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Located in east-central France (also in the Department of Saône-et-Loire: see Cluny above) this church was built between 1120 and 1146 under the direction of Bishop Etienne de Bâgé.

This is not the entrance, nor is the tower on the western façade. We are looking at the southeast corner of the cathedral, and the tower/spire is over the crossing of the nave and transepts. There is an entrance to the left of the photo, which leads into the south transept.

This is a detail showing the relationship of the tower/spire over the crossing, to the apse, which is on the east end of the church.

The city of Autun was strategically located in Roman times. The Cathedral was conceived as a shrine for the relics of Lazarus, and the church was intended to make Autun a great pilgrimage site, rivaling that of Vezelay. Each of these cities boasted famous biblical relics - Autun as noted and Vezelay those of Mary Magdalen. Autun did achieve fame, but never managed to eclipse its rival, which maintained its primary position as a starting point for the Burgundian-Limousin road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain - the destination for many pilgrimages, located in the extreme northwest of Spain; it is the site where St. James (Iago) is purportedly buried.

The northern elevation, with entrance into the north transept. Note a small civic monument on the far right.

A bit of that construction, on the edge of Place de Refitou, an area which will be undergoing some reconstruction, as well as the planting of some trees. The scale of the area is so tuned to human size, that it immediately becomes comfortable, intimate, and personable, all at the same time.

Here is a plan of the cathedral. We will be entering through the western doors, which feature a major tympanum housing sculptural depictions of the Last Judgement, designed by Giselbertus in the 12th century.

We can enter into a detailed discussion of the various elements of the composition of the tympanum (the central semi-circular carved area immediately above the doors) in class or private discussions.

An interior view looking at the south transept, with the altar area to the left.

The cathedral’s main characteristic in the developments leading to Gothic Architecture is its pointed barrel vault, which contains pointed transverse ribs similar to the ribs mentioned above in Notre-Dame-La-Grande in Poitiers (albeit those are semi-circular). This view is towards the west entrance.

Here in Autun, vertical piers directly support the transverse ribs. Those piers are connected and buttressed by pointed arches, an apparent influence from neighboring Cluny, also described above. The nave height is 23.4 meters (78'). The springing of the arches has been criticized as being so low that the clerestory windows were minimized. There might be a proportional question here, but sufficient light does enter the nave.

Do notice the “crease” in the ceiling – that is the continuous “point” of the barrel vault. We will see that feature again and again, as the Gothic movement developed. Think of the ribs as fingers extended and touching, left hand to right. Try this and your fingers will be like the columns and ribsthe skeleton is the structure, and it is revealed to us.

This view is towards the apse, the east. According to local sources, everything we see in this view was built in the 12th century. Here we can begin to appreciate the colors of the stained glass – glass which has now taken the place of stone walls because those walls are no longer necessary. The “bones” of the skeleton do all the structural heavy lifting.

As discussed previously, barrel vaults are a structural entity unto themselves, and do not lend themselves to be sliced and diced – you cannot puncture or pierce them with windows openings, resulting in rather dark interior designs. But bringing the barrel vault to a point, coupled with the pointed transverse arches, allowed for a structure, which could be controlled. The ribs became the structure; the rest of the barrel vault was in-fill. The ribs came down onto piers, and what resulted was a skeletal framework, which could be left open (note the clerestory windows in illustrations above).

In Autun, classical details are everywhere, particularly at the springing of the arches. To some observers this classical emphasis literally and figuratively outweighs the seeming delicateness of the pointed barrel vault and arcade, thus relegating the appearance of Gothic to a secondary role. We’re going to have to wait a bit more for “true” Gothic to emerge. The carving in the capital shown represents “the fourth tone of music,” referring to one of the eight tones comprising Gregorian chants.

As in so many churches, paintings and sculpture were not only teaching tools, they were artistically integrated into the design of the building.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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