John Ramsey: The Oxen of Laon Cathedral

Laon, a town in North-East France, has an immense and beautiful cathedral on top of a 200-metre hill, the location of the medieval walled town. It is one of the most important examples of early Gothic architecture.

Sixteen life-size statues of oxen look down from the top of the two western towers. As far as I can ascertain, such a number and size of sculpture is unique.

An image of the front facade of the Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral taken in July 2009 on a sunny day. The Cathedral is a pale yellow stone colour on a bright sky blue background.

Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral in July 2009. Image by Martoss8 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons.

Medieval scholars mention them as an afterthought in their analysis of the cathedral’s architecture and history of development. Laon tourist web sites start with them, as if to say, hey, come to Laon and see the cows in the sky!

There is no documentation to explain the oxen’s presence. Local custom explains that they recognise the importance of oxen in the building of the cathedral, given it’s on top of a high steep hill. Leading on from this, folklore tells of an ox dying of exhaustion as it climbed the hill. The carter, desperate to get his load to the building site, was amazed when another ox appeared from nowhere, helped pull the load to the top, then disappeared before the carter could decide what to do with it. Another variation believes that the cart contained holy relics, and the appearance of the ox an act of God. The statues, therefore, record the miracle of oxen appearing out of thin air.

Putting aside the miracle option, the basic folklore is not immediately convincing:

  • People used oxen throughout the medieval world as their standard beast of burden, and continued to rely on them until the advent of 19th-century industrialisation, yet they appear only rarely in medieval sculpture.
  • As Laon’s location is high up on a steep hill, teams of oxen must have been a continuous daily feature as they must have been used to deliver supplies. However, many other towns and cities were located strategically on hilltops, but there is no evidence that inhabitants felt the need to record their reliance on the ox.
  • The oxen did not need to transport stone, as this came from the limestone covering the plateau of the hilltop.
  • If, however, the scale of the Laon climb was unusually severe, it does not explain why it was necessary to have as many as sixteen sculptures.
A second image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_027. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

As there is no firm evidence for their placement, medieval scholars simply acknowledge their existence, record the folklore and may make brief reference to the miracle story. My understanding is that it is not considered proper scholarship to speculate on secular sculpture and carving. This is understandable, so I have attempted to consider what circumstantial evidence may be available to indicate why the oxen are there:

  • They may be the medieval equivalent of a vanity project. Cathedral construction was funded only in part by the church and the crown. Most funding was raised from the local townspeople, creating tensions with the clergy, and delays in building when funds were exhausted. Laon was built in 5 protracted phases, completing in 1230. Laon is surrounded by a huge flat plain, which in the Middle Ages was given to arable farming and vineyards. The farms would have used oxen extensively for ploughing and haulage. There may have been such a deep affection for the animal, that a wealthy landowner decided to provide funding to immortalise them in stone.
  • Certainly, paintings of livestock became popular in subsequent centuries. It is known that the 17th-century Dutch painter, Aelbert Cuyp, was successful in selling his paintings of cows to a European market and to British landowners in particular.
  • Medieval Laon was a major regional centre and popular with the French monarchy. The Carolingian and Capetian kings used it as their base in North East France. They may have also provided funding for the cathedral, although this is unlikely. Nevertheless, I wondered if oxen or bulls (the terms were interchangeable in the Middle Ages) were symbols in their heraldry, but can find nothing.
  • The numbers of animals may be significant, in that medieval ox teams consisted of multiples of two up to a maximum of eight. So, each tower could represent one full team, potentially the size required to make the climb to Laon.
  • One commentary suggests that they are not all oxen, but a mix of animals real and imagined. The photographs show they all seem to be wearing a harness, and although many have lost their horns and ears, they all look broadly the same.

All of the above is, of course, more speculation than circumstantial evidence, so I am not going to make it as a medievalist with this essay. I have considered the influences of the local economy, the town’s geography, the cathedral’s funding, the presence of the monarchy, and would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on other angles to consider, or if they are aware of similar sculpture elsewhere.

Perhaps the final word should come from WW Clark, author of Laon Cathedral Architecture (1983), who argued that the use of sculpture reached an unprecedented richness in Laon:

Their precise meaning remains elusive… they can be understood compositionally as the final accents in a design that integrates sculpture, both formally and iconographically, as inseparable constituent elements, beginning with the detail of the three portals.

Meanwhile, I may well feel the need to go and see them for myself.

Image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

 

References:

  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 1 by WW Clark and R King
  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 2: The aesthetics of Space, Plan and Structure
    by WW Clark
  • The Ox in the Middle Ages by John H Moore Article in Agricultural History journal No 35 1961