Standing before the Saints in Lausanne

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Cathedral of Notre Dame, Lausanne, Switzerland

From the outside, the Cathedral of Lausanne has a tidy, quiet, trying-not-to-look-majestic-but-oh!-I’ve-failed air about it.  It is magnificently positioned, on a hill with views of the city, Lake Geneva and the surrounding landscape, which on a clear day makes for a educational panorama.

The cathedral itself is the largest Gothic building in Switzerland.  Building work started in 1145 and finished in 1235, which is fairly quick by medieval standards.  The immediate prestige of the place is demonstrated by the fact that it was officially consecrated to the Virgin Mary in 1275 by the then ailing Pope Gregory X and in the presence of the father of the Hapsburg dynasty, Rudolph I of Germany.

With the Reformation hitting Vaud during the Bernese annexation in 1536, a lot of changes occurred in the Cathedral, mainly in the form of destruction.  Out went the objects relating the saints, out went the altarpiece, out went anything that was colourful and pretty.  The frescoes on the walls, along with the decorated architectural elements, were all whitewashed, and people were now ready to concentrate on the messages of the Bible rather than being distracted by the pretty things around them.

Naturally various modifications have been made over the years, but the most significant changes occurred during the restoration of the Cathedral in the 19th century under the guidance of the somewhat controversial French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.  He made ‘interpretive restorations’ in Notre Dame in Paris, the wall-towers in Carcassonne and Lausanne Cathedral.  The reason he is controversial is perhaps best summed up in his own words:  he thought that restoration was a “means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time”.  This is why Notre Dame has a rebuilt tower that is totally different in style and much taller than the original it was ‘restoring’, and why the southern French town of Carcassonne has northern French-style pointed roofs.

One of the projects instigated by Viollet-le-Duc in Lausanne Cathedral was the re-design of the Montfalcon Portal, named after the two bishops who had started the project.  The original medieval project was never finished because of the Reformation, and the portal had fallen into disrepair by the 19th century.  From 1892-1909 the sculptor Raphael Lungeon worked on creating what is seen today.  And it has been recently restored: hence its ridiculous, whiter-than-white colour.

The Porch, Vestibule and Montfalcon Chapel

Inside the porch area are some lovely statues, about which there was no information, and some uncovered frescoes from the 15/16th centuries, which were hard to see but looked impressive.

In the vestibule is a monument to Harriet Canning, who died during childbirth in 1817, dedicated by her husband, Stratford Canning.  He was a cousin of George Canning, who was briefly British Prime Minister in 1827.  Stratford Canning had a very interesting diplomatic career himself, and was in Switzerland from 1814-1819, acting as Envoy, helping to negotiate Swiss neutrality and a new Swiss federal constitution.

As you enter the bay, if you go left, there is the Montfalcon Chapel.  This is where Bishop Aymon de Montfalcon is buried.  The stalls are made of walnut wood and date from 1509.  It’s hard to see much beyond the grille but the quality is obvious even from the distance we viewed it from.

The Nave

Looking down the nave, the interior of the cathedral is plain, but super elegant.  The effects of the Reformation are evident in the lack of adornment, from the vaulted ceiling to the stone floor.

However, some colourful painted walls have been uncovered (by the Rose window), so presumably the tranquil interior of today would have originally looked more 19th century.

The Painted Portal

And now we come to the undoubted star attraction of the Cathedral: the polychrome sculpture dating from the 13th century.  The Painted Portal, as it is known, was intended to welcome visiting pilgrims, some of whom would be on their way to Compostela, while others came specifically to visit the miraculous image of Our Lady of Lausanne.  All around are statues of prophets, apostles and evangelists, and over the lintel is a depiction of the Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  In the panel above is the key scene of her being crowned by Jesus, who is presented as the Redeemer bringing salvation to all.

The construction of the portal and the statues occurred between 1225-1230/5 and it had already earned the name of the ‘painted portal’ by 1318, which proves how special it was, even at the time.  It got covered in three layers of whitewash in 1536 during the Reformation, but over time, some of the colour became visible under the flaking paint and in 1881 sections were cleared and studied.  Because of the damage from the weather, various attempts were made to protect the statues, until finally copies were made in the 1920s and the originals were moved to under the Rose windows.  The statues were then analysed, cleaned and restored and were returned to their original home in 1991, when a suitable glass extension was constructed to protect them.

The blending of Old and New Testament figures reflects the medieval understanding of the Bible, in that the Old Testament predicted the coming of Jesus, while the New Testament demonstrates and celebrates Him.  During the Middle Ages, Mary herself developed an importance within Catholicism which almost put her on the same footing as her Son – which was one of the major theological issues the Protestants had a problem with, because people prayed to Mary, rather than to Jesus/God.  What is interesting in the scenes above the lintel is that even though the pilgrims were entering the Cathedral to see the relics of Mary, they make a point of showing her in a subordinate position to Jesus.  The message seems to be that while Mary can intercede on your behalf, Jesus is the Redeemer and the Saviour, and His is the final word.  This placement of Mary in a secondary role may be what saved it from destruction from the Protestants.

So while the statues have been reconstructed, de-reconstructed, restored, de-restored, what is seen today is truly magnificent and the colours are extraordinary and unique.  It is utterly incredible to be able to see the pupils in the eyes, the patterns on the fabrics, the rosy cheeks… I found it hard to tear myself away, because with the changing light, different features because visible and it was always just too fascinating to leave.

Rose Window and Tombs

Once you’ve finished exploring the portal, the next stop of note is the Rose window, which is thought to be the work of Pierre d’Arras between 1205-1232.  Of the 105 stained glass windows, 78 are original and the rest were created in the late 19th century by Edward Hosch.  Once again the Viollet-le-Duc philosophy of restoration is evident, as Hosch didn’t just replace the broken windows – he rearranged the medallions and put God as the central subject.  As it happens, the window was subjected to a number of restoration attempts over the centuries, and Hosch removed most of the post-medieval additions, but he also created his own new compositions: like God.  The leaflet about the window, available at the Cathedral, details which panels are original and which are later.

The window demonstrates an ‘imago mundi’ – the medieval view of the world.  God is in the centre setting about the Creation.  Around this are the four seasons, 12 months of the year, 12 zodiac signs and four elements.  The other panels show random other scenes, including a satyr and a dog-headed man.  Somehow I missed him at the time.

Anyway, the window is lovely and though it is quite hard to see, being so far up and all, it is so wonderful that some 13th century windows are still in situ.

At the base of the Rose window are the tombs of three bishops dating from the 13th to 15th centuries.

Ambulatory and Choir

As you follow the route round the Ambulatory there are further monuments, including one for a 13th century bishop and various Vaud and Berne luminaries.

The open and airy choir of the cathedral is very elegant and the 20th century stained glass windows look very striking against the arching architectural forms.

As you go into the Choir on the left is another tomb, this one to Otton de Grandson (c1238-1328) – someone else with an English connection and who had a very interesting life.  Though he was born in the Swiss town of Grandson, Otton went to England with the bishop of Lausanne and entered the household of Prince Edward (Edward I).  They became great friends, and Otton followed the King to the crusades, as well as on Edward’s subsequent campaigns in Scotland and Wales.  He was made a governor of the Channel Islands, and was granted land in England and Ireland as a reward for his loyal service.  He went back to Grandson towards the end of his life, and died during an attempt to see Rome for one last time – at the age of 90.


The Cathedral is enormously proud of its insanely expensive organ.  It cost 6 million francs (2003 price – not sure what the equivalent value is) and it was ten years in the designing.  If you are interested in the how the organ was made, how it works and when the next concert is, pop to their own website, which is also available in English

One last point. Lausanne is proud of its idiosyncratic lookout man, who is still based in the Cathedral bell tower.  Not the same man, clearly.  Since 1405 the lookout has yelled the hours between 10pm and 2am.  The chap originally served the purpose of keeping watch and giving warning of fires – a vital job in a town of wooden houses.  Now this just has a traditional function, about which you can read more in this article:

So In Summary

Visiting Lausanne Cathedral was an enormously fulfilling experience: the cathedral itself is very atmospheric and has a real elegant grandeur, but the treasures it has in terms of medieval art is incredible.  To have these still in situ made it all the more magical.  You could almost imagine being a pilgrim from 600 years ago, standing in awe of man’s skill and divine power.

Some Useful Information

The cathedral has its own website (in French) which gives practical information about the building, but also about the everyday workings of the church.  There is also a section on the Cathedral on the Vaud site, (in French) which gives practical information as well as more about the history of the building.  There are information leaflets to download, although these are also available in the Cathedral shop, in multiple languages, including English.

How to Get There

As is to be expected, the Lausanne transport site is very helpful and available in English

For more general transport links from places in Switzerland, the is as useful as ever.


C Huguenin & W Stöckli, (2011) Repères historiques et archéologiques, in “La Nef et le Portail Peint: Cathédrale de Lausanne”, pp 2-4, Publication du Service Immeubles, Patrimoine et Logistique: Lausanne  (available via:

J Muller (2017) Le Porteil Peint de la Cathédrale de Lausanne, Les Editions de la Tour Lanterne: Lausanne



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