Villard Honnecourt

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(b. Honnecourt, Picardy, France, Ca. 1990), Architecture.

Villard de Honnecourt (who signed himself Wilars de Honecourt) wrote the most important known medieval source by an artist, the Bauhüttenbuch (Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, MS fr. 19093) between about 1225 and 1235. Only thirtythree of the more than fifty parchment folios that he carried with him for years have been preserved. In 207 pen-and-ink drawings Villard brought together models for every type of worker enrolled in a builders’ guild: architectural motifs, elements of the applied arts, machines, figures for sculpture and painting, proportion diagrams, and basic construction aids. He later added a detailed title, chapter headings, and long commentaries in the manner of illustrated treatises prepared by builders’ guilds. Hence it was not a mere “album” (Quicherat, 1849) or “sketchbook” (Willis, 1859) but, rather, a lodgebook.

Villard’s technical expressions are generally the oldest in Old French and the Picard dialect; moreover, they are the only ones that are illustrated and thus can be determined precisely. The master speaks directly to his students, often expressing the most personal value judgments of the Middle Ages. Thus, he sketched the classical window at Rheims (20b)1 “because I loved it above all else” ; at Laon, “a tower such as I was in many lands” (18), and a lectern “of the best kind I know” (13). Two successors in his guild (known as Master 2 and Master 3) completed the book with expert additions and extracts from other technical treatises.

Villard’s sketches of the most important structures of the time allow us to follow his wanderings. He must have been born around 1190 at Honnecourt, for he drew the ground plan of the neighboring Cistercian abbey of Vaucelles (33a)—where he was undoubtedly a student—and later, with his neighbor Pierre de Corbie, developed a plan for a similar church (29a). At Chartres he sketched the west rose window (30c); at Laon, the west tower (18-19) of the cathedral; at Cambrai, the floor plans (28c); and at Rheims, the completed and planned structural members (20, 30, 60-64). On his way to Hungary, where he had been summoned by the Cistercians and “where I long remained,” he sketched an ideal plan for a church of the order (28b) and the south rose window of the Lausanne cathedral (31a). In the Cistercian cloister at Pilis, Laszlo Gerevich discovered floorboards like those Villard sketched in Hungary;2 and thus it is probable that he was engaged in building churches there and in constructing the tomb of Queen Agnes, who was murdered in 1213.

Important individual Christian and allegorical figures drawn by Villard have been presented, as have scenes of the Passion and of martyrdom, purely secular scenes, and complicated studies of movements. The Muldenfaltenstil (style of deeply molded drapery folds) that Villard employs, which has its origins in antiquity, belongs to the classical transitional phase between high Romanesque and early Gothic that predominated from 1210 to 1235, especially at Rheims. Villard, in fact, borrowed a great number of examples from antiquity, including four partially draped nudes, a Roman tomb, lion fights, and lion-taming. On the other hand, his nature studies, including birds and a lion peint al vif, are unique.

Villard’s automatons derive in part from ancient sources, such as the spherical handwarmer (17d) and the magic fountain, and in part from Indian and Arabic sources, such as the perpetuum mobile. Of fundamental importance is his chapter on portraiture, in which he develops Gothic figures from abstract directrixes or geometric diagrams. His work on masonry contains the basic construction aids used by masons, such as tierspoint and quint-point, which are estraites de iométrie, and—drawn from ancient sources—the fundamental procedures of bisecting the square and the circle (Plato), the Archimedean spiral, and altimetry of the Roman land surveyors. Consideration of Villard’s sketches of the lectern, clock tower, and perpetuum mobile makes it possible to determine the laws of construction through which the medieval builders concretized their conceptual images.


1. The numbers in parentheses refer to the plates in both of Hahnloser’s eds. of Villard’s MS.

2. Laszlo Gerevich, “Villard de Honnecourt in Ungarn,” in Müvészettörténeti értesitö., 20 (1971), 81–104, with German abstract, 104–105.


I. Original Works. Eds. of Villard’s Bauhüttenbuch are by J. B. A. Lassus and A. Darcel, Album de Villard de Honnecourt, architecte du XIIIe siécle (Paris, 1858), the 1st illustrated ed., with engraved plates; R. Willis, Facsimile of the Sketch-Book of Wilars de Honecort (London, 1859), translated from the Lasuss ed., with many additional notes and articles and the same plates—a much improved ed.; H. Omont, Album de Villard de Honnecourt, architecte du XIIIe siècle (Paris, n.d. [1906]; 2nd ed., 1927), earliest eds. with photographic repros. but no comments; H. R. Hahnloser, Villard de Honnecourt, kritische Gesamtausgabe des Bauhüttenbuches MS fr. 19093 der Pariser Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, 1935), the 1st complete ed., with German trans., glossary, and complete bibliography; the 2nd ed. (Graz-Vienna, 1972), an offprint of the 1st ed. contains many new notes and plates; and T. R. Bowie, The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt (Bloomington, Inc., 1959), with a few comments—a 2nd ed. (1962) gives the plates in iconographical order.

II. Secondary Literature. See J. Quicherat, “Notice sur I’album de Villard de Honnecourt, architecte du XIIIe siècle,” in Revue archéologique, 6 (1849), 65–80, 164–188, 211–216, and pls. 116–118, which contains important comments; and N. X. Willemin and A. Pottier, Monuments français inédits pour servir à l’histoire des arts, 1 (Paris, 1825), 62 and pl. 106, only a few preliminary notes.

H. R. Hahnloser

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Villard de Honnecourt

fl. 1220s?

French Architect

Villard de Honnecourt is known for a single portfolio consisting of 33 parchment leaves. These leaves contain drawings of French cathedrals and include, as Villard writes in the portfolio, sound advice on the techniques of masonry and on the devices of carpentry. This portfolio, due to its architectural illustrations, was extremely influential during the Gothic revival of the nineteenth century.

Very little is known of Villard de Honnecourt's life and career. It is more than likely that he was born in the village of Villard-sur-l'Escault, which is south of Cambrai in the Picardy region of France. Nothing is known of his training, schooling, or employment.

Villard's manuscript, which was apparently completed during the 1220s or 1230s, contains architectural drawings, depictions of church furnishings and mechanical devices, studies of human and animal figures, and geometrical figures, as well as illustrations and descriptions of masonry and carpentry techniques. However, there seems to be no clear theme that organizes these drawings. The manuscript appears to be either a collection of random sketches or a journal compiled from Villard's extensive travels.

While the reasons for his travels are not known, it is assumed that Villard traveled as far as the abbey of Pilis in Hungary, and visited the French cathedrals of Cambrai, Chartres, Lyon, Meaux, and Reims, as well as the cathedral of Lausanne in Switzerland.

During the French and English Gothic revival movements of the midnineteenth century, this eclectic portfolio was rediscovered and published. The architectural focus of the Gothic revival led to an undue focus on Villard's architectural drawings. As a result, art historians speculated that Villard was both an architect and a trained mason.

In fact, some scholars have gone so far as to attribute the designs of the cathedrals in Villard's portfolio to Villard himself. However, there is no record of Villard in any extant documents that detail the work of medieval artisans. Indeed, recent investigations have further cast doubt on Villard's role as a master craftsman or architect. For example, practical stereotomical formulas in the portfolio were often taken as evidence of Villard's training as a mason. However, in 1901 researchers discovered that these formulas were later additions inscribed by another hand. The breathless pronouncements of the nineteenth century that Villard "erected churches throughout the length and breadth of Christendom" have been replaced by the more moderate supposition that Villard was no more than an educated and inquisitive traveler who recorded details from his journeys.

His esteem as an accomplished craftsman is a result of the efforts of the caretakers of his manuscript. His architectural drawings vary considerably from the actual buildings upon which they are modeled. Details are added or deleted, and the overall compositional quality of these drawings indicates that Villard actually understood very little regarding the construction and design of medieval buildings.

Evidence suggests that, after Villard lost possession of the manuscript, several scholars attempted to repaginate its parchment leaves. In the fifteenth century, eight leaves were lost by someone named Marcel, who attempted several repagination schemes. By 1600 the portfolio belonged to the Felibien family. Later, it was moved to the Parisian monastery of Saint Ger-main-des-Pres. In 1795 it was added to the French national collections.

The nineteenth-century rediscovery of the portfolio led scholars to identify Villard as a master architect and the manuscript as an encyclopedia of the architectural knowledge of the Gothic period. However, these drawings are now regarded as important due to their antiquarian appeal. Thus, Villard is generally viewed as a well-traveled thirteenth-century French artist whose portfolio provides a glimpse into the interests of an era.


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Villard de Honnecourt

Flourished 1200-1250
Mason and architect


Early Life and Career. Biographies of Villard de Hon-necourt are filled with conjectures, some more romantic and appealing than others. Everyone agrees that he was born in Picardy in northern France near the beginning of the thirteenth century. The only source of information about him from near that time is Villard’s sketchbook, which comprises approximately sixty-six pages and two hundred and fifty drawings. According to this source, he had “been in many lands” and “had been sent to the land of Hungary” where he “remained many days.” Such a trip would have taken several months and was remarkable for a medieval European of his class. Beyond this basic information, most of the facts of his biography are in dispute. His name does not appear in any surviving contracts, guild registers, payment receipts, or inscriptions—the most common sources of information about medieval masons. He is commonly believed to have been a master mason and architect who compiled his sketchbook while traveling around France looking for work. Where he received his training is unclear, although it has been suggested that he attended a monastic school, a plausible education for a medieval mason. Some have speculated that Villard worked on many of the major monuments depicted in his sketchbook—such as the cathedrals at Rheims, Chartres, Laon, Meaux, and Lausanne—but Villard mentioned only his work at Lausanne. Other scholars have pointed to his drawings of mechanical objects, such as trebuchets, and have called him an inspired inventor and tinkerer. Still others have described him as merely an interested layman with a gift for drawing. Whatever the truth about Villard’s life, his travels and the content of his sketchbook challenge modern notions that medieval people lived isolated and insular lives and that they were interested only in theology, not in technology. Villard’s interests were wide-ranging and worldly.

The Sketchbook. The objects described and drawn in Villard’s sketchbook fall into roughly ten categories: animals, architecture, carpentry, church furnishings, geometry, masonry, mechanical devices, people, recipes or formulas, and surveying. These categories do not do justice to the range of his drawings; his “people,” for example, include sketches as diverse as a medieval king, dancers, and “the sepulchre of a Saracen.” The accuracy of his drawings varies widely. This inconsistency has caused some scholars to question Villard’s status as a master architect and mason and to dispute the nineteenth-century claim that his sketchbook was designed to guide young masons and architects. Instead, the sketchbook is most commonly described as an album or record of his voyages that was intended to serve much the same purpose as a scrapbook or photo album for a modern traveler. Whatever Villard’s technical weaknesses, he was a fascinated viewer of medieval technology. When he visited the cathedral of Rheims, which had already been under construction for ten to twenty years, Villard drew examples of buttresses, interior walkways, and windows. He apparently even studied the architectural plans for the building and included excerpts in his notebook. He also included examples of the many small, decorative objects—such as bronze statues, engravings, and sculptures—that were commonly found in cathedrals during the medieval period but since then have in many cases been lost. Alongside a drawing of a portable candleholder, Villard wrote: “See here a sconce that is good for monks in order to carry their burning candles. You are able to make it if you know how to design.” How to make one is obvious from the picture.


Carl F. Barnes Jr., “Villard de Honnecourt,” in The Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Turner, 34 volumes (New York: Grove’s Dictionaries, 1996), XXXII: 569-571.

Villard de Honnecourt, The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, edited by Theodore Bowie, second edition, revised (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962).

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Villard Honnecourt or Wilars de Honnecourt or Honecort (c.1175–c.1240). French master-mason and author of the most important and wide-ranging medieval architectural treatise to survive, the so-called Lodge Book, apparently designed to assist apprentices and others. It includes sections on architecture, machinery, figures, sculpture, theory, and drawings of animals. Now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, the Lodge Book contains plans of actual buildings as well as unrealized designs. He seems to have worked at Cambrai, Lausanne, Meaux, St-Quentin, and the Cistercian Church at Vaucelles, and also ventured into Central Europe, where he may have taken part in design-work at Pilis, near Esztergom, Hungary (c.1220). During his travels he recorded buildings and details he had seen, including works at Chartres, Laon, and Rheims. Paul Frankl has gone so far as to dub Villard the ‘Gothic Vitruvius’.


Barnes (1982);
Bechmann (1991);
Bowie (ed.) (1968);
Bucher (1979);
Frankl (1960, 2000);
Hahnloser (1937);
Recht (ed.) (1989);
Jane Turner (1996)