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Secret history of buildings: Rodez cathedral

Gothic giant in Rodez is towering pride of Aveyron

Approach Aveyron’s Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rodez from the west, and you would be forgiven for finding it not only uninviting but positively prohibitive.

In place of the large west door that you might expect to see in a Gothic cathedral, there is a blank wall.

This quirk is due to restrictions placed on the cathedral’s builders by the town council in 1474. Plans for the new church would have led it to breach the city’s old ramparts, which the town authorities were reluctant to do. 

As a compromise the west front was itself incorporated into the ramparts and was constructed like a fortress, without openings.

A church has existed on the site of the current cathedral since 516, the time when Rodez was first converted to Christianity. It was rebuilt around 1000 and then, on the night of February 16, 1276, local residents awoke to the sound of its bell tower collapsing.

If they took this catastrophe as a message from God, it was an inspirational one: the same year, a project to completely rebuild the cathedral from scratch took shape, with Raymond de Calmont, then Bishop of Rodez, laying the foundation stone on 25 May 1277.

Modern-day complaints about delays in major infrastructure projects would have seemed mere trifles to the thirteenth-century inhabitants of Rodez. Work on the cathedral was hampered by mundane concerns such as the need to raise funds, debate about the ramparts, but also by the twin cataclysms of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that Bishop François d’Estaing finally saw the build through to completion, with the cathedral as it currently stands being finished in 1531.

Many buildings completed over such a long period of time chart the changing fashions with a riot of different styles and influences. Rodez Cathedral is, therefore, all the more remarkable for the unity of its architectural style, and is widely considered to be a perfect exemplar of the Gothic tradition.

Look more closely at the red-sandstone building, and there is a wealth of detail to be enjoyed. In 1510 the beleaguered bell tower, having been newly rebuilt, burnt down after a worker forgot to put out his brazier when he left for the night.

Bishop d’Estaing saw in this an opportunity to put up the bell tower that such a glorious project deserved and the result, completed under the watchful eye of Antoine Salvan, is a joyful testament to the stone masons’ skill.

At its base it is square, but by the top, 87 metres up, it becomes octagonal, with the level of ornamentation increasing steadily with height.

There are balustrades, pinnacles and carvings of exotic animals, all topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a choir of four angels.
On the top of the severe west front there is a further flight of fancy, with a miniature church in the Roman style placed on the roof of the cathedral, said to have been designed by Guillaume Philandrier, a canon of the cathedral, and brought to life by Salvan.

Inside the cathedral there is plenty to look at too, particularly the beautifully carved eleventh-century choir stalls and the organ loft, which dates from the seventeenth century.

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