The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Tournai was built in the first half of the 12th century. It is especially distinguished by a Romanesque nave of extraordinary dimensions, a wealth of sculpture on its capitals and a transept topped by five towers, all precursors of the Gothic style. The choir, rebuilt in the 13th century, is in the pure Gothic style.
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai
© Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
Justification for Inscription
Criterion ii: The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Tournai bears witness to a considerable exchange of influence between the architecture of the Ile de France, the Rhineland, and Normandy during the short period at the beginning of the 12th century that preceded the flowering of Gothic architecture.
Criterion iv: In its imposing dimensions, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Tournai is an outstanding example of the great edifices of the school of the north of the Seine, precursors of the vastness of the Gothic cathedrals.
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai bears witness to a considerable exchange of influence between the architecture of the Île de France, the Rhineland and Normandy during the short period at the beginning of the 12th century that preceded the flowering of Gothic architecture. In the case of the nave and transept, the early date of the elevation to four levels and its subsequent widespread extension meets the criterion of considerable influence and is further reinforced in the transept by the masterly integration of a 'corridor triforium' and by the unusual composition of volumes. The early 12th-century construction in the nave of a 'viaduct' structure on a four-storey elevation is unique in a period where church builders limited themselves to three levels.
In its imposing dimensions, the cathedral is an outstanding example of the great edifices of the school of the north of the Seine, precursors of the vastness of the Gothic cathedrals. The nave and the transept meet the criterion of unique testimony, in the light of their outstanding state of conservation in a region that has lost virtually all its great basilicas of the Romanesque or pre-Chartres Gothic periods. This is particularly true of the sculpted decoration of the nave. Archaeological sources of exemplary value serve to put the environment of the cathedral into perspective.
In the 1st century BC, Tournai was already an important Roman administrative and military centre (Turnacum), on the river Escaut at the crossroads of an extensive network of roads. Christianity was brought to Tournai in the late 3rd or early 4th centuries by St Piat, but it was not until the 5th century that the bishopric was created, probably in the reign of Childeric, King of the Franks.
The cathedral was built in the first half of the 12th century after fire had destroyed the episcopal ensemble in the mid-9th century. The great 11th-century basilica, part of which still remains, owes its construction to the growing importance of the Marian cult, which attracted many pilgrims in the wake of the plague of 1089. The cathedral lies at the heart of the old town, not far from the left bank of the Escaut. In architectural terms, it is the product of three design periods that can still easily be distinguished: it offers the contrast of a Romanesque nave and a Gothic choir linked by a transept in a transitional style featuring an impressive group of five bell towers.
On the exterior a Gothic porch shelters the double portal in the west front. The lower ranges of the front are decorated with sculptures dating from different periods (14th, 16th and 17th centuries) depicting Old Testament scenes, episodes from the city's history and saints. Above them runs a row of bays surmounted by a great neo-Romanesque rose window and, finally, a gable end flanked by two circular turrets decorated with two rows of columns. The choir, rebuilt in the 13th century, is in the pure Gothic style.
In the interior the Romanesque nave, divided into nine spans over a length of 48 m, is flanked by side-aisles and it is distinctive for its rise to four levels, separated by continuous horizontal cable designs. Two Romanesque vaulted rooms, probably chapels, were added shortly after the construction of the nave, one to the north and the other to the south, at the turn of the western galleries over the side-aisles against the arms of the transept. The transept is vaulted in its entirety and its two arms each culminate in an apse with a narrow ambulatory framed by two towers. The rectangular crossing is topped by a lantern, two floors of which are visible above a Gothic arch. The elevation of the nave extends into the arms, with the adjustments necessary to incorporate the ogival vaulting and smooth the transition to the elevation of the apses. The choir extends over seven spans surmounted by ogival vaulting along the longer side and ends in a semi-decagonal apse topped with an octagonal vault. The chapels open off the ambulatory include six three-sided radiant chapels in the apse. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
In the 1st century BCE Tournai was already an important Roman administrative and military centre (Turnacum), on the river Escaut at the crossroads of an extensive network of roads. Christianity was brought to Tournai in the late 3rd or early 4th century by St Piat, but it was not until the 5th century that the bishopric was created, probably in the reign of Childeric, King of the Franks. After extending the kingdom as far as the Pyrenees his son Clovis (481- 511) moved the main royal residence from Tournai to Paris. An episcopal foundation grew up around the Cathedral of St Stephen and the church of St Mary and became the centre of the city's political, economic, social, and intellectual life under the Carolingians.
The Romanesque Cathedral was built after fire destroyed the episcopal ensemble in the mid 9th century. The great 11th century basilica, part of which still remains, owes its construction to the growing importance of the Marian cult, which attracted many pilgrims in the wake of the plague of 1089 (Notre- Dame des Malades, "Our Lady of the Sick," otherwise known as Notre-Dame de Tournai or the Flemish Notre-Dame). Another factor was the wealth of Flanders and of Tournai, its religious centre and a renowned centre of learning, in a region that produced wool and exported local limestone. In 1146 the city was granted its own bishop instead of being attached to the archdiocese of Noyon, as it had been since the early 7th century. The Romanesque elements of the Cathedral have never been definitively dated. Recent research, however, would seem to put the date of construction in the first half of the 12th century, that of the nave more precisely in the first third of the century and the transept in the second. The original plan included a ceilinged nave with vast galleries on the vaulted side-aisles and a harmonious west front.
The site of the Gothic choir seems to have opened out on a building completed when Bishop Etienne d'Orleans (1192-1203) had the chapel of St Vincent built on the south-west side and added vaulting over the transept and choir of the Cathedral in 1198. Towards the beginning of the 13th century, the first Romanesque portal was replaced by a more monumental construction which was later masked by a stone porch at the beginning of the following century.
Bishop Gautier de Marvis (1219-52) planned to build a new cathedral. Work began on the choir in 1242 and ended in 1255 but did not affect the Romanesque nave and transept. Other constructions were added to the building: a vast chapel, contemporary with the Gothic choir, in the south aisle which would be dedicated to Louis IX of France in 1299 and the prayer-chapel added to the choir in the 14th century. From this period onwards the Gothic choir seems to have shown disturbing signs of instability and potential collapse, remedies for which were sought through consolidation work carried out at different periods. Once completed, the Romano-Gothic Cathedral benefited from the climate of artistic creativity that reigned for many centuries in Tournai and acquired many works of art for its embellishment.
The spires of the flanking towers, and no doubt that of the central tower as well, date from the 16th century, as does the parish chapel, now vanished, that once stood up against the north side of the nave on the site of the Romanesque cloister. Tournai did not escape the rise of Calvinism, losing the archdeaconates of Bruges and Ghent in 1559 and seeing its Cathedral sacked in 1566. The Cathedral was restored the following year, however, and a Renaissance rood screen replaced the Gothic enclosure. Numerous alterations were made over the next two centuries, such as the partial reconstruction of the narthex in Tuscan style (1620), the raising of new vaulting over the nave galleries to replace a wooden ceiling (after 1640) and over the nave (1753), the modification of the Romanesque staircases in the western bay of the side-aisles (1757), the closing off of the side arcades opening out onto the narthex, and the opening of new doors into the side-aisles.
The return of the French in 1797 brought with it the closure of the Cathedral, the sale of its rich furnishings, and the dispersal of its collection of works of art. The building narrowly escaped demolition, but its poor state of preservation necessitated restoration work, which began in the choir in 1840 and continued over subsequent decades: the principal realizations were the reconstruction of the gable-end of the north apse to match that of the south apse, which was itself renovated, the reconstruction of a neo-Romanesque gable-end inspired by those of the transept arms, and the creation of the great rose window. In the early 19th century the Cathedral was left standing in isolation by the demolition of the surrounding houses. Incendiary bombs landed in the choir on 17 May 1940 and the fire spread to the roof of the nave. The parish chapel, the episcopal palace, the diocesan archives, and the extensive chapter library were all destroyed. A fresh restoration campaign was launched after the war ended. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation