Roskilde Cathedral is the earliest major ecclesiastical building in brick in northern Europe and had a profound influence on the spread of brick for this purpose over the whole region. Both in its form and in its setting it is an outstanding example of a north European cathedral complex, especially noteworthy for the successive architectural styles used in the ancillary chapels and porches added during the centuries during which it has served as the mausoleum of the Danish royal family.
The first religious structure on the site was a wooden church built around 980 by King Harald Bluetooth. This was replaced successively by two travertine structures, built in 1030 and 1080 respectively. In the mid-12th century brick-making was introduced into Denmark by craftsmen from Lombardy, and Bishop Absalom decided around 1170 to rebuild his cathedral in this new material; his work was continued after his death in 1191 by his successor, Bishop Peder Suneson. The original structure was Romanesque; however, when only the eastern half had been built the plan was changed, under the influence of Gothic. The transept was located further back and the towers planned for the choir were removed to the west end. Work was virtually complete by around 1275, apart from the north tower, finished at the end of the 14th century.
Roskilde Cathedral is an aisled basilica in Gothic style with a semi-circular chancel gallery. The structure is essentially in brick, with occasional use of small boulders in the interior. Externally the walls stand on a plinth of granite ashlars two courses high; in the interior there is a hollow chamfered plinth of the same material. Traces have been found of the use of squared oak beams for reinforcement, further evidence of the early date of the structure, at a period when the builders were still uncertain about the properties of the new material, brick. The interior walls were originally bare, apart from the vaulting and the soffits of the arches, which were plastered. Most of the original rich wall paintings have disappeared.
Oluf Mortensen's Porch, named after the mid-15th-century bishop who commissioned it, is one of the finest examples of Danish brick Gothic architecture. Stylistically it is linked with the Gothic brick architecture of northern Germany. It is noteworthy for its fine roof gable and for the asymmetrical but finely balanced form of the lower part of the gable facade. The bricks used for the walling are remarkable for their richness of shading, which demonstrates excellent control of the brick-making process.
In the centuries that followed, chapels, porches, and other structures were built around the cathedral, first by bishops and nobles and later by the royal family, which partly hid the original structure. These included the chapter-house, gradually extended from the early 13th century to the end of the 15th century, the chapels of St Andrew (1387) and St Bridget (later 15th century). Royal additions included the Chapel of the Magi (Christian I: 1460), the Chapel of Christian IV (early 17th century, replacing two earlier chapels), and the Chapel of Frederik V (1772, in neoclassical style). Two royal chapels were built in the present century: the Chapel of Christian IX (1924) and the detached New Royal Ground (1985).
The two-storeyed Chapel of the Magi, completed around 1463, was originally built from glazed brick, but little remains of the glazing. The second storey, known as the Knights' Hall, contains some noteworthy carved stone. The main feature of the Chapel is, however, its rich late medieval mural decoration, which entirely covers the walls and vaults. Christian IV's Chapel, designed as a sepulchral chapel for the king, was the first post-medieval addition to the cathedral. It is constructed in the Dutch Renaissance Style. The steep ribbed vault is the largest in Denmark.
Frederik V's Chapel has a cruciform central chamber connected by a transverse building to the south aisle of the cathedral. Many of the medieval furnishings of the cathedral disappeared at the Reformation, and more were sold at a notorious auction in 1806. Of what remains the outstanding piece is the reredos, a masterpiece of Dutch religious art dating from around 1560. It is a triptych, probably from Antwerp, and bears scenes from the life of Christ. The canons' stalls of 1420 are of considerable importance because of the unique series of pictures on them.References:
From 1239, Raynaud, the Bishop of Quimper, decided on the building of a new chancel destined to replace that of the Romanesque era. He therefore started, in the far west, the construction of a great Gothic cathedral which would inspire cathedral reconstructions in the Ile de France and would in turn become a place of experimentation from where would later appear ideas adopted by the whole of lower Brittany. The date of 1239 marks the Bishop’s decision and does not imply an immediate start to construction. Observation of the pillar profiles, their bases, the canopies, the fitting of the ribbed vaults of the ambulatory or the alignment of the bays leads us to believe, however, that the construction was spread out over time.
The four circular pillars mark the start of the building site, but the four following adopt a lozenge-shaped layout which could indicate a change of project manager. The clumsiness of the vaulted archways of the north ambulatory, the start of the ribbed vaults at the height of the south ambulatory or the choice of the vaults descending in spoke-form from the semi-circle which allows the connection of the axis chapel to the choir – despite the manifest problems of alignment – conveys the hesitancy and diverse influences in the first phase of works which spread out until the start of the 14th century.
At the same time as this facade was built (to which were added the north and south gates) the building of the nave started in the east and would finish by 1460. The nave is made up of six bays with one at the level of the facade towers and flanked by double aisles – one wide and one narrow (split into side chapels) – in an extension of the choir arrangements.
The choir presents four right-hand bays with ambulatory and side chapels. It is extended towards the east of 3-sided chevet which opens onto a semi-circle composed of five chapels and an apsidal chapel of two bays and a flat chevet consecrated to Our Lady.
The three-level elevation with arches, triforium and galleries seems more uniform and expresses anglo-Norman influence in the thickness of the walls (Norman passageway at the gallery level) or the decorative style (heavy mouldings, decorative frieze under the triforium). This building site would have to have been overseen in one shot. Undoubtedly interrupted by the war of Succession (1341-1364) it draws to a close with the building of the lierne vaults (1410) and the fitting of stained-glass windows. Bishop Bertrand de Rosmadec and Duke Jean V, whose coat of arms would decorate these vaults, finished the chancel before starting on the building of the facade and the nave.
Isolated from its environment in the 19th century, the cathedral was – on the contrary – originally very linked to its surroundings. Its site and the orientation of the facade determined traffic flow in the town. Its positioning close to the south walls resulted in particuliarities such as the transfer of the side gates on to the north and south facades of the towers: the southern portal of Saint Catherine served the bishop’s gate and the hospital located on the left bank (the current Préfecture) and the north gate was the baptismal porch – a true parish porch with its benches and alcoves for the Apostles’ statues turned towards the town, completed by an ossuary (1514).
The west porch finds its natural place between the two towers. The entire aesthetic of these three gates springs from the Flamboyant era: trefoil, curly kale, finials, large gables which cut into the mouldings and balustrades. Pinnacles and recesses embellish the buttresses whilst an entire bestiary appears: monsters, dogs, mysterious figures, gargoyles, and with them a whole imaginary world promoting a religious and political programme. Even though most of the saints statues have disappeared an armorial survives which makes the doors of the cathedral one of the most beautiful heraldic pages imaginable: ducal ermine, the Montfort lion, Duchess Jeanne of France’s coat of arms side by side with the arms of the Cornouaille barons with their helmets and crests. One can imagine the impact of this sculpted decor with the colour and gilding which originally completed it.
At the start of the 16th century the construction of the spires was being prepared when building was interrupted, undoubtedly for financial reasons. Small conical roofs were therefore placed on top of the towers. The following centuries were essentially devoted to putting furnishings in place (funeral monuments, altars, statues, organs, pulpit). Note the fire which destroyed the spire of the transept cross in 1620 as well as the ransacking of the cathedral in 1793 when nearly all the furnishings disappeared in a « bonfire of the saints ».
The 19th century would therefore inherit an almost finished but mutilated building and would devote itself to its renovation according to the tastes and theories of the day.