Beauvais Cathedral

Beauvais Cathedral


Beauvais Cathedral ( _fr. Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais) is an incomplete cathedral located in Beauvais in northern France. It is the seat of the Bishop of Beauvais, Noyon and Senlis. It is, in some respects the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture, and consists only of a transept (sixteenth-century) and choir with apse and seven polygonal apsidal chapels (thirteenth century), which are reached by an ambulatory.The small Romanesque church of the 10th century known as the "Basse Œuvre", much restored, still occupies the site destined for the nave.


Work was begun in 1225 [A formerly often-quoted date of 1247 was based on an error made by an early historian of Beauvais. (Murray 1980:533 note 5.] under count-bishop Miles de Nanteuil, immediately after the third in a series of fires in the old wooden-roofed basilica, which had reconsecrated its altar only three years before the fire; the choir was completed in 1272, in two campaigns, with an interval 1232-38, owing to a funding crisis provoked by a struggle with Louis IX. The two campaigns are distinguishable by a slight shift in the axis of the work and by what Stephen Murray characterizes as "changes in stylistic handwriting". [Murray 1980:547.] Under Bishop Guillaume de Grez, [William of Grez was the first bishop to be buried in the axial Lady Chapel, 1267.] an extra sixteen feet were added to the height,Fact|date=April 2007 to make it the highest-vaulted cathedral in Europe. The vaulting in the interior of the choir reaches 157.5 ft in height, far surpassing the concurrently constructed Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Amiens, with its 138-ft nave.

The work was interrupted in 1284 by the collapse of some of the vaulting of the recently-completed choir. This collapse is often seen as a disaster that produced a failure of nerve among the French masons working in Gothic style; modern historians have reservations about this deterministic view: Stephen Murray notes that the collapse also "ushers in the age of smaller structures associated with demographic decline, the Hundred Years War, and of the thirteenth century." [Murray 1980:533.]

However, large-scale Gothic design continued, and the choir was rebuilt at the same height, albeit with more columns in the chevet. The transept was built from 1500 to 1548. In 1573 the fall of a too-ambitious central tower stopped work again, after which little addition was made.

The choir has always been wholeheartedly admired: Eugène Viollet-le-Duc called the Beauvais choir "the Parthenon of French Gothic.'

Its façades, especially that on the south, exhibit all the richness of the late Gothic style. The carved wooden doors of both the north and the south portals are masterpieces respectively of Gothic and Renaissance workmanship. The church possesses an elaborate astronomical clock (1866) and tapestries of the 15th and 17th centuries; but its chief artistic treasures are stained glass windows of the 13th, 14th and 16th centuries, the most beautiful of them from the hand of the Renaissance artist, Engrand Le Prince, a native of Beauvais. To him also is due some of the stained glass in St-Etienne, the second church of the town, and an interesting example of the transition stage between the Romanesque and Gothic styles.

During the Middle Ages, on January 14, the Feast of Asses was celebrated in the Beauvais Cathedral, in commemoration of the Flight into Egypt.

tructural Condition

In the race to build the tallest cathedral in the 13th century, the builders of Saint-Pierre de Beauvais pushed the technology to the limits. Even though the structure was to be taller, the buttresses were made thinner in order to pass the maximum light into the cathedral. In 1284, only 12 years after completion, part of the choir vault collapsed along with a few flying buttresses. It is now believed the collapse was caused by resonant vibrations caused by high winds. ["Découvrir la Cathedrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais", Philippe Bonnet-Laborderie, 2000]

The accompanying photograph shows lateral iron supports between the flying buttresses. It is not known when these external tie-rods were installed. The technology would have been available at the time of the initial construction, but the extra support might not have been considered necessary until after the collapse in 1284, or even later. In the 1960s the tie-rods were removed thinking they were disgraceful and not necessary. However the oscillations created by the wind became amplified and the choir partially disassociated itself from the transept. Subsequently the tie-rods were reinstalled, but this time with rods made of steel. Since steel is less supple than iron, the structure became more rigid, possibly causing additional fissures. [Beauvais Cathedral, Architecture of Transcendence », Princeton University Press, 1989]

As the floor plan shows, the original design included a nave that was never built. Thus, the absence of the shouldering support of the nave contributes to the structural weakness of the cathedral.

With the passage of time other problems surfaced, some requiring more drastic remedies. The north transept now has four large wood and steel lateral trusses at different heights, installed during the 1990s to keep the transept from collapsing (see photograph). In addition, the main floor of the transept is interrupted by a much larger brace that rises out of the floor at a 45-degree angle. [ [ Structurae [en:
] This brace was installed as an emergency measure to give additional support to the pillars that, until now, have held up the tallest vault in the world.

These temporary measures will be in place until more permanent solutions can be determined. Various studies are underway to determine with more assurance what can be done to preserve this magnificent structure. Columbia University is performing a study using a three-dimensional model using laser scans of the building in an attempt to determine the weaknesses in the building and remedies. [ [ The Beauvais Cathedral Project ] ]



* Murray, Stephen: "The Choir of the Church of St.-Pierre, Cathedral of Beauvais: A Study of Gothic Architectural Planning and Constructional Chronology in Its Historical Context" in "The Art Bulletin" 62.4 (December 1980), pp. 533-551

External links

* [ Cathedral of Beauvais Digital Media Archive] (creative commons-licensed photos, laser scans, panoramas), data from a World Monuments Fund/CyArk research partnership
* [ 360 degrees panorama virtual tour of some French cathedrals including Beauvais]
* [ Spectacular views of the inside]

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