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Viollet-le-Duc's reconstruction
of the pre-1836 Charpente
of the
Clocher Vieux

As part of his article "Beffroi" in his Dictionnaire raisonnée de l'Architecture
Viollet-le-Duc published this handsome woodcut and accompanying text :

(click on the image for a larger version)

"Avant 1836, le clocher vieux [Sud] de la cathédrale de Chartres contenait un beffroi considérable du XIVe siècle : malheureusement, cette curieuse charpent fut brûlée à cette époque, et nous n'en possédons qu'un dessin donnant l'enrayure bass avec le premier étage. Deux gros poinçons divisaient ce beffroi en deux travées; les tourillons de leur moutons posaient sur les deux pans-de-bois latéeraux et sur les chapeaux assemblés dans ces poinçons portées par les liens courbes inféerieurs et soulagées par des arbalétriers à chaque étage, ainsi que l'indique la fig. 2.
Un escalier posé dans un des angles desservait tous les étages du beffroi et était destiné aux sonneurs.

(Fig 2)

"Avant le XVe siècle, les charpentiers paraissent s'être préoccupés, dans la construction des beffrois, de maintenir le pan-de-bois central (car les anciennes charpentes de beffrois sont tourjour diviséees en deux travées) par des arbalétriers ou pièces inclinées reportant la charge centrale sur les pans-de-bois latéraux. Mais on dut reconnaître que des fermes taillées conformément à la fig. 2, posées les unes sur les autres, étaient insuffisantes pour résister à la charge et surtout aux oscillations causées par le movement des clochers; que les assemblages devaient se fatiguer, étant successivement refoulés ou arrachés par le balanceement des clochers dont tout les poids se porte brusquement d'un côté à l'autre."

As he says, the charpente in question was destroyed in a fire in 1836 which destroyed the whole roof of the cathedral :

(note that this woodcut, published later, in a source which also contained a woodcut adaptation of Chapuy's lithograph, was probably itself based
on a previously published image of the cathedral on fire.
I have not been able to determine what the original
of it might have been.)

But this volume of the Dictionnaire was published in 1854.

So, we might ask, what was Viollet's source for his woodcut
(which is signed by his monogram) ?

He doesn't say.

Although he apparently visited the cathedral at least as early as 1834 and made various drawings of the cathedral it seems more likely to me that the woodcut published nearly 30 years later was based on a lithograph of the interior of the second floor[??] of the South tower of the west façade of the cathedral which was first published in 1828. According to Jan van der Meulen, this lithograph was made by the publisher, "Engelmann," after a drawing Nicholas Marie Joseph Chapuy.

A side-by-side comparison of both illustrations, uncropped,
suggests that this is quite likely :


Though there are a considerable number of "enhancements" and a much sharper "focus" in the later cut (the litho from the 1820s has a destinctively "romantic" quality to it. as well), the points of view are nearly identical, which is immediately suspicious.
At first glance, it seems quite astonishing that he would simply fabricate such a mass of added detail --or even extapolate it from the bit of charpente present in Chapuy's lithograph-- but, afterall, reconstructing the "true" appearance of lost or incomplete medieval monuments was a very large part of what Viollet's Mission was about, and this one (if it is a reconstruction) is a relatively quite minor part of his Œuvre.
However, if the lithograph was Viollet's source (perhaps enhanced by a personal memory from the 1830s visit), then he has cropped the irrelevant bottom third out of the lithograph and, more important, added a considerable amount of detail in the top half, which was, after all, the main center of his interest.
More significant are, perhaps, the woodcut details not found in the lithograph (the moldings around the stone openings, the extensive chamfering of the wood beams) and, above all, the three very prominently displayed through-tenons, their protruding ends neatly chamfered, each pierced with an appropriate wedge to hold it in place :

(click on the image
to view a larger one)

However, the problem with these very nice, well-executed and perfect tenons is that they serve no purpose, whatever : they are not connected to anything on the other side of the beams they purport to pierce.
In short, they are clealry figments of Viollet's imagination, put there as some kind of expected, but totally fictiv detail, purely to add legitimacy to his reconstruction, presumably.

Viollet offers no discussion of his basis for dating this woodwork to the "14th century," but, 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.

Beyond the historiated capitals, the only obviously datable element here would seem to be the profile of the underside of the lower cross beam between the two capitals, which seems to has been made by the application of a seperate string of wood, its under surface articulated with a double molding on the outer edges and, most important, its endings curved down as they abut the astragals of the capitals.

This type of "transitional" ending of one element into another one ajoining it at right angles is frequently found in later medieval carpentry (and stonework), perhaps as early as the "14th century" (I know little about carpentry of that period however), but more common still in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially in domestic architecture (where most of the surviving examples come from). The evidence of this center molding is therefore quite significant and cannot be ignored.

Iit is worth noting that this detail is also clearly visible in the 1828 lithograph :

Note also the curious fact that there is no trace of this transitional profile or molding on the bottom of the cross beam comming into the capitals from the direction of the wall, only on the small section of it between the two capitals. Why not?

As I see it however, the problem with proposing such a late date for this work lies in the capitals, which are clearly figurative, in both reproductions. But such figurative capitals are virtually unknown in post-12th century work, in any surviving medium at least.
True enough, there are historiated capitals to be seen in 15th century "Northern Renaissance" paintings, but these are, I believe, restricted to depictions of "Old Testament" scenes within a context of deliberately anachronistic "Romanesque" architecture, and clearly do not reflect contemporary (stone) examples, only an awarness on the part of these late painters that such work was "ancient" and, as such, a fitting setting for the depiction of scenes from the "Old" Testament. It is of course possible that the tradition of historiated capitals persisted in the medium of wood later than it did in stone. Quite possible, surely, but a rather unlikely prospect (?).
So, the evidence of the poutre molding and that of the historiated capitals would seem to contradict each other, leaving open the question of the date of this work.
In view of the evident authenticity of the capital figures, two options would seem to be open to resolve this conflict : either the nature of the molding was misunderstood/misrepresented by Chapuy's drawing and lithograph (and, subsequently, by Viollet's) or it is just possible that we are looking at a twelfth century molding, more or less accurately represented, but do not recognize it as such because there are so few examples of decorative charpente (because that is evidently what we are dealing with) surviving from this early period. As far as I know there are absolutely no such examples surviving from the later 12th century, anywhere in Europe. We simply do not know how such elements might have been treated in the earlier period, so our example here might be a legitimate example.

References :
Nicholas Marie Joseph Chapuy (and Theodore de Jolimont), Vues Pittoresque de la Cathedrale de Chartres (Paris, 1828), pl. 4.
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.
Cf. vdM (above), number 495 : a" pencil drawing of the Royal Portal dated 1834." itself part of "an entire series of other drawings of various parts of the cathedral." From vdM's entry it appears that these drawings are "in the family archives of his great granddaughters," but are "presently preserved at the Centre de Recherches des Monuments historiques," presumably somewhere in Paris.
Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. Paris, 1854-1868. 10 volumes, in-octavo. Article "Beffroi," volume II, pp 186ff., at p.187, 188. Viollet's figure 1 has been recently re-published (without comment or discussion) by Bridgette Kurmann-Schwarz and Peter Kurmann, Chartres: La cathédrale, p. 37.

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