On the threshold of the Gothic age

On the threshold of the Gothic age

Tournai (Belgium), cathedral. From 1130. Nave and group of east towers

On the threshold of the Gothic age

The cathedral at Tournai is a mixture of styles. On the one hand it draws on Norman models, but on the other hand it is one of the first examples of a typical early Gothic elevation, that is, it has four storeys. The new building, which superseded a church constructed in the early Middle Ages, was begun in 1130 with the erection of the nave. Tournai did not, however, become a bishopric until its separation from Noyon in 1146.

The huge nave aisles have the characteristic Norman piers with the cross-shaped center and engaged columns. Once the capitals were complete there must have been a change in plan. The flat responds and the engaged columns in the nave, which must have been intended to support the vaulting shafts or the strainer arches, now carry the outer arch of the arcade, which is recessed with two sub-arches. The galleries above, of equal height and width as the arcades, also have triple recessed arches, the outermost being supported by a slender colonnette. The next level is the blind triforium, modeled on Sainte-Trinite, and situated above the gallery elevation borrowed from Saint-Etienne. Small openings into the roof truss interrupt the double recessed walls under the wall rib of the colonnade which has a rhythm double that of the galleries below. The windows of the clerestory are surprisingly large. The nave now has a baroque groin vault, but it must originally have had a flat ceiling. It may have been the decision to include galleries and triforium which motivated the builders to dispense with the originally-planned vertical articulation and vaulting, and instead to raise the nave to an enormous height. This was yet another step towards early Gothic ideas, which since Suger’s choir in Saint- Denis, had been exclusively four-storey elevations, although they did include vertical articulation and vaulting. The nave at Tournai may therefore have been one of the most important inspirations for Suger’s Saint-Denis.
The transept, which terminates in an apse at each end, is therefore a building from the very early Gothic period, and is closely related to the cathedrals of Soissons, Noyon and Senlis. The choir was completed between 1242 and 1245 and is a beautiful example of the high Gothic style.