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This rather small city, recent population data states 57,400, (more than Chartres, but less than half that of Amiens), boasts the tallest internal height of any Gothic-designed cathedral, anywhere. Located about 90 kilometers north of Paris (56 miles), it is the capital of the Oise Department, in the Region of Picardie. As with most cities in Europe it lies on the banks of a river, the Thérain, at the confluence with the Avelon.

Julius Caesar defeated the Belgic tribe known as the Bellovaci who, interestingly, employed guerilla warfare against the Romans, but were ultimately defeated and granted clemency. In the 9th century it became a countship (a small province, usually containing several castles). For clarification, a Count fell into the hierarchy of King, Duke, then Count. In 1013 it passed into the hands of the local Bishop. The Bishops of Beauvais were a privileged class, in that they wore the royal mantle, and with the Bishop of Langres raised a newly crowned king from his throne to present him to his people.

The English attacked in 1346 and again in 1433. The Duke of Burgundy attacked in 1472, and the town was saved by the heroism of its female inhabitants, under the leadership of Jeanne Hatchette. This was the same century, but forty-one years after the death, of the more famous Jeanne d'Arc.


A most incomplete but never-the-less extraordinary accomplishment, the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre reached for the heavens, but collapsed twice in its quest for glory. It did attain the height of 48 meters (158') internally in 1250, under the direction of Bishop William of Grez. The Bishop added 4.9 meters (16') to an already quite tall structure, but in 1284 part of the choir collapsed. Apparently the collapse caused masons working on Gothic cathedrals to question their personal safety. Funds were scarce, and money allocated to construction of the nave west of the crossing was diverted to repair the damage to the choir, east of the crossing. The choir reconstruction was not completed until 1384. The existing transepts were built between 1500 and 1548. In 1564 work began on the tower, which apparently was to be centrally located, placed over the crossing. Its height was 152 meters (500'), and was an open-work spire, much like the towers in Cologne (see below in Chapter Ten). That was completed in 1569, but collapsed in 1573, ending all construction. What you see today is quite a lot of containment through original iron tie rods and more recent wood buttressing.

My first impression was that of viewing something enormously powerful. I was more impressed with this first look at the structure than my experience with any other cathedral – its presence is just too commanding not to be so impressive. The only description which fits is that is it like a mountain of cut stone rising up from the streets of the city.

The apse revealed exquisitely tall, slender piers, capturing equally delicate flying buttresses: a combination of power and beauty.

The south transept came next. To quote Sir Bannister Fletcher: “This soaring pile is perhaps the most daring achievement in Gothic architecture, and has been regarded as one of the wonders of Medieval France.” Realize that transepts have, traditionally, been physically and visually subservient to the main entrance portals, but here there is no such portal, there is no nave. The widest part of the projecting transept measures 38 meters (138'). By comparison, Notre Dame in Paris measures 50 meters (164') at its widest, including the nave and the second transept! So not only is this church the tallest anywhere, but its proportions are equally enormous.

The transept facades were designed by Martin Chamiges in the early 16th century in the then prevalent French Gothic Flamboyant style. Stonework was cut into shapes of flames (Fr. “flaming,” or “blazing,” from which we also get the word “flambé”). Aside from the fire-like connotations, the style produced extremely delightful images with an absolute minimum of material, thus making the creations so very gravity-defying. But do remember that back in Chapter One I mentioned that when ultimate structural directions had been achieved, architects often reverted to embellishment. “They decorated, but not in an integrated fashion, they just pasted on details that had no structural or intrinsic value....” Yet the eye sees delight and revels in these little elaborations, and so perhaps we must forgive these Gothic masters their special little mannerisms, for they added just a touch of exhilaration and joy.

Perhaps a graphic illustration of exactly what is left, from a cautionary sign on the site.

Circumnavigating towards the west, we find the small Romanesque church known as Basse Oeuvre (“low work”), occupying the site of the originally intentioned Gothic nave; it was built during the second half of the 10th century. Fires in 1180 and 1225 caused a lot of damage, and a decision was made to replace the Romanesque structure with a Gothic one. I do not know how it survived the collapse of the central tower – perhaps it has been reconstructed. The new cathedral was, apparently, intended to be the largest in the world. Politics played a role here, in that the Bishop sought to assert his independence from the King. Bishop Milton de Nanteuil was seemingly linked to northern Barons in the area, who had revolted against King Louis VIII, and that group had even attempted to kidnap the King's son, who was to become Louis IX.

This is a view from the west, with both transepts visible, and a sealed nave between. That provisional wall was erected in 1605. There is a rather strange triangular construction on the crossing, undoubtedly built to keep the rain out.

Perhaps subliminally influenced by my Grad Professor, Louis Kahn, I often walk to and fro prior to entering a building I wish to study – then again it might be remembering something he once said about not daring to just barge right in. Here is a view of the magnificent south transept viewed from a block down the street.

A sculptured flight of stairs takes us to the door of the south transept. Remember, there is no western entrance to this church.

Glancing upwards, we see the flying buttresses supporting the main body of the transept. Crockets and finials are evident, meant to suffuse our impression of the solidity of the structure.

The first impression as one enters and looks across at the north transept, at least at eye level so far, is of the wooden braces. The transepts, used in place of a nave, measure a distance from south to north, of 58 meters (190').

Looking straight up towards the crossing, additional braces reveal themselves. The impression is that the building is ready to implode, and these wooden truss-like buttresses are preventing just that. The choir, transept areas (where services take place), and the apse behind the altar, are all that remains of what was originally built,.

The altar area, rich in marble, with a curtain-like backdrop, which screens visitors and pilgrims who might be encircling the church from the ambulatories around into the apse area.

The apse, which is a polygonal chevet, contains seven chapels, with 13th, 14th, and 16th century stained glass creations.

Each chapel in the chevet is composed of two or three walls of glass – this is France!

As we look up into the construction of the apse, I find myself at an absolute loss of words to describe the construction. It is left for you, my students, to supply your own adjectives. This was the culmination of a movement, and here at Beauvais, with its failures, is never-the-less the epitome of Gothic development. Sam Bourne, in a work of fiction The Righteous Men, HarperCollins Publisher, 2006 writes: “...that religious people had much in common, even when they did not share a faith: The same magic works on all of them.” I was truly moved, both from a religious feeling as well as an architectural experience. This construction is an amazing experience to behold.

Looking up and back towards the crossing, we see sexpartite vaults, nave pointed arches, a triforium gallery, and clerestory windows.

There is almost a Miesian (Mies van de Rohe, who suggested “Less is more” in the 20th century) quality to the minimalist amount of construction seen here. And because of the extraordinary height, there is even stained glass visible in the triforium gallery (which was usually rather dark), and there are exceptionally tall clerestory windows.

The choir stalls, in richly carved wood.

Lastly, a close-up of bracing, and a glimpse of probably an original tie rod. Much discussion does center around the fact that the designers knew, from the beginning, that they were up against serious structural problems, and tie rods would have been one solution.

Serious homage must be paid to the craftsmen, who literally risked life and limb to create something quite special, albeit, as it stands, incomplete.

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

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