The Pre-1836 Charpente
of the Cathedral of Chartres
and its implications
On June 4, 1836 a terrible fire
destroyed the whole roof of the cathedral,
taking with it the charpente of the South tower as well.
The nature of the structure of this carpentry "forest"
is best know from a woodcut published by Viollet-le-Duc in his famous
Dictionnaire raisonnée de l'Architecture, circa 1854 :
| However, it appears that Viollet's cut differs
significantly (a discussion of which may be read here)
from the source for his illustration, which was a lithograph published
some years before, in 1828.
("Interieur du Viex Clocher, ancien Belfroi")
lithograph (actually, a digital scan of a photocopy of a digital
copy of a printed copy of a lithograph made from a drawing) of
the interior of the second floor[?? it is only identified in the
caption as "un des étages intérieurs de ce
clocher [méridional]"] of the South tower of the West
façade of the cathedral was first published(1)
"Intérieur du vieux Clocher
avant l'incendie du 4 juin 1836"
A copy of this lithograph was
also published (partially in reverse, and with considerable
modification) by Lucien Merlet as a woodcut in his 1860 abridgement
of Vincent Sablon's 17th century History of the Cathedral(2).
Some of the details are slightly altered,
but the shape and details of the charpente (including
the "historiated" capitals) are clearly the same.
event, it provides us with a precious hint of yet another aspect of
what we have lost from our Chartrain legacy, even in relatively recent
times, for we may be looking at here is the original (?) medieval charpente
structure within the stone interior of the upper section of the 12th
century "clocher vieux," the South tower of the West façade
of the cathedral. At the very least, we are in the presence of some
sort of medieval belfry charpente.
of 12th century structural carpentry are very, very rare, however, and
we must examine the evidence of this drawing/lithograph very carefully
to ascertain whether or not we are looking at a lost example of such
an early wooden structure.
On the face of it, and as far as
I can see, there is nothing particulary "late" about the form
and structure of the charpente which we see here : a level of
large (16 inch x 16 inch, at least), layered, horizontal cross beams
run at right angles to each other across the interior of the tower,
more or less in the cardinal directions (their weight carried down into
the stonework by wooden responds along the walls), which provide "platforms"
upon which the vertical beams of the upper structure of the framework
of the roof of the tower rest.
In addition, at each of the
crossings of the two major axial beams of the tower, we see here there
were apparently (originally) "columns" which (threoretically)
carried part of the vertical thrust of the structure above to the floor
(itself resting on the vaults below) . These "columns" appear
to have been removed, at some time prior to this drawing/lithograph,
presumably to open up the interior space of the chamber or, perhaps,
at the time that the hole in the floor/vault in the lower left corner
of the lithograph was made --presumably in the 16th (or 19th?) century,
when the bells above were lowered down and taken away to be melted down
into cannon fodder.
The fact that the whole of the upper structure of the carpentry
above suvived the removal of these wooden columns suggests that they
were not structurally necessary.
In any event, the presence of the
capitals which topped these columns (and the carefully rendered roughly
cut/chopped remains of them below the astrogals of the capitals) assure
us of their original presence. These are not simple "culs de lamp"
terminations of the vertical beams.
These capitals capture our
attention, both because of their unusual size and prominence (which
might be an artifact of the artist's rendering of them), but
also by the clear fact that they are historiated, i.e.,
they appear to have contained some kind of figurative
frieze or scene.
That would make them absolutely unique
: surviving historiated capitals in wood, whatever
their date might be. No similar examples
have survived, even in later drawings or engravings, as
far as I am aware.
And yet, it is clear that
all kinds of structures in wood surely existed throughout the medieval
period, in the many thousands (just think of the number of churches
"rebuil t in stone" to be found in the documents, and all
the various parts of them which have, like them, disappeared without
a trace), but have simply not survived, for a variety of reasons.
Indeed, in Chartres itself there is a record of wooden keystones
being found during the vandalous destruction of the early 13th century
Hôtel Dieu, in the 1860s, which were said to be "similar
to those recently found during the resoration of the Sainte Chapelle
in Paris" (from the Proces-Verbeaux of the local archeological
society; sorry, I don't have the specific reference).
However, to the best of my knowledge, historiated capitals --in
whatever medium-- simply do not exist --or survive-- after the 12th
century (except perhaps as deliberately created anachronisms in some
15th and 16th century paintings). Moreover, a case may be made that
there is every reason to believe that we are looking at the original,
twelfth century carpentry of the clocher vieux in this drawing/lithograph,
capitals and all.
But, Let's look a bit closer :
--The capitals, with their unusual
decoration, are quite prominent --perhaps even too large for the size
of their columns below ; though this might be, as I said, an artifact
of the 19th century representation (itself perhaps signifcant). This
alone suggests --particularly if they are 12th century orginals-- that
the original use of this space was not quite as "dead" as
it obviously has become in this drawing.
--A close examination of the minor
structural members of the charpente suggests that the original
(more or less) intent of the builders might have been somewhat different
from that which we see in the ruin recorded in the 19th century lithograph
: Abbuting the impost blocks of both of the capitals, on three
sides, are smaller beams which are curved, springing (as we can see
by the left hand capital) from the wooden wall responds. Now, making
a curved "rib" or arch out of stone is a relatively simple
process : you just design a template for cutting the individual stones
forming the arch, then cut the stones and set them in place, using a
wooden formwork to hold them in place until the arch is complete and
the mortar sets.
But making a curved beam in wood
is somewhat more demanding.
In pre-modren times, there are only two possibilities : either you find
and "true up" a pre-existing curved piece of wood (i.e., a
tree limb, as in the very common "cruck building" technique),
or you lay out your curve on the suface of a trued up beam and "chop"
it down to the shape you wish to have (a very tricky and time-consuming
process). Neither sawing such a curve, nor bending it to the shape is,
I believe, a real possibility, in this period. Either way, it's a time-consuming
--and, therefore, expensive-- process; and not one which would be undertaken
without a very good reason.
The main point in this instance
is : these curved members springing from the sides of the interior tower
walls, even if they serve some structural purpose
in terms of holding up the supersturcture above, need not, in
structructural terms, be curved --straight diagonal braces would have
provided the necessary bracing as well, if not better.
And, therefore, if their purpose had been purely structural, they would
have been simple, straight beams, rather than curved ones.
they had some other (or additional) purpose, when they were designed,
cut and put in place.
My suggestion is that they were
there to serve as the basic formwork members on which smaller cross
members were attached, from which, in turn, a wooden (surely painted),
vaulted ceiling to this room was hung.
The interior space of
the piece would have been articulated by two descending (painted, of
course) wooden columns, topped by (painted, of course) historiated capitals.
Such curved ceilings
exist in several parish churches in the Chartres region (the large one
covering the nave of Gallardon is the only one that I can think of offhand,
but I've certainly seen others) and, in a period in which wood
was the norm for constuction (otherwise the documents wouldn't make
such a fuss about noting that "he found it in wood and rebuilt
it in stone" --as in Bishop Ivo's obituary entry, concerning the
Bishops' palace, and several other notices in 11th-12th century charters),
such constructions would not have been uncommon at all.
--So, we have a 12th century, (surely
painted) wooden-ceilinged space, with two historiated (and surely painted)
capitals, within the second story of the South tower of the cathedral,
on the evidence of this 1828 drawing/ engraving.
Of course, there is a somewhat
inigmatic reference or two to a "chapel of Saint Michel" (the
archangel who especially favors high places) somewhere in the cathedral
necrology and elsewhere.....
Arguing against this thesis of
this lithograph recording the remains of a 12th century chapel are the
following considerations :
--The spiral staircase (if that's
what it is) in the background of the scene appears to be rather
late; though, it should be noted that not too many such wooden staircases
from the 12th century survive.
--The carpentry below the level
of the great cardinal poutres shows signs that it could have
been added later : the vertical pier just to the right of the staircase
appears to disect the (apparently 12th century) masonry arch behind
it; and the molding profile of the transverse beam which joins the left
capital seems to be of a late medieval (15th c. ?) type.
--it is unclear how the wood ceiling would have allowed for access to
the doorway and its steps on the right. (Where do those steps
go, by the way ? Clearly we are viewing this room from the Southeast
? In which case the stairs would lead to some sort of lost tribune,
above the floor level and behind the present 12th century lancets ??
But, then the "staircase" would be on the extreme Northwest
corner of the tower ???)
The New Roof and Its Iron Charpente
Immediately after the 1836 fire,
preparations for a new roof appear to have been put in play, and the
high-tech solution of the day to such a problem seems to have been a
construction in cast iron, similar to those which had been undertaken
a few years before, at Southwark Cathedral in London in 1822 and Mainz
In August, 1836 Édouard Baron, the architect of the département,
submitted several design proposals, all of which involved the collaboration
of various master ironworkers. The first of these was done in collaboration
with M. Roussel, and was very similar to the design which was later
adopted for the new roof of Saint Denis, in 1842.
Eventually, a neo-gothic design was decided upon,
executed by (the contractor?) Émile Martin and the ironworker, Mignon,
who had recently executed a new roof for the chapel of the Palais-Royal
In the intervening 150 years the deterioration of
the original insulation seperating the ironwork of the charpente
and the copper of the roof resulted in an eletrostatic chemical
reaction which, in turn, caused extensive corrosion, prompting recent
restauration work undertaken by Guy Nicot, architecte en chef des
monuments historiques. Parts of the charpente were welded,
the whole thing was painted with a light gray paint to prevent further
corrosion, and many of the 12,000 copper "tiles" of the roof
were taken down and cleaned. Also, the "mechanism" of the
Angel above the axis of the hemicycle of the apse was replaced, allowing,
once again, for it to move ("Enfin le mécanisme de lange
formant girouette au-dessus du chur a été entièrement changé pour
lui rendre sa mobilité").
(Source : http://www.archimetal.com/applications/batiments/cathechartres.htm
(Photo : )
Marie Joseph Chapuy (and Theodore de Jolimont), Vues
Pittoresques de la Cathedrale de Chartres, et Détails remarquables
de ce Monument; dessinés par Chapuy...avce un Texte historique
et descriptif par F.T. de Joliment. (Paris: Chez Engelmann et Cie.,
Lithographes, Éditeurs, rue du Faub. Montmartre, No. 6, 1828).
Pl. 4 carries the title "Interieur
du vieux choche, ancien beffroi."
As Jan van der Meulen notes,
the lithograph was made by the publisher, "Engelmann" after
a drawing by Nicholas Marie Joseph Chapuy and is signed, on the left,
"Lithographie d'après le croquis de M. Chapuy" and,
on the right "Litho. de Engelmann."
Though the plates of this work are
not mentioned in the text, there is this on p. 13 : "Dans l'un
des étages intérieurs de ce clocher [méridional],
on remarque une for belle charpente qui supportait avant 1793 les trois
grosses cloches appelées Bourdons, et dont les poinçons
en cul-de-lampe sont ornés de sculptures et des armes de France
et du chapitre."
This last clause is quite curious,
in as much as a "poinçon" is defined in the Zodiac
Glossaire as "Charp. Poutre vertical suspendue par
son sommet à jointure des arbalétriers," i.e., in
English a "kingpost." In other words, de Jolimont contradicts
the clear evidence of Chapuy's lithograph here published, and it would
seem that he wrote his text from it, without either seeing the objects
in question (or, if he did, misinterpreted them?) or consulting Chapuy,
who clearly saw and interpreted them in a very different fashion. For
one thing is clear from Chapuy's drawing/lithograph : these poinçons
do not end in "cul-de-lamps" but.either in capitals (whose
columns have been cut off), or capital-shaped forms (whose cul-de-lamps
have been lost),
Either way, it certainly appears
that Chapuy saw some extensive figural carving on the sides of these
capitals/cul-de-lamps. There may or may not have been "des armes
de France et du chapitre" on them as well, but, for Chapuy, the
"sculptures" (i.e., the figures) were the more important component
of what he was looking at and drawing.
This annonymous publication is rather difficult to identify, bibliographically.
As the copy which I have seems to be rather scarce (though very close
to a work mentioned in van der Meulen's bibliography entry *2275), I
will offer an extended description.
The title page reads :
Histoire et Description // de l'Église cathédrale //
de Chartres // dedée par les Druides à une Vierge qui
devait enfanter. // Revue et augmentée // D'un Description de
l'Église de Sous-Terre et d'un récit // de l'incendie
de 1856. // Chartres // Petrot-Garnier, Libraire-Éditeur // Place
des Halles, 16 et 17 [vignette of two angels holding plant sprigs
and, between them, an over-sized camisette with an image of the
Virgin, crowned, standing and holding the Child, with a crown of thorns
above and, above that, a banderol with the inscription "CARNVTVM
TVTELA"]. Small octavo. Pagination : , , iv, ,
211pp. , with four full-page woodcut plates : a frontispiece titled
"Notre-Dame-du-Pilier" (which looks like the "new"
neo-gothic installation still in place) between pages iv and 1; "Cathedral
de Chartres" (a view from the northwest, signed "E Therona?"
and "Itrichon"?); an untitled view of the lower south transept
facade, signed "Andrew, Best, Leloir" between pp. 12 and 13;
"INTÉRIEUR DU VIEUX CLOCHER // avant l'incendie du 4 juin
1836" (unsigned), between pp. 24 and 25. There is a nice little
cul-de-lamp of Notre-Dame-du-Pilier at the end of the text (p. 207)
and a colophon at the bottom of the last page of the TABLE (P.
211) : Chartres. GARNIER, imprimeur de Mgr l'Évêque."
Pp. i-iv consists of a "Préface" signed "K.L.M.
// Chartres, 9 Octobre 1860."
My copy is bound in a lemon yellow wraper, a replication of the title
page (within a decorative ruled border) on the front cover, a short
publisher's catalogue on the back (also within a decorative ruled border)
including short descriptions of 13 works : "En vente à la
librairie PETROT-GARNIER // HISTOIRE DE CHARTRES, par M. F. de Lépinois.
2 forts vol.in 8o, // ornés de neuf gravures...15fr.....DOCUMENTS
HISTORIQUES sur le Comté et de la Ville de Dreux, par // M. E.
Lefèvre. 1 fort vol. sur papier vélin.....8 fr. ....SOUVENIRS
HISTORIQUES CHARTRAINS, jounal de D. Geslain, // prieur de Saint-Père
(1746-1758), 1 vol. .....2 fr. 50.[cf. vdM 1656, with the annotation
: "Not Seen!"].
In format and appearance this work appears to be is quite similar to
the Annuaire de l'Eure-et-Loir, issued from the same printing
discussion) suggested a date of "XIVe siècle" for this
carpentry, and Jan van der Meulen (Bibliography,
*1571, p. 421, on Benoist Benoît, "Notes pour servir à
l'histoire de la cathédrale de Chartres," Annuaire...du
département d'Eure-et-Loire, 1847, pp. 428-453) notes some
remarks of "[A.] Pintard  on repairs to the southern
west tower at the end of the 14th century," in a section titled
"Feu d'artifice sur les clochers de Chartres" [1395/1754],
which might suggest that these dealt with the charpente of the
belfroi, rather than the stonework.
Such a date could, perhaps, explain the rather
late looking moldings on the bottom faces of the tie-beams, but this
still leaves open the question of the "historiated" capitals,
which are certainly not a feature of late 14th century carpentry(?).
Of course, the moldings themselves, by their very
existence, strongly suggest that there was more to the lower level of
this charpente than a purely utilitarian purpose --why go to
the trouble and expense of decorating such an element if it was not
to be seen?
Jan van der Meulen,
with Rüdiger Hoyer and Deborah Cole, Chartres : Sources and
Literary Interpretation. A critical bibliography (Boston: G.K.Hall,
1989), pp. 176-7, number 493.
The contents of this page (errors and all) are Copyright
© Christopher Crockett, 2002. Any commercial-free use for
educational purposes is hereby authorized, though I would appreciate
hearing of the use to which my work is being put (please write me informing
me of such:: firstname.lastname@example.org
). The right to Any commercial use (uncluding publication
in any vehicle which is sold) is dependant upon Explicit, Written
Permission, obtainable from the above.