L'aître Saint Maclou derives its name from both Old French aître, having had the meaning of "cemetery" (from the Latin atrium, which designates the interior courtyard preceding the entrance of a Roman villa, hence by extension the cemetery situated before the entrance to the church) and the parish of Saint Maclou, of which the 15th century church is located nearby.
The origins of its foundation
This cemetery is located in the center of the parish of Saint Maclou, integrated into the city walls since 1253. It is one of the largest and most populated parishes, the heart of one of Rouen's main activities. : textile work. The creation of this strange place dates back to the Black Death (1348), one of the deadliest in Europe since, according to the chronicler Froissart, a third of the population is affected. It succeeds the old cemetery which had become too small and stretched since the 13th century north of the church.
Between 1521-1522, faced with a new plague epidemic, the parish decided to increase the capacity of the cemetery by building three galleries all around topped with an attic for use as an ossuary. The works were undertaken from 1526 until 1529-1533. During epidemics and faced with the growing number of corpses and the risk of contagion, funeral practices are transformed: the bodies are wrapped in a simple shroud and thrown pell-mell into large mass graves occupying the central space of the aster. . With the creation of the ossuary, the gravediggers unearth the bones after rotting of the flesh (accelerated by the use of quicklime) and pile them up above the galleries in the space between the ceiling and the roof frame.
In 1779, in response to a royal ordinance, the Parliament of Normandy ordered the removal of urban burial sites. Saint Maclou cemetery was closed in 1781, replaced by that of Mont Gargan located outside the city. In 1862, the monument was classified and protected as a historical monument, recognition of its historical and architectural interest.
A school in a cemetery
Near the current entrance, the wooden door of a bell recalls the school vocation of the aître. In fact, in the middle of the 17th century, a new building closing the courtyard of the cemetery to the south was built following a bequest from the priest Robert Duchesne (whose arms are carved on the facade). It houses a school for poor boys and girls in the neighborhood although the cemetery is still in operation.
In 1705, the charity school created in these places in 1659 was entrusted to the Brothers of the Christian Schools, an institute founded in Rouen by Saint-Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. The galleries serving as an ossuary were transformed from 1745 to 1749 to accommodate classrooms. The Brothers remained until 1907, with the exception of the revolutionary period (1792-1819) when the aitre was assigned to various functions: spinning company, arms factory, revolutionary club.
The Christian schools succeeded, in 1911, a boarding school for young girls. When it closed, the buildings were left in a semi-abandoned state and then put up for sale. L'aître Saint Maclou became in 1927 the property of the city of Rouen, which planned to found a Norman art museum there. In 1930, development work was undertaken there. However, the buildings will not have a precise assignment until the installation of the School of Fine Arts in 1940, which found refuge there after the devastating fire in the Halle aux Toiles. She lived there until 2014 before settling in a former college in the Grand'Mare district.
The ossuary is made up of four galleries framing a central square; it is 32 meters wide for a length of 48 meters. The first three galleries (North, West, East), built at the beginning of the 16th century, have a stone base and are punctuated by sculpted columns inspired by the Renaissance. Based on these, a wooden frame made up of horizontal beams called sand pits and vertical posts accommodates the space intended to serve as an ossuary. Above the ceiling, galleries, rose a frame and a roof with double slope pierced with dormers allowing the gravediggers to access the mass grave.
The last gallery, located to the south and built in the 17th century, is integrated into the galleries of the cemetery by the use of materials and by the general arrangement of the facade and the decoration. From the start, it had a floor, topped by an attic, to accommodate the school on the ground floor and the accommodation of the priests upstairs.
The architectural ensemble lasted until the middle of the 18th century, a period during which a floor was added, which completely changed the proportions of the galleries. The weight threatens to cause the sand pits to collapse and the galleries are closed by masonry wall partitions and windows. Three staircases are built at the corners of the courtyard to communicate with the new floor and the ossuary is also filled.
Finally, in a window, near the front door, we placed a cat skeleton discovered in a wall. It was undoubtedly a black cat (representing the devil), locked up alive in the masonry to ward off bad luck.
A macabre setting
The wood-carved decoration that adorned the ossuary is still visible today despite a slight transformation following a fire in 1758. The sculptures that were saved have been reassembled on new pieces of wood. Then unfold before our eyes friezes of macabre objects, glimpses of the daily universe of a mass grave: bones (skulls, jaws, femurs, ribs, shoulder blades ...), liturgical instruments of the office of the dead (crosses , candles, stoups, bells), the instruments of the Passion (nails and whips) and the gravedigger's tools (shovels, picks, coffins).
On the columns of the West and East galleries are carved a series of couples personifying a dance of death. It is a sort of procession where death, emaciated and clothed in a shroud, leads the alive in a dance. Death gesticulates, gambols, skips, while the living seems frozen in the face of the sudden and violent arrival of death. These statues were damaged in 1562 by the Protestants during the Wars of Religion, which makes their identification difficult. The parade takes place hierarchically by social category and power (the emperor followed by the king and other characters difficult to identify). The only last recognizable couple is that of death and the Carthusian monk.
The first dance of death seems to have been painted on the walls of the galleries of the Saints Innocents cemetery in 1424. From there, these representations spread to Northern Europe, notably by the publication at the end of the 15th century of several illustrated editions. . The dance of death is directly linked to the psychological shock caused by the appalling mortality of the Black Death and the resurgences of the epidemic which mow down the following generations. However, disease was not the only scourge of the time: famine and wars were closely associated with it. The anguish in the face of omnipresent death is growing among populations. The dance of death responds to this fear by creating a social satire reproaching the search for honors and wealth and affirming the equality of all after death, without distinction of rank or age. However, it does not lead to criticism of the foundations of society, for equality is manifested only before God.
Today, the aître seems abandoned and has regained the calm proper to our cemeteries today while awaiting a new allocation of its buildings. Its history remains however fascinating and by its beauty and its decor, this place is worth the detour during an escape in the city of Rouen.
Aître de Saint Maclou: open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., except December 25 and January 1. Free entry.