May 23, 2021
Natasha and I have lived in France for almost five full months, and yet today was our first chance to visit museums; they were only allowed to reopen on May 19th. We decided we would prioritize the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Antiquities. The first was a logical choice because Rouen has a distinguished history for Impressionism, in particular. The latter relates to its standing as a city since Roman times!
Our first move, however, was to walk to the north of the museum area to see the “Donjon of Rouen,” a massive tower near what was once a massive wall surrounding the medieval city. We were grateful that the road rose gently to the top of a hill. The tower, sometimes tied to the Joan of Arc story, is all that remains of the massive Chateau de Rouen, constructed by King Philippe-Auguste in 1205. It might seem obvious to people today that Normandy is part of France, but this was actually quite controversial during medieval times. Here’s a brief timeline for the city:
- Before Common Era: The Veliocasses found this city near the mouth of the Seine.
- 58-50 BCE: Julius Caesar wins Gallia Lugdunensis in battle, with Rotomagus (Rouen) being its second city.
- 486 Common Era: Clovis I of the Franks destroys the “rump state” remaining from the Romans. Rouen becomes a major city of Merovingian Neustria.
- 912 CE: The Franks cede Normandy to Viking leader Rollo for the promise he would keep other Vikings away, and he makes his capital at Rouen.
- 1204 CE: King Philippe-Augustus of France reasserts his power over Normandy after the descendants of Rollo become preoccupied with ruling England instead.
- 1419 CE: Henry V of England reclaims Normandy in the Hundred Years’ War.
- 1449 CE: Charles VII of France regains Normandy.
In short, this is a popular city for invading armies. The stones that formed this mighty castle protecting the northern border of Rouen were re-used for other construction at the end of the sixteenth century. Ironically, it stands right next to a memorial to honor the victims of racism, antisemitism, and crimes against humanity during 1940-1944, another period during which Rouen was a contested piece of land.
Natasha and I walked back down the hill and enjoyed a few moments in Square Charles Verdrel (named after the man who “Haussmanned” Rouen):
With new authority to expropriate city lands for urban reorganization, granted by legislation passed in 1852, and working with the local architect E. Lévy, Verdrel proposed the “percement” of two new streets, one running north–south and the other east–west, to cross at Rouen’s center… Verdrel argued that the buildings were mostly in poor condition and had largely been abandoned, causing their owners to lament their evaporating real estate investments.Kevin D. Murphy, Journal of Urban History (2011) 37: 278-296.
The mature trees in his square were lovely, and the waterfall played happily in the shade. Natasha and I disputed the type of animal that belonged in the little box on an island; she speculated an otter, but I was holding out hope that it was a beaver. I believe my cell phone read 10:03 AM when the main doors of the fine arts museum opened.
Rouen Musée des Beaux Arts
Though Rouen was one of the largest cities in medieval France, today it barely cracks the top 40 cities in France by population. Why, then, does it have such an amazing art museum? It might be the result of the “First Mover” advantage! Even before the French Revolution, the arts community of Rouen had begun assembling a collection of art intended for public view. By the end of the nineteenth century, the collection had already outgrown the space it shared with two prior buildings, and it moved to its purpose-built gallery in 1888. Happily, seeing the permanent collection is absolutely free.
Natasha and I have different taste in art, so we sped up and slowed down for different sections. She loves a good portrait, and I enjoy landscapes, cityscapes, and above all, Impressionism! I think the first image that captured my attention was a 1621 Flemish painting of a young woman on her death bed, while Natasha’s gaze was drawn by an arresting image of Saint Catherine of Sienna from the late 15th century. I would also point to Paulus Bor’s “Figure allégorique,” featuring a woman with a very neutral expression bearing a snake wrapped around her arm. Natasha helped cushion the surprise for me when I walked into a gallery featuring a life-sized figure in a colorful plague-doctor mask. I worried that it was a performance artist who was going to FREAK ME OUT!
I was very pleased to see Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne (17th century), and Natasha noted that we must be in Europe since she had spotted a larger-than-life work by Paul Rubens right next to one by Caravaggio! I goggled to see a full-size version of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s “Seated Voltaire,” executed in papier maché.
For me, the highlight was always going to be the well-stocked section on Impressionism. The museum had a good explainer on why its relationship with François Depeaux had enriched its collection in this area so greatly. Since the hall on Impressionism came so late in our route through the museum, I was sad to have spent much of my energy already. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. I hoped that Natasha might take a photo of me next to Claude Monet’s painting of Rouen Cathedral portal in grey, misty conditions, but she takes museum restrictions on photography quite seriously.
Soon thereafter, Natasha and I were back on the street. My belly was telling me it was time for a Burger King Whopper, but Natasha showed greater restraint and returned to our lodgings for something healthier. I did capture a nice image of the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) building, completed in 1509.
Rouen Musée des Antiquités
When a group of museums opened for the afternoon, we had a choice to make; would we visit the museum of iron work in a sixteenth century church, or would we explore the antiquities of this area instead? We opted to hike back to the north to see the Musée des Antiquités. Our route along Rue Beauvoisine showed us a hundred interesting shops as well as some half-timbered structures that clearly had a lot of years behind them. I only realized after we reached the museum that the same structure served for both Antiquities and Natural History museums. Again, the permanent exhibits were free, so we could explore just as soon as I locked away my backpack.
While it is apparent that the museum of antiquities is not perhaps as well-funded as the fine art museum, its setting in the 1691 “Convent of the Visitation” gives both the building and its contents historic gravitas. The grounds of the convent are filled with stone elements from two thousand years of history. What blew my mind, however, was when Natasha pointed to a series of small glass vessels and explained that these were made by the Romans. I hadn’t realized that the technologies for making glass were so old! A macabre mannequin of a plague doctor was once again coolly regarding our progress through the museum.
I always enjoy a Mesopotamian archaeology display, and the museum’s collection had some lovely items. Some tiny clay faces that were molded circa 2500 BCE were really striking. As an inveterate cat person, I was astonished to see a pair of Egyptian sarcophagi for cats.
The Grecian civilization was represented by a striking statue of a woman with upraised hands. At the time it was created, the Roman Republic was still actively aggregating the communities throughout the Italian Peninsula into itself; the bottom of the “boot” held several Greek communities. Natasha and I continued to the room from which we had entered, dominated by two massive Roman floor mosaics. During our honeymoon in Andalucia, Natasha and I saw some other astonishing floor mosaics created by the Romans, both in archaeology museums and at Italica.
Natasha spent some time looking at some glossy, highly decorated brown squares mounted on the wall in the other gallery of the Antiquities museum. I didn’t know the French word “cuir,” and Natasha was quicker than me to realize that these wall panels decorated with floral and vegetable images were embossed leather engraved with gold and black. They had been created in the sixteenth century, but they were still glorious today.
I am always going to collect photographs of stained glass, and the convent features some lovely “vitraux” dating as far back as the fifteenth century. For example, this pane featuring a family in prayer was created in 1440 for the church of the Augustins at Rouen.
Natasha spent some time with a reconstruction of a tomb from the Merovingian period (sixth or seventh century). The artifacts such as a shield boss were familiar items for a ceremonial burial. Natasha looked over the skeleton for marks that could tell us about his life. She spotted some partially-healed broken ribs and a break in his temple. After looking at his legs, though, she proclaimed, “I can tell you one thing: this guy suffered from arthritic knees!”
St. Ouen and Rollo
Natasha and I descended from the museum on Rue Louis Richard, and it gave us a chance to see the northeastern part of the tourist district. I really liked Place General de Gaulle, facing city hall. It offered a cool side perspective on the Saint-Ouen Abbey Church. I think this is the third church I’ve highlighted for Rouen (the cathedral, Saint-Maclou, and Saint-Ouen).
Saint-Ouen has been claimed as the masterpiece of Rayonant Gothic design. In other words, the reason the nave and choir are so high is to create lots of space for light to enter the church. The church was begun in a mad rush between 1318-1339, matching a new choir to the remains of a fire-damaged Romanesque nave. The fourteenth century was very unkind to France, though, and the Hundred Years War had particular resonance for Rouen, since it was a capital of sorts for the English invasion. The Rayonant nave was only completed in the early sixteenth century. The restoration of this church is currently underway (we didn’t get to see inside it), but it should be a considerable showpiece for the city in 2024!
I think many people might be interested to learn that a fierce rivalry existed between the Abbey of Saint-Ouen and the Cathedral of Rouen. The eleventh century seems like it would have been an interesting time to have a position in the Norman church!
Before we left Saint-Ouen, I made sure we stopped to say hello to Rollo. In American high school classes on world history, we sometimes learned of Viking invasions as occasional events of extreme destruction replaced by the slow recovery of the victims. Rollo is an excellent counter-example. His skill in terrorizing the people of Normandy led the king of France to name him as its duke! Charles the Simple decided that Rollo might be strong enough to defend Normandy from other Vikings, and so he gifted the massive territory to him in 911 CE, after the Siege of Chartres.
With so many activities on one day, Natasha and I were both ready for a nap!