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The Pre-1836 Charpente
of the
South Tower
('Clocher Vieux')
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")

 


  This 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) in 1828.

 


"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.

  In any 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.
  Surviving examples 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.
I
ndeed, 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.
  Clearly. therefore, 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 ???)
-------------------

References :
1. Nicholas 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.

2. 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 : [1], [2], iv, [1], 211pp. [1], 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 house.


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.

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