Beauvais Cathedral. How it surpasses the famous Notre Dame

Beauvais Cathedral. How it surpasses the famous Notre Dame

The Cathedral of Beauvais (Saint-Pierre), one of the most important Gothic buildings, consists of a transept and choir with an apse and seven-apsed chapels. The columns inside are 30 meters high and the choir itself is the highest Gothic choir in the world at 48.50 meters.

Beauvais Cathedral

The Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Beauvais is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. It is characterized by the absence of a complete nave and has the tallest Gothic choir in the world. After a fire in the first cathedral (now the parish church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Basse-Gouvre), which arose in the 10th century, it was decided to build a new cathedral in 1225. Of the Basse-Oeuvre (primitive cathedral) only part of the nave remains attached to the transept of the present cathedral Haute-Oeuvre . The construction of the cathedral lasted a long time. The collapse of part of the cathedral’s choir vaults necessitated repairs, completed around 1347. Then the Hundred Years’ War halted the work. Construction of the transept did not begin until 150 years after the choir was completed. A boom was also built, but it quickly collapsed. The funds reserved for the construction of the nave, which thus remains limited to a single span, were spent to reconstruct the transept vaults. In 1840, the cathedral was listed as a historic monument. In Beauvais, as in all cathedrals, repair work never stops. In the 1960s, architect Jean-Pierre Paquet removed the metal anchor spires attached between the buttresses, deeming them unoriginal. This was a big mistake because the cathedral began to sway dangerously. In the late 1990s they were put back in place before the disaster. Since the 2000s, architect Poncelet has undertaken many interesting works: repairing the lead roof, excavating the Lower Building and opening the entrance to the cathedral from the Lower Structure, installing a large cross with the keys of Saint-Pierre on top of the choir, restoring the Saint-Pierre Hall northwest of the cathedral, etc.

The Astronomical Clock of Beauvais

The Astronomical Clock in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre-de-Bovet in Picardy is considered a masterpiece of its kind, built by Auguste-Lucienne Verité in the 19th century. It was built between 1865 and 1868 at the request of the Bishop of Beauvais, Joseph-Armand Gigneau Auguste-Lumiène Verité, a famous clockmaker from Beauvais who was also at the origin of the Besançon astronomical clock. Its decoration is inspired by the Catholic Bible. The main facade, as well as the two side facades, have dials (52 on the facade). They give an idea of time in the universe as well as basic astronomical phenomena. At the top, 68 automatons come to life during the scene of the Last Judgment. Moments before the hour, a rooster cocks and flaps its wings. When the hour strikes, Christ, seated in glory, calls the angels to play the trumpet. Soon there is judgment, Virtue is led to heaven by an angel, and Vice is led to hell by a hideous devil.

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History of the Cathedral of Beauvais

The small tenth-century early Romanesque church known as the Basse Oeuvre is one of only two surviving Carolingian churches in France. The emergent Gothic style allowed Bishop Milon to build a new cathedral in 1225. Construction began in 1247, but in 1284 part of the choir collapsed. Only half a century later the choir was rebuilt, it was strengthened with additional columns. Then the construction work was stopped.

The transept was not built until the 16th century, from 1500 to 1548. In 1573 the central tower, which was probably planned to be too big – about 150 meters in height – collapsed. The main nave was never built. At that time, Gothic was no longer modern, and money was no longer available.

The south facade shows a rich ornamentation of Gothic architecture. The carved gates to the north and south are masterpieces of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. However, the greatest architectural treasure is the colored stained glass windows of the 13th, 14th and 16th centuries; the most beautiful are the works of the Renaissance artist Engrand Leprince, who was born in Beauvais. The panels in the Church of St. Etienne, also in the city, are also by him and show the change of style between Gothic and Renaissance.

The church has a wonderful astronomical clock (1865-1868) by Auguste-Lucien Verité, who was already known as a specialist in organ construction before he started working as a clockmaker. You can also admire knitted paintings from the 15th-17th centuries.

From castrum to bishop’s town

At the end of the 3rd century A.D. Bove, then called Caesaromag, was no longer an open city of previous centuries, but a small fortified town, reduced to 10 hectares, surrounded by a rampart. This, designed to protect it from invasions by barbarians, is still partly visible today. According to tradition, Saint-Lucien was the founder of the bishopric of Beauvais in the 3rd century. However, the presence of a bishop named Maurin is not attested until 632. The bishopric, built on a castle*, became the center of political and religious life in the 11th century. In fact, in 1015 Count Ed relinquished all his prerogatives in favor of the bishop of Beauvais, who thus united temporal and spiritual forces.

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It is probable that one of the first cathedrals was built in the castrum* during the time of Maurinus, but to this day no trace has been found. The oldest and partially preserved monument is the Notre-Dame de la Basse-Œuvre (A). It consists of at least two successive phases of construction.

Beauvais Cathedral, St. Pierre Beauvais Cathedral, St. Peter's Cathedral in Beauvais


It probably dates from the year 1000, making Basse-Œuvre an exceptional testimony to the architecture of this period. It included, to the west, an open porch A1 on three six bays A2, A3, A4*, still at the height today. The building was extended by a non-passable transept * A5 and a choir formed by two apses * A6 and probably a central apse * A7. The whole must have been over 50 meters in length. Finally, wall A8 rose parallel to the south aisle *.

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The Basse-Œuvre is then extended to the east. Most of the brickwork, however, seems to have survived, and only the main apse * and two apses have been destroyed. There is a large A9 transept as well as A10 buildings adjacent to the transept and aisle arms *. The cathedral was then at least 70 m in length. The west façade and entrance porch may have been reconstructed during this period. In addition to the framing of the spans, piles, or foundation base, which are in the middle unit, the Basse-Oeuvre presents masonry in the small unit. The latter, according to ancient tradition, consists of cubic cobblestones, also called pasturos. It is undoubtedly a reuse of materials extracted from Galloromanian structures formerly located in the castle *.


In the thirteenth century, the construction of Gothic choir B [cf. plan n. 17], or Haute-uvre, leads to the destruction of the choir and transept A9 in the Basse-uvre. However, another chorus with a flat bollard * A11 [cf. plan of n. 17], is laid in front of the western pillars of the old crossing *. It disappeared in the early 16th century, as did the last three spans * of the A2 nave and aisles * A3, A4, and extensions A10, when the transept E of St. Peter’s Cathedral was erected. The installation of the external buttress F3 opposite the Gothic transept led to the disappearance of the 4th, 5th and 6th bays * of the lower working nave as well as its northern aisle *. However, the first three bays * of the office aisle, the beginning of the fourth to the north, and the first six bays * of the south aisle * of A3 still remain. In the south wall of the chute * is Gothic door A12. It was installed in the 13th century in place of the first opening made in the 11th century. From 1225 and throughout the construction of the new cathedral, worship was maintained in the Lower Building, which after the consecration of the Upper Temple again became a simple parish church.


From the middle of the twelfth century, technical innovations updated the architectural concepts. The ribbed cross vault* combined with the arched vault* made it possible to build brighter and taller churches while reducing their structure. Builders also use iron anchor rods that connect the bases of the vaults or arcbuttons * between them to support them. Iron is also used to reinforce warheads * or windows and even to surround certain parts of a building. Following the example of the famous Abbey of Saint-Denis, the cradle of Gothic art, Picardy underwent a grandiose architectural renewal stimulated by a favorable economic context. The 13th-century cathedral is a symbol of the city, a symbol of the city’s rebirth. There is as much to pray about as to negotiate or even chat. It’s hard to imagine the excitement there today! So when the Lower Cathedral was damaged by fire in 1225, Milon de Nantey, Count-Bishop of Beauvais, seized the opportunity to build a new cathedral that would surpass all others.

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Haute-Œuvre B was probably built according to the plan of a Parisian mason. The lower part of the choir was built between 1225 and 1232. The lower floor, comprising the great arches of the central aisle, the movable * B1 and the divergent chapels * B2 to B8, was built between 1240 and 1250.The incessant quarrels between the king, bishop and municipality, and the repeated lack of funds slowed, when not interrupted, construction, which lasted nearly 50 years. Hence the changes made to the original plan during its realization. Thus, the upper parts, dating from between 1250 and 1260, were higher than expected. A harmonious combination of glass and stone, the building dedicated to St. Peter was consecrated in 1272. Visible from all sides, it reaches an unprecedented vault height of 48 meters. In November 1284, the upper parts of the choir collapsed. The extent of the damage must be put into perspective, as evidenced by the slight damage to the frame, which resisted. Moreover, much of this huge wooden vessel, which recent analysis dates to 1257, is the original. The enormous height of the choir considered a factor of instability, medieval restorers tried to reinforce it by adding columns in particular and restoring most of its upper parts. The repairs, completed around 1340, radically altered the original appearance of the monument by reducing for safety purposes the large openings, which gave it an impressive spatial scale. Then the Hundred Years’ War, followed by numerous disturbances, paralyzed economic activity while halting the construction of the cathedral.

St. Peter’s Cathedral (Beauvais)

Beauvais Cathedral SE exterior.jpg

St. Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais (Frédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais ) is the tallest (though unfinished) of the French Gothic cathedrals. It is located in northern France in the city of Beauvais. It is the cathedral temple of the diocese of Noyon.

The Cathedral of Beauvais has a prominent place in the history of Gothic architecture. In particular, it has the tallest Gothic churches in the world (48.50 meters). The temple complex consists of a late transept (16th century), a choir with apses and seven polygonal apses of the 13th century chapel, which are accessible through the deambulatory. The small Romanesque church of Notre-Dame de la Basse Œuvre ( Basse Œuvre , built in 997-998) occupies the space reserved for the nave. [1]

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Work on the cathedral began in 1225,[2] under the direction of Count-Bishop Milon of Nanthoja, immediately after the third fire in the old basilica with a wooden roof, whose altar had been restored only three years before the fire. The choir was completed in 1272, in two campaigns, at an interval of 1232-1238, due to the financial crisis caused by the struggle with Louis IX. The two campaigns are distinguished by a slight change in the focus and style of the work. [3] By decision of Bishop Guillaume de Gre [4] the height of the building was increased by 4.9 meters to make the vaults of the cathedral the highest in Europe. The vaults in the interior of the choir reach 48 meters, far exceeding the height of Notre Dame Cathedral in Amiens, built at the same time, with its 42-meter naves.

Work was interrupted in 1284 because of the collapse of some of the vaults. This collapse is often seen as the disaster that prepared for a “nervous breakdown” among French architects working in the Gothic style. Stephen Murray notes that the collapse also proved to be “a precursor to smaller buildings, which was associated with demographic decline, the Hundred Years’ War, and the thirteenth century.” [6]

The large-scale construction, however, was soon continued, and the choirs were rebuilt to the same height, though with more columns in the aisles behind the choirs (chevet). The transept was built from 1500 to 1548. The transept was designed in the flamboyant Gothic style, characteristic of the early French Renaissance period. [7] In 1573 the collapse of the “too ambitious” 153-meter central tower halted work again, after which only minor additions were made. This would make the cathedral the second tallest structure in the world at the time, after the Church of St. Olaf in Tallinn.

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc called the choir of the Cathedral of Beauvais “the Parthenon of the French Gothic.

Its facades, especially on the south side, show all the richness of the late Gothic. The carved wooden doors of the north and south portals are masterpieces of Gothic and Renaissance art respectively. The cathedral has an elaborate astronomical clock (1866) and tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries, but its main artistic treasures are the glass stained glass windows of the 13th, 14th, and 16th centuries, the most beautiful of which were made by the Renaissance artist Engrand Le Prince, a native of Beauvais. He also owns some of the stained glass windows in the city’s second church, Saint-Etienne, which are an interesting example of the transition between Romanesque and Gothic styles.

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On January 14 in the Middle Ages, the Cathedral of Beauvais hosted the Feast of the Donkey [1] (lat. festum asinorum ), in memory of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt.

State of the building

In their quest to build the tallest cathedral in the 13th century, the builders of Saint-Pierre de Beauvais employed and developed the advanced technology of the time. Although the structure might have been taller, the buttresses were made thinner to allow as much light into the cathedral as possible. In 1284, just twelve years after completion, part of the choir vault collapsed along with several of the arches. It is now believed that the collapse of the structures was caused by resonant vibrations due to high winds. [8]

The photo shows lateral iron ties for support between the arkbutans; it is unknown when these external ties were installed. This technology may have been available at the time of initial construction, but the need for additional support may have been recognized after the collapse in 1284 or even later. In the 1960s, the unaesthetic pulls were removed due to doubts about their necessity. Nevertheless, the vibrations created by the wind began to increase, and the choir partially moved away from the transept. Subsequently, the struts were reinstalled, but this time they were made of steel. Because steel is less flexible than iron, the structure proved more rigid and additional cracks became possible. [9]

As the floor plan shows, the original design includes a nave that was never built. Thus, the lack of support on the side of the central nave contributes to the structural weakness of the cathedral.

Over time, other problems emerged that required more drastic measures. The north transept now has four large wood and steel side trusses at different heights, installed in the 1990s to keep the transept from collapsing (see photo). In addition, the main transept slab is interrupted by a much larger strut that rises from the floor at a 45 degree angle. (see photo). This shoring was installed as an emergency measure to give additional support to the columns, which until now have supported the highest vaults in the world.

These temporary measures will remain in effect until a permanent solution is built. Various studies are underway to determine with greater certainty what can be done to preserve the structure of the majestic building. Columbia University is performing a study using a three-dimensional model using laser scanning in the building to determine weaknesses in the structure. [10]

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