We all know that there are a lot of quirky creatures on medieval church facades. With so many weird and inventive grotesques out there, statues of ordinary animals usually seem boring by comparison. However, the oxen of Laon Cathedral are still worth a mention. For one thing, there are sixteen of them in total. For another, they are life-sized and quite naturalistic. I imagine that looking up to the cathedral’s towers and seeing a herd of lifelike oxen peering back down at you must be quite memorable. Laon is an important early Gothic church in the Picardy region of France. It was built in the second half of the 12th century and the early 13th century, and these statues are original to the building. (In case you’re wondering, Laon has non-oxen grotesques, too, including a great 19th-century hippopotamus.)
Apparently, there’s a rather touching explanation for the prominent appearance of these ordinary creatures on this church. Legend has it that they are tributes to the real teams of oxen responsible for carting the massive quantities of heavy stone used to build the cathedral. After all, building the church wouldn’t have been possible without their contribution. I heard this story in Dr. William R. Cook’s The Great Courses lecture series entitled “The Cathedral”, but a quick Google search confirms that the story is widespread. Dr. Cook’s course is fabulous, and you’ll hear more about it very soon!