Neglected by tourists for a long time, Bourges Cathedral was recognised in 1992 when UNESCO made it a world heritage site. This gothic masterpiece is a stunning and stylistically daring sanctuary, built in record time from 1195.
What is surprising about the cathedral is that, in contrast to the other grand Gothic cathedral of France it deliberately omits a transept from its design. Its 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 windows that like those at Chartres make this cathedral famous.
History of Bourges Cathedral
The political context of the time of the contraction of Bourges Cathedral
The construction of the current cathedral started with the aid of a donation made by Henri de Sully, the archbishop of Bourges. The new construction was intended to replace the old Romanesque building from the 11th and 12th centuries, which was too small for the city of Bourges. The new classic gothic style cathedral was the 4th sanctuary to be built on this site.
In 1100, Bourges and its region became the property of the King of France and so formed the southern boundary of the kingdom, close to Aquitaine which was 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. It was in this city in 1137 that the king of France, Louis VII, who was also the first spouse of Eleanor of Aquitaine, was crowned.
What is unusual about Bourges Cathedral lies in the fact that it was the first grand gothic sanctuary built south of the Loire. 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, the grandest gothic cathedrals were almost all situated in the Ile de France, the royal domain, which included Reims, Paris, Laon, Chartres, Beauvais, and Amiens. Since then, Bourges Cathedral was to be compared to the majestic, admirable and prestigious Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
Like at Amiens, the construction of the new gothic building was intended to resolve problems related to the old surrounding walls. The romanesque choir of the previous cathedral is integrated into the new building but became the “lower church”, buried below the chevet due to a difference in ground level. Today, this area of the cathedral is known as the crypt and is open to the public.
The construction of Bourges Cathedral
The architects wanted to build a cathedral with a simple but harmonious design. Work on the cathedral began in 1195 and within twenty years, nearly half of the building was completed. The choir was finished and religious services could be held.
Today it is easy to see the similarities between the cathedrals of Bourges and Notre-Dame de Paris. Archbishop Henri de Sully was certainly inspired by the cathedral but died in 1199 before he could see the works completed. 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. The tower was quickly strengthened by an enormous supporting pillar. It is sometimes called the “Mute Tower” (Tour Sourde) as bells were never installed given that it was deemed too dangerous to do so due to the tower’s instability.
In 13 May 1324, when the cathedral was consecrated by Archbishop Guillaume de Brosse, the façade was still under construction and the North Tower was yet to be finished. 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.
In 1424, the famous astronomical clock was installed in the cathedral and was built by André Cassart and designed by Jean Fusoris. 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.
Still in the 15th century, the rich and famous Jacques Cœur added to the prestige of the cathedral, which 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!
Around 1480, the North Tower was finally finished but as soon as it was it showed structural weakness. Nevertheless, on 31st December 1506 the North Tower collapsed and 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 and not far from Bourges, on the lower banks of the Loire, the most beautiful dwellings of the kingdom of France were being built at Chambord, Amboise and Blois. During the reconstruction of the tower between 1508 and 1542, the architects took care to respect the harmony of the building and constructed it in a gothic style, a style that was 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 was made possible with 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 was named the “Butter Tower” (Tour de Beurre) because 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 legend is similar the story of another famous “butter tower” at Rouen cathedral.
Bourges Cathedral was not spared by the Wars of Religion in 1562 and the city was seized by Protestants who wreaked severe damage on the sculptures.
However it was the zealous canons of the 18th century that brought about heavy modifications to the interior of the cathedral in an effort to modernise. Many coloured glass windows in the choir were taken away and replaced by clear glass windows. In the nave, the decorated rood-screen with bas-reliefs showing scenes of the Passion was removed.
During the French Revolution, the building was in danger of being destroyed. Besides the dispersal of precious objects and furniture, the cathedral was not heavily affected by the Revolutionaries. Under the Reign of Terror, it was devoted to the Cult of Reason and became a Temple of Unity on the 10th December 1793.
At the beginning of the 19th century, balustrades and pinnacles were added possibly to imitate Orleans Cathedral.
In 1831, the 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 was registered as 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, it will be time for the roof to be redone. Restoration work will continue until 2013.
Thanks to these different phases of renovation, the building that we admire so much today appears much as it did in the 13th century.
The exterior of Bourges Cathedral
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.
From left to right, the facade displays:
- The Saint Guillaume portal (16th century), dedicated to the archbishop of Bourges during the construction who was canonised after his death.
- The Virgin’s portal (16th century).
- The central portal, 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, the first Christian martyr to whom the cathedral is dedicated.
- The portal of Saint Ursinus of Bourges, the first bishop of Bourges, who 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, also known as “the Mute tower” because bells were never able to be hung in it, is supported by a pillar, which acts as buttress. 53 metres in height, the belfry of the South tower was clearly intended to support 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 or “Butter Tower” was rebuilt in 1506, taking care to harmonize with the gothic style of the façade. It was funded by the Church authorities with money raised from taxing people for eating butter during Lent. The tower is 65 metres in height and the top is reached up a staircase of 396 steps. 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!
Unusually, Bourges cathedral is surmounted by a weathervane in the form of a pelican, in contrast to other French churches, where on would see either a cockerel or a crucifix. The Pelican of Bourges sits atop the North Tower, on a small construction that holds a bell dating from 1372 and was donated by Duke Jean de Berry.
The 16th century bronze bird used to sit on the spire that rose from the centre of the nave, before being moved to the North Tower.
Since 1995, the Pelican, then in poor condition, was replaced with a copy. The eroded original sits 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 bell of Gros Guillaume: this is the largest as well as the heaviest bell of the cathedral, weighting more than 6080 kg. It replaced the bell of St. Stephen in 1829, which cracked during 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, four more bells, cast at Annecy by the Paccard bell foundry, were added to the cathedral: Henri-Zita, Daniel-Mathilde, Célestine-Martine and Louise.
The Chevet of Bourges Cathedral
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. From the same era, 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 when the great Romanesque style churches where being built (11th-12th centuries), transepts were usual as they allowed for the building to be built in the form of a cross. This was a traditional form that every significant church had to follow. Not long before Bourges, some cathedrals and churches were constructed without a transept: Vézelay, Sens, Senlis and the collegiate church at Mantes. This exceptional style at Bourges wasn’t widely popular in the Middle Ages: a false transept was added to the cathedral between the 14th and 18th centuries.
The interior of Bourges Cathedral
With an area covering 5,900 m2, Bourges cathedral surpasses Notre-Dame de Paris (5,500 m2) and is remarkable for its lack of transept and 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 that 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. The sanctuary is supported by six, widely-spaced pillars, 18 metres in height. They are spaced in such a way that larger and relatively smaller pillars are alternated. Walking down the side aisles, a visitor will find many chapels, most of which have kept their original decoration.
The double ambulatory is naturally found is space between walls of the nave. The five chapels of the chevet were not included in the projected plan of the building. Therefore, they are quite small in size, built on corbelling on buttresses that separate the windows of the crypts.
The choir of Bourges Cathedral is decorated with carved wooden stalls and a magnificent high altar made of marble.
The Stained-Glass windows of Bourges Cathedral
If Metz cathedral has the greatest area of windows in France, those in Chartres and Bourges cathedrals are often credited as being the most beautiful. 183 stained-glass windows can be counted in Bourges cathedral, 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 and were designed to 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, around which 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 windows would generally have been paid for by the guilds.
The lateral chapels of the 14th and 17th centuries were also decorated with beautiful stained glass, in this case by the wealthy of Bourges; the most famous window amongst these shows the Annunciation and stands in the chapel of Jacques Cœur.
The treasure of the Cathedral
The cathedral’s treasure is shown to the public at least once a year, usually during the national days in September.
The treasure consists of liturgical objects made of copper, silver and gold. The treasure is held in the cathedral’s sacristy, built by Jacques Cœur in the 15th century, and includes the episcopal cross, the pastoral ring, the episcopal crook, the chalice and the paten.
The astronomical clock of Bourges Cathedral
The Astronomical Clock of Bourges cathedral dates back to 1424 and was made by the canon and mathematician Jean Furosis. The clock is made 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 of Bourges Cathedral
The crypt of Bourges cathedral is amongst the largest in France. It consists of a central chamber surrounded by two ambulatories: it is a true underground church. It receives light via stained glass windows taken from the Sainte-Chapelle church of Bourges, which was 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, under which the archbishops of Bourges are buried.
Many guided tours are organised by the city of Bourges. Bourges cathedral is open to the public Monday to Saturday from 9.45 am to 11.34am and from 2pm to 5.30pm. On Sundays, there are no visits until the afternoon.
For more information, visit the website of Bourges Tourist Centre: