Although little known and off the beaten tracks, Bourges Cathedral is worth a visit. The Cathedral Saint-Etienne of Bourges was built in record time between 1195 and the late 13th century. Nowadays visitors come to Bourges to admire this stunning and stylistically daring sanctuary. Its proportions and the unity of its design make it a “grande cathédrale“. In 1992 UNESCO listed Bourges Cathedral as a World Heritage Site. Follow the guide!
The first sight of Bourges Cathedral
Bourges Cathedral is a stunning Gothic edifice. You’ll understand why when standing in two specific spots:
- In front of the West façade from place Etienne Dolet – just look at the incredible width of the façade with no less than 5 portals!
- From the Jardin de l’Archevêché – admire the amazing successive of flying buttresses and the chevet. And, surprisingly, there’s no transept in contrast to other grand Gothic cathedrals of France. The magnificent chevet resembles the one at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris with double flying buttresses creating an overall pyramid-shaped elevation.
It is, however, also its splendid stained-glass windows that like those at Chartres make this cathedral famous. And for this, you’ll have to have a peek inside!
Facts and Figures:
The following facts and figures show why Saint-Etienne de Bourges ranks among the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals of France.
- Total length: 125 m (Reims: 149.19 m, Amiens: 145 m, Notre-Dame de Paris: 130 m)
- Length of the West front: 55 m or 73.45 m including the ‘buttress-pillar’ (Rouen: 61.60, Reims: 48.80 m)
- Height of nave: 37.15 m (Beauvais: 48 m, Amiens: 42 m, Metz: 41.7 m. Reims: 38 m)
- Towers height: 65 m and 53 m (Strasbourg: 142 m, Orléans: 88 m, Rouen: 82 and 75 m, Reims: 81.50 m)
- Total floor area: 5,900 m2 (Amiens: 7,700 m2, Reims: 6,640 m2)
- Diameter of the West front rose window: 9 m (13.1 m for the transept roses in ND de Paris, 12.5 m in Reims)
History of Saint-Etienne Cathedral
The great unity of style of the cathedral St Etienne of Bourges is due to rapid construction. Indeed it took less than a century to build!
The political context of the time at the cathedral’s foundation
The construction of the current cathedral started when Henri de Sully, archbishop of Bourges, made a donation.
The new construction was intended to replace the old Romanesque edifice (11th and 12th C). The former sanctuary became way too small for the city of Bourges. The new classic Gothic-style cathedral was the 4th sanctuary built on the site.
Bourges, a French possession from 1100
In 1100, Bourges and its region became the property of the King of France. It so formed the southern boundary of the kingdom. In fact, the city was close to Aquitaine, an English domain at the time.
Bourges was the capital of a territory that the archbishop wished to rule with the same authority as the neighbouring “Primate of Aquitaine”. His authority, often contested, expanded all the way to Bordeaux.
The city of Bourges was an important city in the 12th century. In 1137 the city saw the coronation of Louis VII. The king of France was also the first spouse of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
A grand Gothic cathedral in the South of the Loire
What is unusual about Bourges Cathedral is that it lies South of the Loire. In the fact, it was the first grand Gothic sanctuary built there. It allowed the king of France (and also the archbishop) to display his prestige along a geographical border between the north and south of France.
At the time, you would find the most stunning Gothic cathedrals all situated in the Ile de France province. This was the royal domain, including the cities (and cathedrals of) Reims, Paris, Laon, Chartres, Beauvais, and Amiens. Since then, Bourges Cathedral has ranked among the majestic and prestigious French cathedrals… and this has been particularly true in regards to Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
The construction of the Cathedral of Bourges
Like in Amiens, the construction of the new gothic building had to resolve problems related to the old surrounding walls.
Architects integrated the romanesque choir of the previous cathedral into the new building. Thus it became the “lower church”, buried below the chevet due to a difference in ground level. Today, this area of the cathedral open to the public is the crypt.
The architects wanted to build a cathedral with a simple but harmonious design. Work on the cathedral began in 1195 and within twenty years, builders completed nearly half of the edifice. Religious services took place in the newly finished choir.
Similarities between Bourges and Notre-Dame de Paris
Today it is easy to see the similarities between the cathedrals of Bourges and Notre-Dame de Paris.
Notre-Dame de Paris certainly inspired archbishop Henri de Sully to build Bourges cathedral but he died in 1199 before its completion. The next archbishop, Guillaume de Dangeon, continued the work up until his death ten years later in 1209.
The greatest work on the cathedral (the nave and the western façade) was undertaken in 1225 and lasted for 5 years.
In 1313, cracks appeared on the South Tower and it began to collapse. Architects quickly strengthened it by construction an enormous supporting pillar. The tower has never sheltered any bells due to the tower’s instability. Hence the nickname of the “Mute Tower” (Tour Sourde).
No transept for the cathedral of Bourges!
On 13 May 1324, archbishop Guillaume de Brosse consecrated the cathedral. At that time, the façade was still under construction and so was the North Tower. The architects of Bourges Cathedral are credited with preserving the coherence and simplicity of the entire structure. In the notable absence of the transept, they knew how to contribute to the unified style of the monument that is rarely seen in other French cathedrals.
During the 15th century
In 1424, André Cassart built the famous astronomical clock from a design by Jean Fusoris.
Five years later, in 1429, Joan of Arc came to Bourges and prayed in Bourges Cathedral. No one knows if she liked the cathedral, but to this day she is depicted there in one of the chapels wearing armour.
Jacques Cœur and the cathedral of Bourges
Still, in the 15th century, the rich and famous Jacques Cœur added to the prestige of the cathedral. This was a way for him to atone for his mistakes and other sins.
To this end, he used his money to build a sacristy and, notably, a stained glass window of extraordinary beauty. It pushed his son Jean to become archbishop of Bourges at 25 years old!
That time when the North Tower collapsed!
Around 1480, workers finally completed the North Tower. However, it soon showed structural weakness.
Then on 31 December 1506, it collapsed. It was necessary to organise funding for its reconstruction. The collapse of the North Tower occurred in a particular architectural period in the French kingdom. It was the Renaissance period. Not far from Bourges, on the lower banks of the Loire, the Kings and his court built the most beautiful dwellings of the kingdom of France. Prestigious names such as Chambord, Amboise, and Blois.
The Butter Tower
During the reconstruction of the tower between 1508 and 1542, the architects took care to respect the harmony of the building. They constructed it in a gothic style. Therefore this was a style becoming less popular at that time in favour of the Renaissance style. Yet they could not resist adding certain decorative flourishes in the Renaissance style.
The construction of the tower took place thanks to generous donations, loans and various earnings. The highest tower of the city had to symbolise the power of the authorities, just as it did at Strasbourg.
Once it was reconstructed, it took the nickname of the “Butter Tower” (Tour de Beurre). It was widely believed that is was partly paid for by the faithful who were permitted to eat butter and cream during Lent in exchange for tithe. This is similar to another famous “butter tower” at Rouen cathedral.
The cathedral from the Renaissance to the Revolution
Bourges Cathedral went through the turmoil of the Wars of Religion. In 1562 the town was seized by Protestants who wreaked severe damage on the sculptures.
However, it was the zealous canons of the 18th century that heavily modified the interior of the cathedral in an effort to modernise it. They took away many coloured stained-glass windows in the choir and replaced with clear glass windows.
In the nave, they removed the decorated rood-screen with bas-reliefs showing scenes of the Passion.
During the French Revolution, the edifice escaped destruction. Besides the dispersal of precious objects and furniture, the cathedral was not heavily affected by the Revolutionaries. Under the Reign of Terror (10 December 1793), the new authorities transformed the sanctuary into a Temple of Unity devoted to the Cult of Reason.
The cathedral Saint-Etienne of Bourges in the 19th century
At the beginning of the 19th century, architects added balustrades and pinnacles possibly to imitate Orleans Cathedral.
In 1831, French writer George Sand, then 27 years old, wrote to her friend:
“Do you know your cathedral is one of the most beautiful things in the world? The interior is the most impressive that I have seen in my life. I went there for High Mass and I made sounds that would scandalize the faithful… My God, the beautiful columns, the beautiful vault, the beautiful stained glass windows…”
Bourges Cathedral became officially a Historical Monument in 1837 and had since undergone intense repairs and restorations. After completing the renovation works on the North, West and Central Portals between 2000 and 2001, the roof was redone in the 2010s.
Thanks to these different phases of renovation, the building that we admire today appear much as it did in the 13th century.
My book recommendation!
Its name? Simply:
Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting by Rolf Toman, Publisher: Ullmann
This book has been for me a great resource that helped me better understand the Gothic movement in art from the 12th century to the Renaissance. An architectural style that first originated from France and spread all over Europe.
Over 500 pages it focuses on the development of Gothic architecture with many illustrations and photographs, but not only. I’ve also found interesting the in-depth discussion of the most diverse art forms, including painting, sculpture, metalwork and even book illumination! It also includes specific coverage of the Cathars’ Heresy and the Papal Palace in Avignon. And, of course, it mentions the cathedral of Saint-Etienne de Bourges!
This is definitely the book I recommend if – like me – you love everything about Gothic such as churches, gargoyles, stained glass, flying buttresses and so much more.
The exterior of the Cathedral of Bourges
The Western Façade
The façade should prepare the visitor for the interior of the cathedral. More than 40 meters wide, it makes up the largest western wall of the gothic buildings in France. Despite its massive appearance, it nevertheless has many points that lack cohesion.
A flight of 12 steps leads up to the five portals, all with double doors, that correspond exactly to the five naves. The sculptures on the façade are particularly splendid, amongst them the magnificent scene depicting the Last Judgement behind the central portal.
Despite the damage done by Protestants and by the French Revolution, there are still 1680 sculptures intact.
Amongst the many bas-reliefs that decorate the façade, on one or two of them, a sculptor has curiously immortalised his derriere!
At 9 m wide, the rose window is an impressive delight.
The Five Portals
From left to right, the facade consists of 6 portals:
The Saint William portal
Dating from the 16th century, it is dedicated to the archbishop of Bourges who saw its construction. Guillaume was canonised after his death.
The Virgin’s portal
(Portail de la Vierge)
It dates from the 16th century.
The central portal or Last Judgement portal
(Portail du Jugement dernier)
It is designed on the theme of the Last Judgement. This masterpiece of Gothic sculpture dating from the 1240s depicts a grandiose and realistic rendition of the Last Judgement, surveyed by a majestic and beatific Christ.
Heaven, inhabited by angels and the chosen, draped in long robes, is opposed by a depiction of hell, swarming with demons and the damned dogged by despair. Amongst this scene is a strikingly beautiful statue of the Archangel Saint Michael, smiling graciously, which evokes the smiling angel of Reims.
The portal of Saint Stephen
As for the entire cathedral, it owes its name to the first Christian martyr.
The portal of Saint Ursinus of Bourges
Saint Ursinus was the first bishop of Bourges. He built the town’s very first church at the beginning of the Christian era. The bas-relief of this door’s sculpture tells part of his miraculous story.
The towers of the façade
Two towers, the North Tower and the South Tower, stand at either side of the façade. Both incomplete, neither tower has a spire, limiting the cathedral’s reach into the skyline, unlike its rivals at Chartres or Cologne.
The South Tower
The South tower‘s nickname is “the Mute tower” because it never contains any bells. A pillar which acts as buttress, support the tower.
Architects intended to top the 53 metres high tower with an octagonal spire. The lack of spires is not a problem unique to Bourges. Other cathedrals in France had neither the funding nor the technical capacity to build them atop their towers. This was the case at Notre-Dame de Paris, Reims and Amiens.
The North Tower
The North Tower or “Butter Tower” was rebuilt in 1506, taking care to harmonise with the gothic style of the façade. Church authorities funded it with money raised from taxing people for eating butter during Lent.
The tower is 65 metres in height and you can climb to its summit on a 396 step staircase. There is a panoramic view from the top looking over the old town of Bourges and, beyond that the countryside of Berry.
A Pelican in Bourges!
A rather curiously weathervane in the form of a pelican tops the cathedral. This is in contrast to other French churches, where one would see either a cockerel or a cross.
The Pelican of Bourges sits atop the North Tower, on a small construction that holds a bell dating from 1372 – a donation from Duke Jean de Berry.
The 16th-century bronze bird once sat on the spire that rose from the centre of the nave.
In 1995, a copy replaced the Pelican, then in poor condition. You’ll see the original sitting at the bottom of the Tower.
The Cathedral’s Bells
Bourges cathedral has 7 bells, six of which are still in use.
- The bell donated by Duke Jean de Berry: sitting at the peak of the North Tower, this is the oldest bell in the cathedral, dating from 1372. The bell can no longer ring as the clapper is missing.
- The Gros Guillaume bell: this is the largest as well as the heaviest bell of the cathedral, weighing more than 6080 kg. It replaced the bell of St. Stephen in 1829, which cracked during the Midnight Mass of Christmas 1838. Several years later, it was recast. To avoid another incident similar to that of 1838, the bell is not much used, except to mark important occasions.
- The Maria-Theresa Bell: currently out of use, the bell dates from 1828, weighs 1830 kilos and measures approximately 1.5 m across.
In 1933, the Paccard bell foundry in Annecy cast four more bells for the cathedral: Henri-Zita, Daniel-Mathilde, Célestine-Martine, and Louise.
The magnificent Chevet
The fantastic double-arched flying buttresses on the exterior of the cathedral are very similar to those of the chevet of Notre-Dame de Paris. This way of using flying buttresses was used at Chartres.
The missing Transept
The obvious particularity of the design of Bourges cathedral is the lack of transept. At a time of the great Romanesque style churches (11th-12th centuries), transepts were usual as they allowed for the sanctuary to take the shape of a cross.
Indeed this was a traditional form that every significant church had to follow. Not long before Bourges, some cathedrals and churches did not have a transept: Vézelay, Sens, Senlis and the collegiate church at Mantes. This exceptional style at Bourges was not widely popular in the Middle Ages. In fact, the cathedral had a false transept added between the 14th and 18th centuries.
The interior of the Cathedral of Bourges
With an area covering 5,900 m2, Bourges cathedral surpasses Notre-Dame de Paris (5,500 m2). It is remarkable not only for its lack of transept but also for its double central aisle. These features allow the visitor to the cathedral a clear view through it, contrary to other cathedrals (such as Chartres and Reims) where the transept traditionally cuts across the centre.
The nave at Bourges is impressive. The vaulted ceiling in the central hall is 37.12 m high, more than that of Notre-Dame de Paris (33 m), but lower than the ceiling of Metz cathedral (41.41m), Amiens (42.3 m) and Beauvais (48.5 m). The overall inside height is 21.3m and the outside measures 9m. The width of the central nave measures 14.96 m.
Each of the five naves has attics, arches and windows unique to the building. Six, widely-spaced pillars, 18 metres in height support the structure. They are spaced in such a way that larger and relatively smaller pillars are alternated. Walking down the side aisles, you’ll find many chapels, many with their original decoration.
The double ambulatory naturally continues the side aisles of the nave.
Architects did not include the five chapels of the chevet in their initial plans. Therefore, they are quite small in size. They are built on corbelling buttresses that separate the windows of the crypts.
Carved wooden stalls and a magnificent high altar made of marble ornate the choir.
The fantastic stained-glass windows
Metz cathedral may have the greatest area of windows in France. But scholars agree that the stained-glass windows of Chartres and Bourges cathedrals are among the most beautiful.
In Bourges cathedral alone there are 183 stained-glass windows, almost all dating from the 13th century, and in which more than 2,450 characters appear. The windows that date from the early 13th century, seen throughout the three levels of the choir, are especially colourful. They diffuse the light while allowing it to pass through in a steady, unbroken stream (lux continua).
Similar to the fashion of modern comic strips, for the Christians of the Middle Ages, these windows were veritable “books of light” that illuminated the teachings of the Church.
In the same style, the windows in Bourges cathedral portray scenes of Last Judgement and the Apocalypse, the Virgin Mary and Saint Stephen, the hierarchy of the trade guilds, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the life of the saints and the martyrs, the archbishops of Bourges, the prophets and the apostles.
The guilds would generally pay for such windows.
Stained-glass windows also decorate the lateral chapels of the 14th and 17th centuries. In this case, they come from the wealthy class of Bourges. The most famous window amongst these are in the chapel of Jacques Cœur and shows the Annunciation.
The treasure of the Cathedral
The public can see the cathedral’s treasure at least once a year, usually during the Heritage days in September.
The treasure consists of liturgical objects made of copper, silver and gold. The treasure is kept in the cathedral’s sacristy built by Jacques Cœur (15th C). It includes the episcopal cross, the pastoral ring, the episcopal crook, the chalice and the paten.
The astronomical clock of Bourges
The Astronomical Clock of Bourges cathedral dates back to 1424. It is the work of canon and mathematician Jean Furosis. The clock consists of a tower holding two clocks, painted red and decorated with flowers, shields and golden lines.
The higher clock shows the hours and minutes and dates from the 19th century.
The lower clock is older, dating from 1424 and displays the lunar cycle, the height of the sun and the signs of the zodiac. Until 1757, the clock was placed above the rood-screen, which is no longer there.
The astronomical clock now hangs on the lower southern side of the cathedral, close to the great entry. A copy of the clock can be seen at the Tourist Office in Bourges.
The crypt: one of the largest in France!
The crypt of Bourges cathedral is amongst the largest in France. It consists of a central chamber with two ambulatories. In fact it is a true underground church. Its stained-glass windows come from the Sainte-Chapelle church in Bourges destroyed in 1737.
The crypt is also home to various objects:
- great sculptures that previously appeared on the cathedral’s façade,
- sepulchre tombs (including the tombs of the Jean 1st, Duke of Berry),
- several statues from tombs that used to decorate the church,
- and a large piece of 14th-century sculpture, showing a saint of the sepulchre.
Beneath the crypt, lies a Romanesque church, the burial site for the archbishops of Bourges.
More info about the monument!
Here are a few websites and blogs about Bourges Cathedral that you might find useful:
- other famous cathedrals on the blog: Reims, Amiens, Beauvais, Rouen, Metz, Strasbourg, and Notre-Dame de Paris.
- the website of the Bourges Berry Tourist Board
- the site of Centre des Monuments Historiques for climbing to the cathedral’s Towers.
- to book your accommodation in Bourges, click on this affiliate link which will redirect you to our partner booking.com
- Wikipedia’s article on Bourges Cathedral
Opening times vary according to the season of the year. Generally, the cathedral of Bourges opens every day from 9.30-10 am to 5.30-5.45 pm with a lunch break between 11.45 am to 2 pm. No visits on Sunday morning during masses. The entrance is free. More info…
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