Situated 60km north of Paris, Beauvais Cathedral symbolises the height of architectural endeavour in gothic architecture of the Middle Ages. Ambitious and gravity-defying, the cathedral boasts the record for the highest ceiling in a gothic choir in the Christendom (48.50m).
The cathedral also shows the ambition of the builders who were unable to complete it. Starting construction in 1225, the cathedral was meant to be the greatest church in the kingdom but over the centuries construction experienced many problems and structural collapses. What exists today – the choir and the transept – is impressive enough for us to dare to imagine what the finished project would have been.
Despite its size, it is not currently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, unlike neighbouring Amiens Cathedral.
Historic Overview of Beauvais Cathedral
In 1225, Bishop Milon de Nanteuil and his chapter decided to rebuild the pre-Romanesque cathedral, which today is known as “Notre Dame de la Basse-Oeuvre”. The small Basse-Oeuvre church occupies the site that was initially put aside for the construction of the nave of the current building. Even if today only a part of its nave remains, the Basse-Oeuvre church is one of the few extant Carolingian buildings that remain in good condition.
In 1225, the authorities decided to construct the gothic cathedral starting at the eastern part of the transept. The foundations, which at certain points are more than 10 metres deep, are indicative of the immense scale of the sanctuary. Next, the crown of the chapels and the interiors were built and then lastly the upper reaches of the central nave. The great work was finished on October 3, 1272, and services began immediately inside the building.
In 1284, a part of the choir collapsed due to weakness in the structure. The building was strengthened progressively up until 1347 by adding supplementary pillars in the choir.
During the Hundred Years War, the construction of the Beauvais Cathedral was halted. The cathedral did not suffer too much during this dark era of the French history, however repairs were needed for the minor damage caused by the siege of Beauvais by Charles the Bold in 1472.
From 1500, 150 years after the construction of the choir, work on the transept started at the instigation of count-bishop Louis de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam and under the direction of the architect Martin Chambiges. The transept was built in a flamboyant style which was the fashion at the time but Chambiges did not see his work finished as he died 20 years before work ended. This explains why the roofs of the turrets were built in the Renaissance style by Chambiges’ presumed successor, Michel de Lalict.
When work on the transept was completed in 1548, the religious authorities preferred to construct a spire rather than spend money on constructing a nave. This excessively big spire, at its completion was the highest in all Christendom:
“We will construct a spire so high, that once finished, those who see it will think that we were crazy.”
The spire was completed in 1569 after 6 years of work. At 153 metres in height, it gave the cathedral the title of the tallest building in the world, surpassing the Basilica of Saint Peter of Rome. The cathedral, even though unfinished, was thus at the height of its splendour.
On April 30, 1573, the cathedral was hit by bad luck. Following a service, the spire and the three levels of the bell tower collapsed. Only 2 people were reported to sustain minor injuries as the sanctuary had been evacuated in time. The funding that was needed to reconstruct the vaults of the transept did not allow for the nave of the cathedral to be built.
Despite this, attempts to construct the nave did indeed go ahead. In 1600, construction on the nave began but only the first arch was actually built.
Thus, Beauvais Cathedral stays incomplete to this day and can be set apart from other cathedrals by its significant lack of a nave.
The cathedral’s misfortune continued up till the Revolution when in October 1793, the sans-culottes decapitated the statues and pillaged the interior which became a temple dedicated to Reason.
In 1840, the cathedral was listed on the first list of the French historical monuments.
During the Second World War, Beauvais Cathedral was damaged by bombing but did not collapse. 75% of the windows that were not able to be put in a safe place were broken and the grand organ was rendered unusable.
Its grand height and the fact that it is not supported by a nave at its west side make the structure of Beauvais Cathedral very fragile.
In the 1990s, the choir started to become very unstable. In some places, the pillars had moved more than 30cm. Due to the risk of collapse, immense trusses were urgently installed in 1993. Moreover, since 2000, scaffolding has been continually put up around the cathedral to overcome these problems. In 2010, another series of work including the restoration of the roof was started, a project that should last nine years. The causes of such instability are known these days thanks to extensive studies which have led to the solving of these problems and it was only when they were that the huge trusses that were urgently installed in 1993 could be taken down. According to several experts, Beauvais Cathedral has never been this stable and so grand visions of the long-term prospects of a new spire of a great height to be built above the cross of the transept resurface once more.
Exterior of Beauvais Cathedral
The Dimensions of Beauvais Cathedral
Though it remains unfinished, the gigantic scale of the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais is impressive.
If funding had been sufficient to finish the nave (and planned towers) it would, without a doubt, rank as highest amongst European gothic cathedrals, even above Cologne Cathedral, which holds that position.
The cathedral measures 72.5 metres at its full length and the transept measures 58.6 metres. The choir measures 47 metres, much smaller than the choir of Amiens cathedral (64m). The cathedral reaches the impressive height of 67.2 metres, which is almost the same height of the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris which reach 69 metres!
Of course, Beauvais Cathedral’s reputation is largely due to the vertiginous height of the choir roof, which reaches 48.5 metres, a world record, far ahead of other French cathedrals, such as Amiens (42.3m), Metz (41.41m), Reims (38m) and Bourges (37.5m).
The Northern and Southern Façades of the Transept
The southern façade is magnificently rendered in the gothic style, but also in the Renaissance style in parts.
The north-facing doors of the cathedral display sculptures of the salamander (emblem of King Francis I) with the crown of France shown above.
The southern great door is decorated with the monogram of Francis I, with an F sitting above the royal crown. The northern façade is very similar to its southern counterpart, though less ornate, probably due to its lack of sun exposure.
Beauvais Cathedral does not really have a clock tower. Today a small slate-roofed steeple now sits atop the monument.
10 large, strong and elegant buttresses, 50 metres in height, counteract the weight of the choir. To reinforce the latter, solid buttresses were added as well as thick piers to the north, against the openwork.
Interior of Beauvais Cathedral
Above the clerestory, which measures 1.4 metres, almost 17 metres of glasswork allows light to stream inside. The ribbed arches exert minimal pressure on the piers, which facilitates their impressive elevation.
Exceptional 13th, 14th and 16th century stained glass windows illuminate the interior of the cathedral. Rose windows situated on the two braces of the transept were added in the 16th century thanks to the donation of the Leprince family of Beauvais. Impressive in size, these are 11m in diameter (in contrast to the windows of Notre-Dame de Paris, which measure 13.1m).
The ambulatory has three storeys, which is unusual for French Gothic cathedrals. Above the arcades on the 1st level, the clerestory stretches for 70m. It now lacks the picture windows of the outside wall, which were most probably bricked up in the 14th century to consolidate the wall. The broken windows of the clerestory of the third level that sit between two arches support a rose window with nine petals.
The ambulatory of Beauvais Cathedral is notable for its 20 m high walls and for the 7 rayonnant chapels, each 6.6m deep and 12.5m high. Although they appear crowded, one must still note the graceful elegance of the pillars.
The first floor sits high, at the half-way mark of the choir walls at 23m. The piers were thickened after the collapse of the choir in 13th century.
The Astronomical Clock of Beauvais Cathedral
The jewel of the cathedral’s interior is the astronomical clock which, built between 1865 and 1868 by the clockmaker Auguste Vérité, was based on a model of the Strasbourg clock. Brought to life by a son et lumiere display, the clock contains an extraordinary 90,000 components, including 68 clockwork figures! The faces of the clock indicate the time, tides and the movements of the stars.
On the 31st July 1988, the clock was stopped and the ESPACES organisation was launched to work on repairing it. A team of five renowned French engineers brought Beauvais’ astronomical clock back into working order. Currently being restored, the clock cannot be viewed by the public until early 2012.
The cathedral is also home to a beautiful medieval chiming clock, the oldest in the world still working, which dates back to 1305.
The Tapestries of Beauvais Cathedral
The tapestries that decorate the choir and that date from the 15th and 17th centuries are just as remarkable. Unfortunately, the cathedral has been unable to preserve all of its tapestries and following a robbery in 1974, the most beautiful of these have had to be placed out of view, in a safe place.
One of the most important examples of medieval tapestry is housed at Beauvais. Known as “the Life of Saint Peter and of Saint Paul”, this 15th century tapestry originally had 11 panels. Today only 6 of these remain, the others having been lost or separated, taken elsewhere in France or to the United States.
Another 16th century tapestry that hangs in Beauvais cathedral is titled “Histoire Fabuleuse des Gaules” (The Amazing Story of the Gauls). It depicts the towns of the medieval era in great detail, including Beauvais.
The Treasure of Beauvais Cathedral
The cathedral Saint Peter of Beauvais also houses some of the greatest treasures belonging to a cathedral in France, with a collection of over a thousand artefacts. Unlike other French cathedrals, the treasure of Beauvais cathedral did not fall victim to sackings during the various revolutions. That said, it is not possible for visitors to view the treasure.
The city of Beauvais organises many guided tours. The cathedral is open for visits from Monday to Saturday, from 9 am to 12.15pm and from 2pm to 5.30pm. Tours are not admitted on Sundays until after services.
For more information, visit the Beauvais tourist information website: http://www.beauvaistourisme.fr