Situated in the centre of Rouen, the cathedral towers high above the rooftops of the old town. The west front represents the "close-up" view most people have of the cathedral: its ornate decorations added by Georges d'Amboise, are mainly of the 16th century and form no part of the original plan or design. The west front has:
- Porte St-Jean
- Porte Central
- Porte St-Etienne
- Northwest. La Tour Saint Romain (c. 1145).
- Southwest. La Tour de Beurre, the famous "Butter Tower", built mostly by the contributions of those who paid for the indulgence of being allowed to eat butter during Lent.
- West front - The rose window above the Porte Central is the fourth replacement and dates back to just after the Second World War.
- North transept. The traceried rose window above le portail des Libraires dates in part from the 1500's.
- South transept. Rose above Le Portail de la Calende.
- 396 A.D. - The first cathedral at Rouen was built by Bishop Victricius.
- 1063 - This was destroyed by the invading Normans, who replaced it with a larger cathedral with a wooden vault. Consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William Duke of Normandy.
- 1200 - The lower portion of the Tour Saint-Roman, is all that is left of this building, the remainder of which was destroyed by fire. Rebuilding followed in succeeding years and shows work of many styles.
- 30 May 1431 - Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. The cathedral contained the black marble tomb of John Plantagenet or John Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, who is considered to be Joan's murderer. He became a canon priest of the cathedral after her death. His original tomb was destroyed by the Calvinists in the 16th century but there remains a commemorative plaque.
- 1487 - The foundation of the "Butter Tower", was laid under Archbishop Robert de Croixmore.
- Late 15th century - The stone staircase in the north transept, the Escalier de la Librairie leading to the chapter library, built under orders of Cardinal d'Estonteville.
- 1507 - Completion of "Butter Tower" under Cardinal d'Amboise.
- 1835 - John Ruskin sketch of Rouen Cathedral.
- April 1944 - The cathedral narrowly escaped destruction when it took several direct hits from bombs, which damaged much of the south aisle (le bas-côté Sud) and two rose windows, but narrowly missed destroying key pillar of Lantern Tower. Two flying buttresses (arcs-boutants) helped provided structural support. All but one of the chapels on the south side were destroyed. Pillar strengthened to prevent collapse by the Enterprise Georges Lanfry.
- 1st June 1944 - The Saint Romain tower burnt down after Allied bombing the day before.
- June 1956 - Restoration completed. Original glass was added to from destroyed churches.
- 1969 - Roy Lichtenstein made his series of pop art pictures representing the west front.
- 26th December, 1999 - Another setback occurred when one of the pinnacles fell down in a storm, damaging the vault and choir stalls.
- June 26th to September 18th 2004 - a digital light show, projected from one of the rooms where Monet worked in 1892, illuminated the west front of the Cathedral; and transformed the elaborate Gothic structure into a living canvas.
- Gustave Flaubert - Trois Contes
- "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier", which Flaubert published in 1877 in the volume Trois Contes, describes how Saint Julian went hunting in a forest. In the forest "a deer sprang out of the thicket and a badger crawled out of its hole, a stag appeared in the road, and a peacock spread its fan-shaped tail on the grass." He is later troubled by the spirits of all of the animals. The story was inspired by a large stained glass window at Rouen Cathedral. The window, a mosaic of predominantly red and blue colours, was donated by a brotherhood of fishermen, shown exercising their trade, in the lowest register of the window. Saint Julian is patron of hunters and shepherds.
- "Herodias" - Flaubert based the section on the dance of Salomé from another stained glass window at Rouen Cathedral.
- Marcel Proust - In Search of Lost Time
- Proust mentions the Cathedral in his novel The Prisoner:
- Proust went to Rouen to find a tiny carving:
"Just as, sometimes, cathedrals used to have them within a stone's throw of their porches (which have even preserved the name, like the porch of Rouen styled the Booksellers', because these latter used to expose their merchandise in the open air against its walls), so various minor trades, but peripatetic, used to pass in front of the noble Hôtel de Guermantes, and made one think at times of the ecclesiastical France of long ago."
"I went to Rouen, as if obeying a dying wish, and as if Ruskin, upon dying, had in some way entrusted to his readers the poor creature to which he had given life again by speaking of it, and which, unknowingly, had just lost forever the person who had done for it as much as its first sculptor."
Claude-Oscar Monet (1840-1926) completed a series of Impressionist paintings of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen between 1892 and 1894. The paintings mostly have one viewpoint but are painted at different times of the day and under different weather circumstances.
Georges Clemenceau extolled the "symphonic splendour" of the canvases in an article Révolution de cathédrale "The Revolution of the Cathedrals" published in La Justice (20 May, 1895):
« Aussi longtemps que le soleil sera sur elle, il y aura autant de manières d'être de la cathédrale de Rouen que l'homme pourra faire de divisions dans le temps. L'œil parfait les distinguerait toutes, puisqu'elles se résument à des vibrations perceptibles même pour notre actuelle rétine. L'œil de Monet précurseur nous devance et nous guide dans l'évolution visuelle qui nous rend plus pénétrante et plus subtile notre perception du monde.»
"As long as the sun shall shine upon it, there will be as many ways of being the Rouen Cathedral as man can make divisions of time. The perfect eye would distinguish them all, since they sum themselves up in vibrations perceptible even to our present retinas. Monet's eye, the eye of a precursor, is ahead of ours, and guides us in the visual evolution which renders more penetrating and more subtle our perception of the universe."