of the pre-1836 Charpente
As part of his article "Beffroi"
in his Dictionnaire raisonnéee 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.
"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
As he says, the charpente in question
was destroyed in a fire in 1836 which destroyed the whole roof of the
(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
(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
A side-by-side comparison of both illustrations,
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
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 uvre.
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.
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.
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,
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