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The Modernist Church of St. Joan of Arc in Rouen

Rouen, France has a beautiful medieval core with wood and plaster buildings slumped and crooked from centuries of settling.  There are several beautiful medieval churches led of course by the grand Gothic Cathedral.  But when it came time to commemorate Rouen’s most famous Saint, Joan of Arc, the city erected a thoroughly modern church – L’église sainte Jeanne d’Arc.

L’église sainte Jeanne d’Arc

These oval-shaped, fragmented glass white windows circle the altar at the Church of St. Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc was put on trial and eventually executed in Rouen in 1431.  It was not until the 20th century that the city chose to commemorate her life constructing the Church of St. Joan of Arc in 1979.  It replaces the former St. Vincent parish church which was irrevocably destroyed by World War II bombings.  The design challenge for the new church was to incorporate stained glass windows from the former parish that had survived the war in storage. The architect also had to pay homage to the former medieval market that once occupied this square.  Louis Arretche (1905-1991) won the commission with a design that incorporated the region’s very early Norman heritage, Christian symbols and a clean modern aesthetic.

St. Joan of Arc Church

Broad view of the Church of St. Joan of Arc (Photo: Saitor)

Fountain at L‘Eglise St Jeanne d’Arc

The edge of the roof becomes a fountain (Photo: David Wheeler)

The roof of the church is meant to resemble and overturned Viking ship.  The delicate tiling definitely looks Nordic.  It is hard overall to take in the shape of the church as it undulates and lays on itself.  It’s definitely a building that has to be circled to view all the interesting contours of the multi-layered roof.  A series of matching sheds nearby provide shelter for the farmer’s market today.

joan of arc church exterior

The Church of St. Joan of Arc is to the right and the chalet market stalls are to the left. The sign in the garden notes were Joan was executed.

The interior of the church continues the overturned ship visuals with strong wooden beams that bend dramatically.

Ship inspired arched ceiling

Ship inspired arched ceiling.

joan of arc church

Interior of the worship space, Church of St. Joan of Arc.

Eight fantastic sections of rescued 16th century windows color the otherwise mellow, natural hues of the church interior.

re-used stained glass windows

18th century stained glass incorporated into the modern Church of St. Joan of Arc, Rouen.

The back windows are shaped like fishes – a well-known Christian symbol.  Their canvas shades looks like sails in this ship themed interior.

Fish and sail windows.

Fish and sail windows

My favorite place in the church was the sanctuary of St. Joan of Arc.  Here a statue of a faceless woman appears to be caught in flames.  There is a very elegant candelabra beside her with red candle holders echoing the undulating lines of flame and smoke.  Joan is not shown with her iconic armor but rather as an obedient martyr.

modern joan of arc statue

Modern statue of the Saint by Michel Coste with a fiery looking candle holder.

The Church of St. Joan of Arc is nice architectural pause from medieval Rouen.

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very interesting and moving, thank you.

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    December 18, 2013
  2. Interesting building, Christina. In Treviso I saw an old chuch famous for being built like a boat. Not so strange when you consider that the timber-fitting skills used in shipbuilding would be same skills needed to construct timber ceilings. In Key West, too, the oldest conch cottages were built nail-free, by boat builders. The windows of the Rouen Church are lovely. Really like this building!

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    December 18, 2013
    • Thanks Lesley. I’ve definitely seen other “ship-like” churches. This was often the only technological knowledge about creating massive, strong structure and so you get the inverted ship roof. What I like is that this is a modern church that continues that tradition.

      Like

      December 21, 2013
  3. This is a wonderful review of the building but we would recommend a visit to the Joan of Arc memorial on the hill behind Rouen as well. Joan’s memorial at Rouen is next to the Basilica Notre-Dame de Bonsecours (which also has a statue to Joan of Arc). Vintage postcards of Basilique (wonderful interior!) also led us to it and a tale of a mother’s love, faith and Joan d’Arc. Isabelle Romée was nearly as remarkable as her daughter.
    http://www.normandythenandnow.com/a-mothers-love-faith-and-joan-darc/

    Like

    March 8, 2014
  4. Alejandro Vargas #

    I was staying at the near hotel at place the la Pucelle and asked the receptionist about the church, she told me that was built to resemble a dragon. When I walked around it reminded me a kind of scaled beast, and the edge that becomes a fountain is like his open mouth, just there is water instead of fire coming out. I’ve definitively liked the building is very interesting and melts perfectly with the old city surroundings.
    Thanks for your interesting post.

    Like

    March 12, 2015
    • That’s an interesting interpretation! I can see that. Dragon or fish, the church really is unique among a city of medieval looking row houses.

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      March 28, 2015
  5. Paul Vissendorf #

    Don’t know how anyone could worship in that dreadful, distracting space.

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    October 14, 2015
    • Oh it’s not that bad! The stained glass is all salvaged for earlier destroyed churches which is a beautiful means of preservation. The church is very open, airy, and filled with natural elements and colors so it is very peaceful.

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      October 14, 2015
  6. Valerie #

    I visited this wonderful church last week and found it absolutely stunning. The courageous juxtaposition of old medieval square and Modernist building is breathtaking, and for me, echoed Joan’s own courage and strength. Inside, the windows were gorgeous, backlit as they are in the Spring sunshine. One of my very favourite travel experiences!

    Like

    April 8, 2017
    • Thanks for sharing! I’m glad you enjoyed the Church so much. 😀 Finding these hidden gems is one of the great joys of travel.

      Like

      April 12, 2017

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