The article in quotes below was published in our newsletter of Second Quarter 1996. At that time the front of the cathedral was covered over with scaffolding, so the view sketched was the rear. On a recent trip, the front was now visible, and this issues’ sketch is the result. The only other church where we have done two sketches is at is Notre Dame in Paris. Like Notre Dame, Coutances is of a quality level that almost demands two drawings.
This issue’s sketch also marks the one hundredth sketch and newsletter since we started doing the newsletters at the beginning of 1988, twenty-five years total. There was a two quarter interruption in newsletters in 2005 as a result of Hurricane Katrina, as there was no bulk mail service from the New Orleans area for six months afterwards. Otherwise, this milestone would have been reached in the fourth quarter of 2012.
"Coutances Cathedral is one of the purest examples of Norman Gothic in existence. This occurred because it was built over an extremely short period of time - 55 years (1220-75), and because the characteristics of Norman architecture are so strong to begin with. It also is one of the most consistent in style Gothic buildings because of the short construction period.
Norman architecture, even in the vernacular, has many tall narrow pro- portioned elements, usually with tall pointed cone type roofs, all with a stark and sparsely decorated ap- pearance. The Norman cathedrals that were in the Romanesque style such as Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames, both at Caen, exhibit these characteristics as did the predecessor church at Coutances that burned. The predecessor was designed by Geoffroy de Montbray, and the footprint of the building as well as most of the remains of the fire were incorporated and transformed into a Gothic style building.
The west front is framed by two soaring towers composed of multiple, narrow towers, with the flanking ones taller. The view in this edition’s limited edition signed print by Ladd P. Ehlinger is of the south transept with the striking octagonal lantern on top of the crossing and a portion of the chevet on the east end with the flying buttresses that daringly leap over the double ambulatory.
Coutances is worth going out of your way to see. It occupies a hillock on the Cotentin peninsula and is the religious and political center. The town was originally a Roman settlement named Cosedia. It changed its name to Constantia in the 3C. This Roman name ultimately evolved into the French “Coutances” over the centuries."
The lantern is the most striking feature of this cathedral. There is a dome over the clerestory lighting, all expressed within the cathedral as well as on the exterior. The keystone of the lantern dome is 134' above the floor of the crossing. The interior is also unusual in that there is no triforium. It was eliminated to make the arches taller that carry the groin vaults.
One final comment about the consistency of style of Coutances: the two west front towers are not identical. They are very similar, but have very subtle differences in architectural organization. Its not nearly as dramatic as that at Chartres, but they are different.