Laon Cathedral

Laon, France

Laon Cathedral is one of the most important and stylistically unified examples of early Gothic architecture.

The Diocese of Laon was established by archbishop Remigius of Reims at the end of the fifth century. A later church building, dating from the tenth or eleventh centuries, was torched during the Easter Insurrection on 25 April 1112. The merchants and bourgeoisie of Laon had procured a communal charter, which was soon revoked by Bishop Gaudry. The commune revolted, murdering the bishop. The episcopal palace was set alight; the fire soon spread to the cathedral. The church was reconstructed and consecrated in 1114.

However, as the population of Laon grew, it soon became clear that a larger cathedral was necessary. By the late 1150s, construction on the current cathedral had begun under Gautier de Mortagne; it was essentially completed by 1230.

The present Laon Cathedral dates from the 12th and early 13th centuries, an early example of the Gothic style that originated in northern France. Construction on Laon Cathedral began with the choir and portions of both transepts between approximately 1160 and 1170. By 1180, the transept arms were finished and the eastern portion of the nave was erected. In the next phase of construction, lasting until the end of the century, the nave and most of the massive western facade were completed. Shortly after, the Chapel des Fonts, cloister, and chapter house were built onto the south side of the nave. Next, spurred by the donation of a local quarry in 1205, the original choir was dismantled and the current, larger choir was constructed by 1220.  Soon after, the treasury and sacristy were built at the junctures of the choir and transepts, along with a large chapel extending from the southeastern end of the choir. Over the century, additional chapels were built off the aisles of the nave and the choir. Finally, the south transept's facade was remodeled in the early fourteenth century, resulting in the current twin doors and tracery window.

Modern History

Laon lost its status as a bishopric during the French Revolution. The cathedral was modified extensively during the nineteenth century. The tower foundations were rebuilt with masonry to prevent them from collapsing. The flying buttresses attached to the nave and transepts were rebuilt to match those bracing the choir. An ornate but structurally artificial upper extension of the cathedral's front facade of unknown date was removed; it was replaced by a balustrade and the current Madonna and Child statue. Open doorways that historically had pierced the walls between the west entry portals were blocked in. Most notably, many of the medieval sculptural programs on the western facade were heavily altered.

By this time, fissures had appeared in the upper walls at the west end of the nave. To help counteract this problem, a low arch was constructed, crossing to nave near the entry portals. In 1899, timber flooring was installed between the towers in the west end of the nave to accommodate the installation of the current organ. The low structural arch became the platform's east support. This project remains controversial, as the organ pipes currently block the lower western windows and half of the rose window. However, the older and much smaller stone organ platform still survives under the current timber construction.

Although the cathedral suffered some damage during the French Revolution and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, it escaped both World Wars unharmed.


Contemporary with Noyon Cathedral and Notre-Dame de Paris, Laon Cathedral is one of the most elaborate and best-preserved of the early French Gothic cathedrals. It is notable for the stylistic unity and consistency maintained over the different phases of its construction. The cathedral consists of a cruciform plan with the traditional nave, transepts, and choir, all flanked by single side aisles. Numerous chapels have been built projecting out the exterior aisle walls. The nave has twelve bays (including the bay over the organ platform), counterbalanced by the ten in the choir. Both transepts have four bays. A central lantern tower, the focal point of the cathedral's interior, rises over the intersection. The ceiling over the choir and the nave (with the exception of the west end, near the organ) incorporates sexpartite vaulting, while the ceiling in the transepts incorporates quadripartite vaulting.

Vertically, Laon Cathedral is divided into four tiers: ground-level side aisles, a tribune-level passageway with double arches, a short triforium-level passageway with triple arches, and clerestory windows. The passageways on the two middle levels circumnavigate the entirety of the building, possibly indicating Norman influence. The unusual four-tiered configuration was previously used in both Tournai Cathedral in modern-day Belgium and Noyon Cathedral, and is reflected locally in the south transept of nearby Soissons Cathedral. The height of the interior is emphasized by the colonnette shafts rising from the tops of the columns separating the aisle bays; these colonnette shafts regularly alternate between three and five in number.

Although the choirs of most Gothic churches terminate with apses, Laon's choir is an exception: it terminates with a flat wall. The cathedral's original choir was much shorter, and it terminated in a more conventional apse and ambulatory. Although the original choir encoded the stylistic template for the rest of the building, it was demolished and replaced in the early thirteenth century. The longer, current choir was more proportionally appropriate for the cathedral.

Each end of the church culminates in a rose window, except for the southern transept. Instead, the south transept features a massive arched tracery window, which replaced the original rose in the early fourteenth century. The facades of both transepts incorporate twin entry doors; the south doors open next to the cathedral's adjoining cloister and chapter house, while the north doors open near the old episcopal palace. The massive west facade of the cathedral, at the nave end, is notable for its dynamic use of spatial projections. Three deeply recessed portals provide entry into the church; an arched passageway sits over them; between this passageway and a second, higher one, two Gothic-arched lancet windows and the central rose window cut into the wall. The facade is topped by the uppermost portions of the twin towers and four smaller pinnacles. 



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Rue du Cloître 9, Laon, France
See all sites in Laon


Founded: c. 1160
Category: Religious sites in France
Historical period: Birth of Capetian dynasty (France)

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4.7/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Marco Daniels (9 months ago)
Beautiful and will come back every so often coz it's magnificent and mesmerizing. Lovely to be here again.
Chris Bone (10 months ago)
Very pretty and nice town. Great history and old gothic cathedral. Kids games outside the cathedral to play for free, and some nice restaurants and cafés next to it. There are lots of little side streets to explore, and some really nicely decorated streets to walk down. We went on a Sunday, but most places were closed, so beware!
patrick a. (10 months ago)
Amazing experience, beautiful cathedral. We got a free tour of the whole cathedral - including right up the bell tower.
Ali Mohamed (15 months ago)
We visited the cathedrale notre Dame de Laon on 16th march 2023, it is one of the cathedrale of the holy road. There is more than 1 cathedrale in france (Reims, Paris...) and they all have a unique architecture. It is a very peaceful place.
Vasily Dmitrievsky (17 months ago)
Amazing gem in that part of France. It was first built in the 8th century, and then the new cathedral was built between 1155 and 1235. More parts of the building were added in the following centuries to be seen in the present form. It was cold inside on a January day, but on a rainy day one can enjoy so much being inside.
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