forest University

Updated July 1, 2006

 

This chronology is something of a moving target. Thanks to the efforts of scholars representing many disciplines, working in concert with the Centre d'Études médiévales (CEM) in Auxerre, new information about the cathedral, Saint Etienne, is being developed rapidly. The interpretations presented here are mine; other scholars have their own interpretations of the data. In many cases I will refer to these other interpretations in order that the reader might know where differences of opinion lie. Since the time when I completed my dissertation on the cathedral in the early 1980s, my opinions about relative construction progress have not changed significantly. However, new techniques of investigation have produced more secure dating criteria, especially for construction phases in the 14th century. It is evident to me now that construction in the nave was much further along than I had thought when English marauders sacked Auxerre in 1359. Dendrochronology and petrographic analysis have made it possible to tighten the chronology. At the CEM, Sylvain Aumard has kept close track of the restoration campaign (2001-2008) that is being carried out by Bruno Decaris, the architect in charge of the cathedral. Aumard has made many crucial observations during the course of the restorations. Most impressively, as the nave roof tiles were replaced, he collected and analyzed samples which he has been able to classify and compare with tiles from other sites, in effect creating a new subject of investigation in the Auxerrois. Also at the CEM, Stéphane Büttner has contributed a great deal to the understanding of masonry and mortars employed in the medieval period. Fabienne Joubert, first at the Université de Bourgogne and now at the Université de Paris, is attempting to fill the overlooked and/or difficult gaps in our understanding of the cathedral's sculptural programs. She is addressing certain of these problems herself, plus she has given her students projects to study the portals of the north and south arms of the transept. At the suggestion of Dieter Kimpel, Heike Hansen and her team of architects from the University of Stuttgart have made detailed, stone by stone drawings of the portals and of other elements brought to light during the restorations. For readers who are familiar with medieval scholarship, it goes without saying that Christian Sapin, the CEM's archaeological driving force, has been systematically studying his way through the crypt.

1023. A fire spread through much of the city of Auxerre, destroying its churches except for S. Alban. Terminus post quem for the Romanesque cathedral of Auxerre, of which the crypt is extant.

1036. A fire in Auxerre spared the cathedral.

1057. The Romanesque cathedral was consecrated.

Circa 1215. This is the date assigned for the beginning of the present cathedral chevet. The date is inferred from the collapse of towers in 1217 that flanked the Romanesque choir, discussed below. The implicit question about the start date and its relation to the 1217 incident is how far demolition and subsequent construction might have progressed at the time of the towers' collapse. In my opinion, this first program was conceived as a modernization of the sanctuary, that is, the hemicycle and ambulatory turning bays only, and was based on the profile of the existing Romanesque crypt, which serves as its foundation.

1217. The collapse of the two towers that flanked the Romanesque choir is described and dated in the narrative life of Guillaume de Seignelay presented in the continuation of the Gesta of the bishops of Auxerre (see bibliography page). Once the towers had collapsed, accidently clearing space to the west of the sanctuary, a decision was made to expand the chevet program to the west by four bays, beyond the limits of the crypt, employing alternating supports, as it exists in plan today. The plan suggests that two sexpartite vaults were envisioned to cover the straight bays of the chevet. A number of adjustments to the crypt and along the exterior perimeter walls of the chevet were made to accomodate this change in concept.

Circa 1220-1225. In constructing the chevet, the apices of the straight bay arcades are higher than those of the hemicycle. The aisle vaults had to be ramped up in their inner voutains to reach the new height, a solution that was not so pronounced in the turning bays of the chevet. Beginning at the base of the triforium, the concept, execution and details of the elevation change markedly. My interpretation of these adjustments is that the builders decided at this point to make the chevet taller than they had originally envisioned, while maintaining their hallmark system of interior passageways at each level of the elevation, the famous "diaphanous wall."

1235. The date established through dendrochronological analysis as the felling date for the main elements of the chevet charpente. Thus, the roof structure dates after 1235, and since the roof structure precedes vaulting (the charpente was normally employed to hoist vaulting materials), the high vaults should be dated to circa 1240. We owe the reports on dendrochronolgy to a team led by Christine Locatelli of the Unversity of Besancon. By the time the vaulting zone had been reached, the sexpartite scheme gave way to quadripartite vaults, which was a more current solution. However, the fit of the quadripartite vaults over the alternating supports resulted in awkward masonry solutions above the clerestory capitals.

1215-1240. Chevet issues. We reach a point of disagreement regarding the sequence of events in the chevet campaign and their interpretation. Dieter Kimpel, University of Stuttgart, considers the chevet to be a single, unified campaign conceived by a master of great ability. The French also consider the chevet to be unified; Anne Prache cites essential comparisons with the plan of Sens cathedral. She does not believe there is as much influnce from contemporary developments at Chartres cathedral as I do.

The main vessel at Sens was nearing completion when construction at Auxerre was begun. There can be no doubt that the Auxerre patrons were very conscious of events at Sens. The lower west facade at Auxerre is completely dependent on the Sens facade, of which it is essentially a mirror image in plan. However, in the chevets, once past the question of alternation of supports and a similar floor level plan, the partis of the elevations are completely different. On the other hand, when the Auxerre chevet reached the triforium level in the 1220s, work at Chartres had arrived at the clerestory zone. The double lancet surmounted by an oculus in the clerestory zone at Auxerre cannot be explained as a serendipitous, parallel development to Chartres; it is an example of an attempt to adopt up-to-date elements at Auxerre. In this case the large clerestory windows are married to an early Gothic structural scheme. The result, addressed periodically from the 14th century to the 20th century, was ambiguous structural stability.

Why is this important? Because the lightweight, voided, skeletal structure of the Auxerre chevet as built represents a third structural possibility in emerging High Gothic practice in the early years of the 13th century, alongside those represented by Chartres and Bourges. Its ultimate influence did not rival the influence of the other two models, however.

Circa 1240. I believe that the builders turned their attention to the question of new west entrances only after they completed work on the chevet, although the two may have been conceived earlier as a unit, reminiscent of Abbot Suger's activity at Saint-Denis. Everyone is agreed that the southwest ground-floor block was the first section of the new west complex erected, two bays to the west of the then-extant Romanesque nave and its western terminus. It is aligned with the recently completed chevet. The decision to enlarge the cathedral is underlined by the placement of this block. The Romanesque crypt had facilitated the expansion of the 11th-century cathedral toward the east; in the 13th century, moving westward, and uphill, was the solution to the desire for greater size. The southwest portal sculpture is the earliest on the west complex. A fixed date for the sculpture has proven to be elusive, but dating hypotheses are centered on the decade of the 1260s. This portal has received the most scholarly attention among the western portals.

Mid-13th Century. The lower section of the central west portal dates to this period, up to the base of the now-empty niches for the main jamb figures. The sculpted reliefs on the central portal splays are celebrated for their unusual subject matter and for their method of organization. The portal enframement and its sculpture also dates to this period. The upper sculptural zones were re-worked later in the Middle Ages, see below.

1280-1300. The northwest block of the facade, its portal, and its sculpture date to a phase of construction that falls into this period. The relationship between the relief panels and their complexly molded enframements is beautifully conceived. This portal especially needs more study. In my opinion both its subject, the Genesis story on the dado panels allied here with the Coronation of the Virgin on the lintel, and its style are key components for understanding the diffusion of "Court Style" elements in northen France.

Circa 1310. Under the leadership of Bishop Pierre de Grez (reg. 1309-1322) a project to connect the chevet with the west portal block was begun. The earliest phase comprises the foundations and lowest courses, up through the plinths and bases, of the perimeter wall of the transept and nave. On the exterior of the south transept arm, this phase reached a buttress molding at the top of the portal level. A piece of wood found in one of the scaffolding holes has been dated by the dendrochronolgy team to a felling date of 1310.

1315. In Europe, the famine of 1315 and following years. It is clear that there was a hiatus in the project around this period, in my opinion reaching into the early 1320s.

1320s-1330s. The transept/nave project was restarted, with emphasis on the south transept arm and the perimeter walls of the nave. In this period the Romanesque nave was removed, except for its facade wall, to make way for the western crossing piers, and eventually for the rest of the nave piers. I believe that the Romanesque west wall was left in place as a convenient, temporary closure between bays 3 and 4 of the nave.

1321. Pope John XXII granted an indulgence in favor of those who would contribute to the continuation of the cathedral. I interpret this action to be an indication that financing construction projects had become problematic in the wake of difficult years. The patrons were looking for methods to increase their income for such projects.

1324-25. Dendrochronology date for the felling of the earliest wood in the south crossing area of the charpente. The crossing charpente, logically enough, has more than one dated phase because it was reworked each time one of its adjacent arms was under construction. This date suggests that construction was progressing up through the western crossing piers. One adjacent pier to each of the south, west, and north of the western crossing piers would have been completed at least to the main arcade level to provide 3-dimensional solidity to the program.

1328-29. Dendrochronology date for the felling of the south transept arm beams. This date implies that the structure of the south arm and the south arm vault probably date to 1325-1340. The nave perimeter wall also was completed during this period. Important building precedents were set at this time. The easternmost exterior buttress on the south side of the nave dates to this period. Its design is unique among the cathedral buttresses. It receives the flyer buttressing the west side of the south transept arm, as well as the easternmost flyer of the south nave. Its Rayonnant decor was abandoned when the remainder of the nave buttresses were constructed, but the design of its two-tier flyers was retained throughout an extended series of later construction campaigns. In 1996 Jean Pierre Cassagnes wrote a Mémoire de maitrise at the University of Burgundy under the direction of Fabienne Joubert on the south arm portal (see bibliography page). He argued for a date in the early 1330s for this beautifully carved tympanum, a dating that fits in well with the developing chronology.

1334-35. General consecration of the cathedral. Attempts have been made to tie this event to a specific point in the cathedral's building sequence. However, this consecration is part of a larger round of consecrations in Burgundy at this time. It probably has little meaning in terms of the cathedral's sequence of construction.

1341. Documentary evidence tell us that in this year master Jean de Valenfroy, master of the fabric at Sens cathedral, had half of his expenses for an 8-day trip underwritten by the fabric of Auxerre cathedral. Stéphane Büttner, masonry expert of the CEM working with the Stuttgart team, has connected this activity with pierre de Paris that was imported and employed in the nave piers at the cathedral (but not in their connecting arches and spandrels, which are made of pierre de Tonnerre). If Büttner is correct, he provides us with a precious dating reference about the progress of the nave campaign in the first half of the century. The construction of the nave piers in the 1340s would have been followed by the ten nave side aisle vaults, which are relatively consistent among themeselves.

Circa 1340. Modern commentary on the cathedral has recognized a 14th-century phase of re-consolidation in the 13th-century chevet. The most evident witness to this phase is the first pair of choir supports east of the eastern crossing piers. They were remade "en sous-oeuvre" up to the base of the triforium. The remade piers are most closely paralleled in the nave arcade. Stéphane Büttner has connected the the reworked chevet piers with the arrival of pierre de Paris. Also in the chevet, the triforium and clerestory passages were filled with masonry in the western chevet bays. Apparently the upper clerestory piers were tilting outward, a situation that is still visible at present (and which has been addressed in both 19th and 20th-century restoration campaigns, as documented by Knop, see bibliography page). I contend that the flying buttresses of the chevet were partially remade in the 14th century, as part of the campaign of consolidation. They are made up of a segmental arch lower flyer, and a straight upper flyer, connected by single-piece vertical struts ending in half trefoils beneath the upper flyer. This is not a form that has a parallel in the mid-13th century. On the other hand, it is the form of the still-original flyers in the first 14th-century buttress, located in the angle of the south transept arm and the nave, as discussed above. This form was continued throughout the nave flyers; the overall uniformity of the flyers throughout gives the exterior of the cathedral an impression of consistency that one does not often see in a building that took so long to complete. Thus, in the chevet, the segmental lower flyer would be part of the 13th-century scheme, while the struts and upper flyer are part of the 14th-century chevet consolidation.

1340. First mentions of chapels in the nave area. The majority of chaplaincy dedications are noted in the Necrology of 1761, others are to found in the Archives de l'Yonne. The deaths of donors and dedications are noted, with dates added in the margins. This presentation has unsettled some scholars, but in my opinion the person who wrote the dates had access to relevant information. The earliest date mentioned for a chapel is a dedication to Saint Sulpice (Archives de l'Yonne, G1790), foundation date 1340, no donor, no location. The point is that areas of the nave were being developed for liturgical purposes. The establishment of a chaplaincy is not an architectural event, but the chaplain did work in an architectural context. At present, I suspect that chapels were established against nave piers and in the nave side aisles in the 1340s and 50s, and that the peripheral chapels date to the 1370s and later. In a relative sense, peripheral chapels were constructed in the sequence 5 south, 4 south, 3 south, 4 and 5 north, 6 north, 3 north and 6 south. See below.

1343. The chapter authorized the sale of a silver statue that represented Jean, son of Philippe de Valois, for which it received 697 livres. The proceeds were apparently to go to the fabric, which makes sense in the light of the developing chronology that indicates intense building activity in the 1340s.

(1340s). Humbert de Chalemart founded a chaplaincy dedicated to Saint Martin. This would be a chapel in nave aisle bay 5 south, whose keystone depicts Saint Martin, later in the chapel extended from it.

1347. Canon Petit founded a chaplaincy dedicated to Saints Gervais and Protais. This would be a chapel in nave aisle bay 4 south, later in the chapel extended from it.

1355-56. Dendrochronology date for the felling of the wood for the charpente above the three eastern bays of the nave. The 1350s, then, would be the period during which the triforium and clerestory zones of these bays were enclosed. However, it does not appear that the high vaults of these bays were erected at this time.

1355. Dean Creux Jordain died, having founded a chaplaincy dedicated to Saint Andrew. This would be a chapel in nave aisle bay 3 south, later in the chapel extending from it.

1355. Foundation of a chaplaincy dedicated to Saint George. Later, a chapel dedicated to Saint George was also founded by Canon Guillaume Lemarchent, who died in 1579. The latter gives off the south side aisle of bay 6. The keystone in the bay 6 south side aisle is decorated with a scene of Saint George. The Saint George chapel was located originally in the nave side aisle, and was later provided with a separate space.

1358. Canon Pierre de Dicy died and was buried in the south arm of the transept near an altar that he had founded.

1359. Capture of Auxerre by English marauders. The city was sacked and had to be ransomed using the treasury of Saint Germain.. A depressed state of affairs seems to have prevailed for the next decade.

1378-79 and 1382-83. Dendrochronology dates for the felling of the wood used for the charpente over bay 3 of the nave. Thus, the roof was extended one bay further to the west, which made room for the eventual construction of the eastern three high vaults of the nave and the crossing vault, in my opinion circa 1390. The flamboyant clerestory window in bay 4 north would date to this period.

1378-79. Jean le Mercier, Dean of the cathedral, endowed chaplaincies dedicated to Saints Lazarus, Martha, Mary Magdelene and Catherine in the nave. This refers to the chapel opening from the fourth bay of the nave north side aisle, whose keystone is decorated with a scene of Mary Magdelene and Christ. The adjacent chapel opening off the fifth bay is virtually identical. Sylvain Aumard of the CEM has shown that the original side aisle walls and their window tracery were dismantled and reused as the exterior walls of these two chapels. A chapel dedicated to Saint Lazarus was mentioned as early as 1348, again indicating that chapels existed in the nave aisles before chapel extensions were made.

Circa 1390. High vaults of nave in bays 4 through 7, the crossing bay.

1397. Work on the grand portail, that is, the center portal of the west facade. This refers to the reworking of the embrasures, lintel, tympanum and voussoirs of the portal, that is, everything above the 13th-century dado panels.

1403. Odon Gauthier was paid for wood for doors that he had constructed. The doors in question are probably those of the central west portal, as mentioned above.

1410-15. Indulgences granted for construction of the portal on the side of Saint-Jean le Rond, that is, the north transept portal.

1412. Death of Pierre de Chissy, who founded a chaplaincy dedicated to All Saints, and later to Saint Sebastian. This chapel opens from the sixth bay of the north side aisle, where it was built into the angle between the nave and north transept arm.

1422. Canon Jean de Molins, cantor, died. He gave money toward the construction of the north transept arm portal. This project did not get very far; it was finally undertaken later in the 15th century.

1422-23. Dendrochronology date for the felling of the wood for the charpente of the north arm of the transept except the extreme northern section.

Middle 15th century. Hundred Years War. There was a long hiatus in construction between the mid-1420s and circa 1480.

Circa 1480. Bishop Jean Baillet (reg. 1478-1513) was a very active patron of cathedral projects. He restarted work in the north arm of the transept. The transept structure, especially the north facade and its portal were completed circa 1500. Baillet's arms are on the keystone of the north arm transept keystone. Annaïg Chatain has written a Mémoire de maîtrise under the direction of Fabienne Joubert on the iconographic program of the portal dedicated to Saint Germain.

1484. Dendrochronology date for the felling of wood used to rework the north transept arm charpente at its junction with the crossing.

1496. Canon Stephanus Naudet died, and was buried "at the foot of the stairs of the main portals." The 1998 sensing project indicated its probable location at the foot of the northwest portal stairs.

Circa 1500. Work begun on west complex above the portal level, working from the interior walls outward in order to facilitate enclosure of the nave.

1511. Canon Anainus Cochet died, and was buried in the chapel of Nôtre-Dame-de-Lorette, which he had founded. This is the chapel opening from the north nave third bay. An aisle chapel had previously been dedciated to Saint Vincent.

1512-13. Dendrochronology date for the felling of wood used in the charpente of the two western bays of the nave.

Circa 1520. High vaults of western three nave bays.

1522. The cathedral chapter affirmed that they were unable to accept a request from the King for a loan because they had been paying for work on the cathedral that had been going on "daily for 22 years."

1524. Clerestory window in bay 3 north glazed.

1525. An engraved date in the north tower stair, at the top of the third level, indicating that construction had progressed to that point.

1529. Organ placed in north arch of first bay of nave.

1543. The cupola atop the stair of the northwest tower was completed.

1556. Appeal for funds to complete the southwest tower.

1564. Payments for work on vaults of the new chapel Nôtre-Dame-des-Vertus, erected south of the west facade, whose rear wall inscribed with the date 1561 is still extant. This chapel replaced an earlier, more informally constructed chapel that projected in front ot the southwest portal and its adjoining buttresses.

1569. Capture of Auxerre by Huguenots, who severely damaged the cathedral's decor and furnishings. Bishop Jacques Amyot (reg. 1570-1593) undertook repairs and left a detailed record of his activites. This period was discussed by Jean Lebeuf in his Histoire de la prise d'Auxerre par les Huguenots, Auxerre, 1723.

In the 18th century the cathedral was very substantially remodeled. This phase of work was ably discussed by C. Demay, "Travaux de décoration exécutés dans la cathédrale d'Auxerre pendant le XVIIIe siècle," Bulletin de la Société des Sciences historiques et naturelles de l'Yonne, 53 (1899), 13-61.

For 19th and 20th-century upkeep and repairs, which mainly concern the chevet, U. Knop provides a thorough catalogue (see bibliography).