25 January 2010

About to collapse?

No, not me. A cathedral. The cathedral in Beauvais, north of Paris (site of the cathrdral called Notre-Dame de Paris) and east of Rouen (site of the cathedral painted so famously by the Impressionist Monet). Beauvais is in the region called La Picardie — Picardy.

Did you know that 80 Gothic cathedrals were built in France during the Middle Ages? I had no idea there were that many. I don't know if they are all still standing. I read that there are 87 cathedrals in France, not all of them in the Gothic style. In Blois, for example, the cathedral was built later, in the Renaissance style. There were Romanesque cathedrals before the Gothic style was invented.

The city of Tours had a Romanesque cathedral as early as the year 350. It was burned at some point, reconstructed, and rededicated in the year 590. Finally, construction of the existing cathedral, St-Gatien, in Tours was started in the Middle Ages, in Gothic style. But the construction went on for so many decades that by the end architectural styles had changed and the existing building is Gothic with significant Renaissance features.

The Gothic cathedral at Beauvais

A lot of Americans and others (on Internet travel forums, for example) describe all sorts of churches in France as "cathedrals." But the term "cathedral" has a very specific meaning. A cathedral church is one presided over by a bishop, who is the head officer of a Catholic diocese. The church in Saint-Aignan, for example, is not a cathedral, even though it is big and impressive.

There are some churches that are no longer technically cathedrals, because they are no longer presided over by a bishop. But they might still be called « La Cathédrale de... » because they were originally built as cathedrals.

All the cathedrals in France were "nationalized" in the early 1900s. They are the property of the French State and are overseen by the Ministry of Culture. There are few exceptions, mostly cathedrals that were built after World War I — in Le Havre (Normandy), for example, or Evry, south of Paris. Those are owned by the cities they are in or by the diocese that had them built. But the Gothic ones are government property.

Photos I took at Beauvais in 2001, when CHM and I visited

Construction of the cathedral in Beauvais, in these pictures, was begun between the years 1225 and 1250. It was never finished, but the part that was built includes the highest ceiling vaults of all the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. They measure 48 meters, or almost 160 feet tall, compared to the 35-meter (115-foot) vaulting at Notre-Dame de Paris.

After the first phase of construction at Beauvais ended in 1272, part of the building collapsed, in 1284, because of high winds. Reconstruction and new construction continued into the 1300s, but was cut short by the 100 Years War between the French and the English. Money ran out. Work started up again in the 1500s. A steeple 153 meters (500 feet) tall was erected — the tallest in all Christendom — but four years later it came crashing down.

Repairs at Beauvais are never finished.

"We will build a steeple so tall that, when it's finished, people who see it will think that we were crazy," the bishop of the time was quoted as saying. Truer words were never spoken, I guess. Construction was then halted for good, in 1573, except for repairs and shoring-up operations, which are ongoing today.

The cathedral in Beauvais was built on solid ground, but the building is structurally fragile because it is incomplete. Crucial parts of it are just missing. But what is there is beautiful, and impressive. There are stained-glass windows from the 13th, 14th, and 16th centuries, for example, tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries, and the oldest working Medieval carillon tower anywhere.


  1. To give an idea of the height of the inside, it is taller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris!

  2. That was chm above, sorry.

  3. We've often seen this cathedral when travelling to Normandy. However, we've never taken the time stop and take a look inside. This is definitely going on our to-see-list ! I hope it doesn't collapse in the meanwhile (lol).

  4. The Cathédrale de Beauvais is beautiful. Sorry to hear it's in such a state of disrepair.

  5. I'm not sure I used the right word when I said "repairs" — it's more a "shoring up" operation. The Beauvais cathedral is beautiful and impressive when you are there. It's not like they are using jackhammers or drop cloths all over the place.

  6. Have you ever seen the PBS show, "Cathedral", based on the David Macaulay book of the same name? The fictional cathedral in that story is called Beaulieu, and it falls down at one point, due to faulty stone and design problems. I used to have my students write a paper based on that video and our class lectures, and it would crack me up when some students would write, "One thing they had to worry about was the cathedral falling down. Every time it did, they had to build it back up again." I imagined a bunch of medieval stonemasons coming out to the work site time after time with the oath, "Damn! There it goes again!"



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