Beauvais Cathedral: the gravity-defying church

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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 fact it was the tallest monument in the Christendom for four consecutive years until its lantern tower tragically collapsed… A must-see monument if you’re fond of Gothic edifices!


Beauvais Cathedral: an ambitious project

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. However, 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.


A brief historic overview of Beauvais Cathedral

It all started in the 13th century.

Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from Lukasz Pawel Szczepanski - Shutterstock

Beauvais Cathedral and Notre-Dame de la Basse-Œuvre – Stock Photos from Lukasz Pawel Szczepanski – Shutterstock

Notre-Dame de la Basse-Œuvre

In 1225, Bishop Milon de Nanteuil and his chapter decided to rebuild the pre-Romanesque cathedral. That church still exists today and 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 cathedral’s nave.

Even if today only a part of its nave remains, the Basse-Oeuvre church is one of the few Carolingian buildings that remain in good condition.

The building of a new and Gothic sanctuary

In 1225, the authorities decided to build the Gothic cathedral. Works started at the eastern part of the transept.

The foundations are indicative of the immense scale of the sanctuary. At certain points they are more than 10 metres deep.

Then, the crown of the chapels and the interiors were built. Followed by the upper reaches of the central nave. The great work was finished on October 3, 1272. 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.

The Hundred Years War halted the construction of the Cathedral. However the church did not suffer too much from the conflict. Repairs were needed for the minor damage caused by the Siege of Beauvais by Charles the Bold in 1472.

Charles le Temeraire (Charles the Bold) painted by Rogier van der Weyden (v

Charles le Téméraire (Charles the Bold) painted by Rogier van der Weyden (v.1400 – 1464)

From 1500 (150 years after the construction of the choir) works 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 died 20 years before the completion of his work. This explains why the roofs of the turrets were built in the Renaissance style by Michel de Lalict, Chambiges’ presumed successor.

That time when Beauvais cathedral became the world’s tallest structure!

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.”

 

Beauvais engraving dating before 1573 showing the spire above the crossing of the transept

Beauvais engraving dating before 1573 showing the spire above the crossing of the transept

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. It even surpassed 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.

Beauvais Cathedral

St. Peter’s of Beauvais, an unfinished cathedral

An incomplete cathedral…

Thus, Beauvais Cathedral stays incomplete to this day. It can be set apart from other cathedrals by its significant lack of a nave.

The cathedral’s misfortune continued up till the Revolution. In October 1793, the sans-culottes decapitated the statues of the doorways. They pillaged the interior and desecrated the church to make it 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. The grand organ was rendered unusable.

Beauvais in ruins in 1940 - Fernand Watteeuw, Archives départementales de l'Oise, wikipedia commons (CC BY-SA 3

Beauvais in ruins in 1940 – Fernand Watteeuw, Archives départementales de l’Oise, wikipedia commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A very fragile monument

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.

Work on Beauvais cathedral - Stock Photos from Ana del Castillo - Shutterstock

Work on the cathedral – Stock Photos from Ana del Castillo – Shutterstock

The causes of such instability are known these days thanks to extensive studies. It may lead to the deinstallation of the huge trusses that were urgently installed in 1993.

According to several experts, Beauvais Cathedral has never been this stable. In 2000 the Superior Commission for the sites of the Ministry of Culture worked on a feasibility study about the reconstruction of the spire. The project was estimated to amount around 120 million French francs. (Source Le Moniteur)


Exterior of Beauvais Cathedral

The Dimensions of Beauvais Cathedral

Beauvais cathedral - Stock Photos from Borisb17 - Shutterstock

Beauvais cathedral – Stock Photos from Borisb17 – Shutterstock

Though it remains unfinished, the gigantic scale of the Cathedral of St. Peter of Beauvais is impressive.

If funding had been sufficient to finish the nave (and planned towers) it would, without a doubt, rank as the highest amongst European gothic cathedrals.

Gigantic dimensions

  • The cathedral measures 72.5 metres at its full length and the transept is 58.6 metres.
  • The choir has a length of 47 metres. That is 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 (69 metres)!
  • Of course, Beauvais Cathedral’s reputation is largely due to the vertiginous height of the choir roof. The vault reaches 48.5 metres. This is a world record, far ahead of other French cathedrals, such as Amiens (42.3m), Metz (41.41m), Reims (38m) and Bourges (37.5m).
Vaults of Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from Sirio Carnevalino - Shutterstock

The impressively high vaults of Beauvais Cathedral – Stock Photos from Sirio Carnevalino – Shutterstock

The Northern and Southern Façades of the Transept

Transept of Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from Ana del Castillo - Shutterstock

South Transept of Beauvais Cathedral – Stock Photos from Ana del Castillo – Shutterstock

The southern façade is magnificently rendered in the gothic style. Notice the Renaissance style in parts of the façade.

Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from NOWAK LUKASZ - Shutterstock

The South Transept of Beauvais Cathedral – Stock Photos from NOWAK LUKASZ – Shutterstock

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. It is less ornate which is probably due to its lack of sun exposure. Nevertheless it features a remarkable tree of Jesse.

North Transept of Beauvais Cathedral © Txllxt TxllxT - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

North Transept of Beauvais Cathedral © Txllxt TxllxT – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Beauvais Cathedral does not really have a clock tower. Today a small slate-roofed steeple now sits atop the monument.

The Chevet

The chevet of Beauvais Cathedral by Pepijntje [Public Domain]

The chevet of Beauvais Cathedral by Pepijntje [Public Domain]

10 large, strong and elegant buttresses counteract the weight of the choir. They are 50 meters in height. To reinforce them, solid buttresses were added as well as thick piers to the north, against the openwork.


Interior of Beauvais Cathedral

There is something intriguing about the cathedral of Beauvais. As mentioned above in the historic overview, the church has never been completed.

It is easy to see when studying the floor map:

Beauvais Cathedral Floor Plan by French Moments

It makes you realise how great the cathedral would have been if the whole nave had been built.

Yet the dimensions of the church are impressive today.

Now let’s step inside. We can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the vertical outburst of the church.

Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Beauvais Cathedral – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

Above the clerestory, almost 17 metres of glasswork allows light to stream inside.

The ribbed arches exert minimal pressure on the piers, which facilitates their impressive elevation.

Stained-glass windows

Stained-glass window in Beauvais cathedral - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Stained-glass window in Beauvais cathedral – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

Exceptional stained glass windows from the 13th, 14th and 16th centuries 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.

Stained-glass window in Beauvais cathedral - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Stained-glass window in Beauvais cathedral – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

Impressive in size, these are 11m in diameter (in contrast to the windows of Notre-Dame de Paris, which measure 13.1m).

Stained-glass window in Beauvais cathedral - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Stained-glass window in Beauvais cathedral – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

The Ambulatory

The ambulatory has three storeys, which is unusual for French Gothic cathedrals.

Chevet of Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

The ambulatory and chevet of Beauvais Cathedral – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

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. But also 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.

Side chapel, Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Side chapel, Beauvais Cathedral – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

The Choir

The first floor sits high, at the half-way mark of the choir walls at 23m.

Chevet of Beauvais Cathedral - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Choir of Beauvais Cathedral – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

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. This masterpiece was built between 1865 and 1868 by the clockmaker Auguste Vérité. He based it on a model of the Strasbourg clock. Brought to life by a light 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.

Beauvais Astronomic Clock - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Beauvais Astronomic Clock – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

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.

Beauvais Astronomic Clock - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Beauvais Astronomic Clock – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

The cathedral is also home to a beautiful medieval chiming clock. Dating back to 1305, this is the oldest in the world still working.

The medieval clock of Beauvais Cathedral © Tango7174 - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The medieval clock of Beauvais Cathedral © Tango7174 – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Tapestries of Beauvais Cathedral

The remarkable tapestries that used to decorate the choir date from the 15th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, the cathedral has been unable to preserve all of its tapestries. Following a robbery in 1974, some of the most beautiful have been placed 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 cloister of the cathedral

Cloister of Beauvais Cathedral © Chatsam - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Cloister of Beauvais Cathedral © Chatsam – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral’s cloister was created in the 15th century. The timbered galleries filled with bricks date back to the late 17th century. The cloister gives access to the Chapter House which was restored in 2012.

Cloister of Beauvais Cathedral © Chatsam - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Cloister of Beauvais Cathedral © Chatsam – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons


The light show

A free light show ‘La Cathédrale Infinie‘ is projected onto the façade of the cathedral in Summer. The 2 sessions of 30 minutes long take place at nightfall. In 2018, the light show was projected on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 July to 15 September.

Beauvais Cathedral Light Show © Chatsam - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Light show projected onto the façade of Beauvais Cathedral © Chatsam – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

In the photo above, the light show depicts the Tree of Jesse that is featured on the North Transept.


What to see in Beauvais

Beauvais is located in the historic province of Ile de France (despite being today included in the Hauts-de-France administrative region).

Since you are visiting the cathedral, take the time to stroll in the old town to visit Beauvais.

You won’t find too many monuments. 

In early June 1940 the city was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe. A great fire led to the destruction of two-thirds of Beauvais. Only a few medieval houses (and the cathedral) were spared.

Half-timbered house in Beauvais - Stock Photos from Ana del Castillo - Shutterstock

Half-timbered house in Beauvais – Stock Photos from Ana del Castillo – Shutterstock

The old city-centre of Beauvais was rebuilt after the war. But many old houses were never risen to their ashes except for a few half-timbered buildings.

In the old town of Beauvais - Stock Photos from Massimiliano Pieraccini - Shutterstock

In the old town of Beauvais – Stock Photos from Massimiliano Pieraccini – Shutterstock

Nevertheless, make sure to see the following sites:

The bishop’s palace

The 12th century edifice was partly built on top of the Gallo-Roman wall.

The gateway is flanked by two massive towers.

The gate to the bishops' palace, Beauvais - Stock Photos from milosk50 - Shutterstock

The gate to the bishops’ palace, Beauvais – Stock Photos from milosk50 – Shutterstock

Inside the domain, the main edifice was built in Renaissance style in the early 16th century.

Beauvais Bishop Palace © Pierre Poschadel - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Bishop’s Palace © Pierre Poschadel – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Today the palace houses the MUDO – the museum of the Oise département.

St. Etienne church

The current church was built in the early 12th century on the site of an older sanctuary.

St Etienne Church in Beauvais - Stock Photos from milosk50 - Shutterstock

St Etienne Church in Beauvais – Stock Photos from milosk50 – Shutterstock

The nave and transept are of Romanesque style.

The nave of St Etienne Church, Beauvais - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

The nave of St Etienne Church, Beauvais – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

The choir was built in Flamboyant Gothic in the 16th century.

The church is famous for the stunning stained-glass windows of the chancel. They are among the finest from the Renaissance era.

Stained-glass windows inside St Etienne Church, Beauvais - Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick - Shutterstock

Stained-glass windows inside St Etienne Church, Beauvais – Stock Photos from Isogood_patrick – Shutterstock

One of them is particularly beautiful: the Tree of Jesse (1522).

The Jesse Tree stained-glass in the church of Saint-Étienne [public domain]

The Jesse Tree stained-glass in the church of Saint-Étienne [public domain]

The Maladrerie Saint-Lazare de Voisinlieu

This medieval complex is the best preserved hospitaller in Northern Europe with buildings dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Maladrerie Saint-Lazare, Beauvais © JmDeBovet - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Maladrerie Saint-Lazare, Beauvais © JmDeBovet – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons


Where to stay in Beauvais

Click here to get a list of accommodation (hotels, guest houses, campings…) that are found in Beauvais.

The map below will help you choose your accommodation according to your preferred location:



Booking.com


How to get there

Beauvais (pop. 56,000) is the head city of the Oise département (60).

The city is located in the Hauts-de-France administrative region, at 67 kms from Paris, 53 kms from Amiens and 72 km from Rouen.

Beauvais Airport - Stock Photos from MarKord - Shutterstock

Beauvais Airport – Stock Photos from MarKord – Shutterstock

  • The A16 motorway connects Beauvais to Paris is one hour, Amiens is 45 minutes and Calais in 2 hours.
  • Several trains operate daily to and from Paris (about 1 hr 15 from Gare du Nord).
  • The Paris-Beauvais airport is located in the suburb of Tillé.
  • If you are landing at the airport and want to discover Beauvais and its cathedral, take the number 6 city bus (Corolis Shuttle). It will take you directly to the city centre in approximately 20 minutes.

Practical Information about Beauvais

Opening times

  • 1st November to 31st March: open from 10am to 12.15pm and from 2pm to 5.15pm
  • 1st April to 31st October: open from 10am to 6.15pm
  • Astronomic Clock: 10.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm, 3.30pm and 4.30pm. Additional times from April to October: 12.30pm and 1.30pm.

Useful websites to find out more about Beauvais


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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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