Notre-Dame Cathedral, Tournai

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Cathedral of Our Lady or Notre-dame Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church in Tournai, Belgium. Begun in the 12th century on even older foundations, the building combines the work of three design periods with striking effect, the heavy and severe character of the Romanesque nave contrasting remarkably with the Transitional work of the transept and the fully developed Gothic of the choir.

 

The transept arms, built in about the mid-12th century, have apsidal ends, a feature borrowed in all probability from certain Rhenish churches, and which would appear to have made its influence felt in the northeast of France, as at Noyon and Soissons.

 

The square towers that flank the transept arms reach a height of 83 metres (272 ft). They vary in detail, some of the arcade work with which they are enriched being in the round-arched and some in the pointed style.

 

On the exterior a Gothic porch shelters the double portal in the west front. The lower ranges of the front are decorated with sculptures dating from different periods (14th, 16th and 17th centuries) depicting Old Testament scenes, episodes from the city’s history and saints.

 

Above them runs a row of bays surmounted by a great neo-Romanesque rose window and, finally, a gable end flanked by two circular turrets decorated with two rows of columns. The choir, rebuilt in the 13th century, is in the pure Gothic style.

 

Tournai was already an important Roman administrative and military centre (Turnacum), on the river Escaut at the crossroads of an extensive network of roads in the 1st century BCE.

 

The great 11th century basilica, part of which still remains, owes its construction to the growing importance of the Marian cult, which attracted many pilgrims in the wake of the plague of 1089 (Notre- Dame des Malades, “Our Lady of the Sick,” otherwise known as Notre-Dame de Tournai or the Flemish Notre-Dame).

 

Another factor was the wealth of Flanders and of Tournai, its religious centre and a renowned centre of learning, in a region that produced wool and exported local limestone. In 1146 the city was granted its own bishop instead of being attached to the archdiocese of Noyon, as it had been since the early 7th century.

 

The Romanesque elements of the Cathedral have never been definitively dated. Recent research, however, would seem to put the date of construction in the first half of the 12th century, that of the nave more precisely in the first third of the century and the transept in the second.

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On September 14, 1090, after the dreaded disease had abated, the bishop led a great procession through the cathedral to honor Our Lady, who was credited with miraculous cures of sick pilgrims who had poured into the cathedral to pray before her statue.

 

Since then, the Procession of Tournai has taken place every year, except in 1559 when Calvinists violently interrupted the tradition. In the 13th century, a Tournai bishop oversaw a stylistic face-lift to the cathedral to keep up with the Gothic architecture popping up all over Europe.

 

He ordered stained-glass windows and had the Romanesque choir replaced by a Gothic one. Before the money ran out, he had created a soaring, graceful choir, modeled on the cathedrals of Amiens, Cologne and Soissons.