Visit Lausanne Cathedral to see the most important early Gothic church in Switzerland and hear a magnificent modern pipe organ.
Lausanne Cathedral is the largest and arguably most important early Gothic church in Switzerland. It dates mostly from the late 12th, early 13th century and thus influenced many churches that followed. The harmonious interior is particularly beautiful with the Gothic architectural details the main decorations. Early 13th-century sculptures survived in the Painted Portal but the stained glass windows are mostly modern. As is the magnificent Fisk organ — the first American pipe organ installed in a European cathedral.
Early Gothic Lausanne Cathedral
Construction of the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady (la Cathédrale Notre-Dame) in Lausanne started in 1170 to replace an earlier Romanesque church. The new church was mostly completed by 1235, although parts were altered especially towards the western end where the westwork and nave were only connected in the early 16th century.
Lausanne Cathedral was only officially inaugurated in 1275 in the presence of Pope Gregory X and Rudolf I of Germany, the first Habsburg King of Germany. In 1440, the last of the historical antipopes, Felix V, was enthroned in the cathedral. At this stage of history, Lake Geneva was still mostly known as Lake Lausanne (in a variety of languages and inconsistent spelling).
The Reformation arrived in Lausanne in 1536 with the Bernese occupation and the ideas of Zwingli, rather than those of Calvin, who was mostly active in nearby Geneva. The church was stripped of most of its art, sculptures, and other furnishings — some of the few surviving items are in the History Museum in Bern.
The veneration of the Virgin ceased, which hit the bottom line a bit, which was a problem as Lausanne Cathedral was constructed of particularly soft sandstone (molasse) that required repairs almost from the beginning. During the 19th-century, the cathedral was near collapse but ultimately restored by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Maintenance works continue unabated.
Design of Lausanne Cathedral
The Cathedral of Lausanne is a typical Gothic basilica with a triple nave, protruding transept, vaulted ceilings, and a choir with an ambulatory on the eastern side. It is a very early Gothic building erected in the same period as Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres Cathedral.
Lausanne cathedral also claims to be the largest Gothic church in Switzerland. It is 99.75 m long with the transept 42.1 m. The belfry is 67.5 m high while the lantern tower over the crossing was raised to an even higher 79.6 m by Viollet-le-Duc.
Originally, a single tower was planned, which explains the thickness of the pillars in the westernmost bay. However, plans were altered for two west towers, of which only one was completed. This belfry, with seven bells including one from the early 15th century, may be climbed — 224 steps to fine views (entrance from inside the bookshop).
Since 1405, a tower watchman (le guet) called the hours and this tradition continues nightly from 22:00 to 2:00. He may be accompanied by prior arrangement — phone +41213127491 between 22:03 and 22:56 to make an appointment.
Exterior of Lausanne Cathedral
Although on a hill, Lausanne Cathedral is surrounded by other buildings and is hard to see in its full profile. It looks best from the west and the south with especially the northern side rather unadorned and a bit bulky for a Gothic cathedral.
The western Montfalcon Portal was largely rebuilt during the late 19th century, as a completion of the restoration project of Viollet-le-Duc. His image was used for the creation of the life-size King David while co-workers modeled for the other large sculptures. The portal was recently restored and this currently in particularly fine condition. The rest of the western facade is fairly plain.
Harmonious Gothic Interior
The interior of Lausanne Cathedral impresses with its long nave and the surprisingly harmonious appearance of the pillars and vaulting despite the three building-masters and the Gothic style still being developed and experimented with during the church’s construction period. Most of the central nave remains unadorned except for the Gothic architectural details and the 16th-century pulpit.
The choir with ambulatory, the oldest part of the church, similarly shines with Gothic architectural details but very little further art. The stained glass here, as in the rest of the church, is from the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the northwest corner, in the base of the tower that was never completed, a set of choir stall from around 1500 may be seen in the Montfalcon Chapel. (Aymon de Montfalcon was the local bishop between 1504 and 1509 — he finally connected the church and the westwork by closing the road that ran between the nave and towers.)
Small sections of the original 13th-century choir stalls are seen when climbing the tower. A few further treasures from the church is now in the History Museum in Bern.
A highlight of the Lausanne Cathedral is the Painted Portal. Originally the main entrance to the church, this early 13th-century portal has been closed off to protect the art and strengthen the building structure. Access to the portal is now only possible from the inside of the church.
The sandstone sculptures, which in some cases form part of the building structure, were painted. Something so significant that it gave the portal the name Portal Peint — during the Middle Ages, even sculptors as talented as Tilman Riemenschneider would command a lower fee than the artist painting the figures.
The life-size figures in the portal are clockwise from the archangel Gabriel splitting the doors:
- From the New Testament: Peter, Paul, the Evangelists John, Matthew, Luke, and Mark;
- From the Old Testament: Isaiah, David, Jeremiah, and Moses;
- Linking the old and new: John the Baptist and Simeon with the Christ Child.
The archivolts are mostly decorated with the old men of the apocalypse and ancestors of Christ. Not all figures are still identifiable, as several lost their traditional attributes.
The lentil and tympanum above the split doors leading into the church depict key events in the life of the Virgin. The lentil is split into two: dormition — the body of the Virgin is lowered into a sarcophagus, and assumption — Mary is resuscitated and welcomed by angels. Note some of the colorful wings. On the tympanum is the coronation of the Virgin. A common enough occurrence in Roman Catholic art but the iconography here is unique to Lausanne: Christ is the central protagonist and a much bigger figure. He is taking the crown from his left to place on the head of Mary on his right.
It is quite remarkable that these depictions of non-biblical Mary Legends survived the protestant period while the rest of the church was cleansed of saints and many decorations. Many a Liebfraukirche kept its name after conversion to a Lutheran church but the Mary statues were mostly removed (although some returned as art in the 20th century). The followers of Calvin and Zwingli were often far stricter about sculptures and art.
Medieval Rose Window
The rose window in the south transept has a diameter of 8.05 m and consists of 105 medallions. The design and some of the tracery date back to 1205 but much of the glass is from the restoration project around 1900 when several of the scenes were reinvented.
The basic reading of the rose window is as follows:
- Central square — God and the creation,
- Half-circles off the straight edges of the square — the four seasons and 12 months,
- Circles off the points of the square — the Zodiac,
- Rest — rivers of paradise, winds, monsters, and ornamental foliage.
The other stained-glass and designs here and in the rest of the church are modern but the remains of a few original wall paintings are visible in the transept.
Fisk Pipe Organ in Lausanne Cathedral
It is fairly standard for cathedrals to have a large organ with the pipes often high up in the western end of the church. Lausanne Cathedral is no exception, except here, as soon as the visitor enters the nave, a console is seen for the magnificent organ may be played also from down here. The audience can see the organist at play, and more importantly, the organist can actually hear the instrument and the echoes like the audience, something that is usually impossible when playing the organ from high up.
Interesting as this remote console is, it is probably the least impressive feature of this magnificent organ. The “Grand Organ Opus 120” was made by C.B. Fisk and inaugurated in 2003, as the first American organ installed in a European cathedral.
The numbers in short:
- 7396 pipes — 6737 for the main instrument and 659 for the echo organ (Fernwerk). The largest pipe is over 9 m tall and weighs almost 400 kg.
- 98 stops (registers).
- 2 consoles — the standard mechanical one in the gallery and the mobile console in the nave. The organ is played via six manuals (five for the main organ and a further one for the echo organ) and a set of pedals.
- CHF6 million — the price of the organ. (Sure, a few Stradivari violins went for more but most organs cost significantly less.)
- 10 years and 150,000 hours were used for the planning and the production of this instrument.
The organ case was designed by Giorgetti Giugiaro — more famous for designing cars including the original Volkswagen Golf and VW Passat amongst others. His first attempt at an organ case succeeded in accommodating the four main styles: French classical and symphonic as well as German baroque and romantic.
The organ is played during services but also frequent concerts. See the schedule at www.grandesorgues.ch — concerts are most likely around major religious holidays but also most Friday evenings from June to October.
Visitor Information for Lausanne Cathedral
The opening hours of la Cathédrale de Lausanne are daily from 9:00 closing at 17:30 from October to March and 19:00 from April to September. No sightseeing during services — usually Sunday before 11:00 and after 18:00.
The tower is open:
- April to September: Monday to Saturday from 9:30 to noon and 13:30 to 18:00, Sunday from 13:00 to 17:00.
- October to March: Monday to Saturday from 9:30 to noon and 13:30 to 16:30, Sunday from 14:00 to 16:30.
Admission to the cathedral is free, CHF 5 to climb the tower.
Access to the cathedral is from the western side.
The cathedral is high up on a hill making for fine views and a good workout when climbing the variety of staircases (many roof-covered) to reach the church.
Bessières is the closest metro stop and the walk from here is relatively flat. Metro line M2 connects to Lausanne Gare (train station) and Ouchy at lake level near the ferry to Evian and the Olympic Museum.