Visit Saint Ouen – a Huge Gothic Abbey Church in Rouen

The High Gothic Church of St Ouen in Rouen with marvelous stained-glass windows and a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ is even bigger than Rouen cathedral.

Former Abbey Church of St Ouen in Rouen seen from the east

The former Benedictine abbey (abbaye) church of St Ouen in Rouen, Normandy, is one of the jewels of Gothic architecture. Many bishoprics would be honored to have such a church as a cathedral but in Rouen, it plays a secondary role to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Both churches are High Gothic with equal lengths but the nave of St Ouen higher and longer than that of the cathedral. The former abbey church is less loaded with decorations making the purity of its Gothic lines even easier to appreciate. St Ouen is mostly used as an exhibition and concert venue – its Aristide Cavaillé-Coll organ is one of the best-known and most-recorded pipe organs in the world.

The Abbey Church of St Ouen in Rouen

Aerial photo of St Ouen in Rouen
St Ouen in Rouen © zigazou76

The High Gothic Église St-Ouen was the church of the former Abbey of St Ouen in Rouen, Normandy. The abbey was established in the 7th century and was one of the richest and largest in Normandy during the 14thcentury. This allowed the abbots to try and outdo the bishops by building a new Gothic church even larger than the Rouen Cathedral, which was under construction at the same time.

The construction of the Gothic church of St Ouen, to replace a Romanesque structure damaged by fire, started in 1318 – roughly a century later than the cathedral. The church was thus built in the High Gothic from the beginning but like the cathedral, the Hundred Years War interfered and construction dragged on until the 16thcentury. The western façade was not completed during the Middle Ages.

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

The abbey was closed permanently during the French Revolution. The city government moved into the abbey buildings, while the church itself served temporarily as a weapons factory. The church, and its magnificent stained-glass windows, largely survived in good shape to the present. The Neo-Gothic western façade added during the 19th century probably did more esthetic damage than wars and revolts.

The Benedictine abbey of St Ouen has a recorded history since around AD 1000. However, its history has been described as unremarkable.

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The Gothic Church of St Ouen in Rouen

Floor plan of St Ouen Church in Rouen

Construction of the Gothic Church of St Ouen started in 1318, at a time that the abbey was at its most powerful. It thus felt able to compete with the bishop’s cathedral, which has by then been under construction for over a century, in size.

Side Aisle in the Church of St Ouen in Rouen

The abbey church of St Ouen is thus 137 meters long in total with the nave 80 m long, 26 m wide, and soaring to 33 m high vaults. Rouen Cathedral is also 137 m with the nave measuring 60 m long, 24.2 m wide, and 28 m high.

The magnificent central tower topped by a ducal crown was at 86 m also for long taller than the cathedral steeple, which took the record as the tallest church in France only in 1876.

Both St Ouen and Notre Dame are triple-nave basilicas built mostly in the High Gothic. However, as is obvious from a comparison of the floor plans, the nave of St Ouen is not adorned by side chapels. The transepts of both churches protrude only slightly and both have impressive central towers over the crossing.

As befits an abbey church, St Ouen has far fewer decorations both on its exterior and interior than the cathedral. This allows the well-balanced proportions and the purity of the Gothic lines to be shown off at its best without distraction.

The Exterior of St Ouen in Rouen

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

The western façade of St Ouen is its optical weak spot. Money ran out and the façade was left uncompleted for three centuries.

During the mid-19th century, a Neo-Gothic façade was added – the city accepted the cheapest proposal by Henry Grégoire, who claimed inspiration from Cologne Cathedral, and finished the job using cheaper stone dissimilar to the rest of the church. The strongest criticism came for the Western façade hiding the view of the magnificent central tower. Only the rosette is from the 16th century but with modern glass.

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

The rest of the exterior is pure Gothic beauty. To the north of the nave, the remains of one side of the cloisters can still be seen next to the Hôtel de Ville.

The main entrance to the church is at the south transept through the Porche des Marmousets, where the vaulting appears to hang in mid-air on two keystones rather than pillars.

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

The real beauty is the chevet (eastern side) with typical High Gothic flying buttresses and pinnacles. Note how the radiating chapels of the ambulatory have their own individual roofs.

The central tower rises 86 m and in contrast to the cathedral without a lantern. The lower sections are square but it is topped off by an octagonal crown, which has been called the ducal crown of Normandy.

The Interior of St Ouen

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

The interior of St Ouen is light, bright, somewhat bare but with marvelous proportions and magical stained-glass windows. Unlike the cathedral, sculptures and other decorations are limited here. The church is no longer a functioning religious building and mostly used for exhibitions and concerts.

The architects used the golden mean of 1:3 in the construction of the nave: the piers are 11 m apart and the sours to the 33-m high vaults.

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

Three levels of windows allow light to flood in. the lower side-aisle windows are not blocked by further chapels while the double row of clerestory windows often uses clear and frosted glass to allow more light in.

Work on the Gothic cathedral started from the chancel, which was completed between 1318 and 1339. It has 11 chapels with some of the wall paintings from the 14th century. The gilded grilles closing off the chancel are from the mid-18th century.

Stained-Glass Windows in St Ouen

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

St Ouen has a marvelous collection of historic stained-glass windows. In 1939, Jean Lafond had the foresight to remove most historic stained-glass windows from historic buildings and churches in Rouen for safekeeping until after the Second World War. As a result, only two sections of stained-glass windows in St Ouen are not original while Rouen Cathedral has a few windows from 1210 despite bombs blowing much of the cathedral glass out in 1944.

The oldest stained-glass windows are in the choir and date from the initial building period 1318 to 1339. Only the scene of the crucifixion by Max Ingrand is modern (center, upper windows).

Church of St Ouen in RouenChurch of St Ouen in Rouen

The two rosettes in the transept are 15th century: in the north the celestial hierarchy and the south the Tree of Jesse. The large Flamboyant Gothic rosette in the western façade is the original from the 16th century but the glass is from 1992.

The clerestory windows in the nave are mostly 16th-century originals. The windows in the north show figures from the Old Testament while the south has New Testament apostles and later bishops or saints.

The Cavaillé-Coll Organ in St Ouen

Cavaillé-Coll Organ in the Church of St Ouen in Rouen

St Ouen has an Aristide Cavaillé-Coll organ that is structurally unaltered since its installation in 1890. Both the organ and the Crespin Carlier (1630) box it is installed in are listed historic monuments.

The organ is frequently used for concerts and is one of the most-recorded organs in the world. See Soar Above for more on this magnificent instrument and links to various recordings – many with lovely video of St Ouen.

Opening Hours of the Abbey Church of St Ouen

The Abbatiale Saint-Ouen is closed on Monday and Friday. On all other days, the church is open from 10 am to noon and 2 to 5 pm (closing 6 pm from April to October). Admission is free.

The church of St Ouen is no longer used for regular church services.

Church of St Ouen in Rouen

The pleasant gardens around the church and behind the Hôtel de Ville have a play area for small children and many shady trees.

Joan of Arc was tied to the stake in the cemetery of St Ouen on May 23, 1431, but recanted and was sentenced to life in prison. A week later, she was famously burned in the opposite end of town.

Rouen and much of Normandy had many monasteries and large churches constructed during the Middle Ages. Rouen has several other Gothic churches, including Rouen Cathedral with the highest church spire in France. The Romanesque abbey of St Martin de Boscherville and the ruins of Jumièges is a short drive to the west of Rouen while France’s largest Gothic church – Amiens Cathedral – is also in the region.

For More on St Ouen also See:

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About the author:

Henk Bekker

Henk Bekker is a freelance travel writer with over 20 years of experience writing online. He is particularly interested in history, art, and culture. He has lived most of his adult life in Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. In addition to European-Traveler.com, he also owns a travel website on the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland and maintains statistical websites on car sales and classic car auction prices. Henk holds an MBA from Edinburgh Business School and an MSc in Development Finance from the University of London.

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