AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART VI: Beauvais Cathedral and the Limits of Gothic Verticality



THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY saw a competitive building boom as many the cathedrals of northern France, and later in England and Germany, were rebuilt in the new Gothic style. Like the skyscrapers of today, prestige meant height, and from Chartres to Reims to Amiens, the master masons pushed the limits of their engineering skill to eclipse the heights attained by previous buildings. The Cathedral of St Pierre, Beauvais, was begun in 1225, but never finished. It is the tallest of the French Gothic cathedrals and the tallest medieval structure ever raised—the crowns of choir vaults are 152’ off the ground. Those vaults rest upon an elevation with the lowest percentage of masonry in relation to glazing in any Gothic cathedral, meaning the load-bearing walls, from arcade to the glazed triforium to the huge clerestory, now allocated half of the elevation, appeared to have been dissolved by light, giving the impression that the ribbed, groin vaults floated above the chevet (the main system of support for the vaults, the flying buttresses, having been moved outside the church to prevent disruption of the spectacle of light taking place inside the church).

By late 1284, the building campaign had proceeded as far as the choir and transept, allowing the new structure to be consecrated and used for services. However, on 29 November, the drive for extremes of verticalism and huge light apertures ran up against the material realities of ashlared stone and gale force winds from the English Channel. A contemporary chronicler states that

On Friday November 29 at eight o’clock in the evening the great vaults of the choir fell, several exterior pillars were broken, the great windows were smashed; the holy châsses of Saint Just, Saint Germer, and Saint Evrost were spared and the divine service ceased for forty years.

This laconic statement conveys nothing of what must have been a terrifying disaster as the windsheer caused the external buttresses and arcade columns to shudder then collapse, bringing thousands of tons of stone, rubble, broken glass, lead and timber crashing to the ground and leaving the ruined structure exposed to the raging storm on a pitch black night.

Despite the magnitude of the catastrophe, the choir vaults were quickly rebuilt, supported by a more conservative doubling of the arcade-level columns, but the cost of the project, already astronomical, and now burdened with the rebuilding expenses, bankrupted the bishopric of Beauvais and by the early 14th century, a period of great economic hardship in northern Europe due to crop failures, work was ceased altogether, apart from a brief resumption of activity in the early 16th century, when the transept portals were decorated in the flamboyant style. The nave of the ninth-century Carolingian church, which the Gothic building was meant to replace, is still in use, dwarfed by the later addition.

Like the Hagia Sofia and the Pisan campanile, it is remarkable that the truncated Beauvais Cathedral is still standing today. As there is no equivalent nave mass to counter the choir and transept masses, the downward thrust of the stone’s weight has caused the entire building fabric to lean westward. In the 1990s a tie-and-brace system of reinforcement was erected to forestall a collapse of the entire structure, and a few years later, still more massive and intrusive buttresses were sunk into the transept pavement to halt the listing of the walls, which had proceeded far enough to deform the rebuilt arches of the arcades. Each of the major Gothic cathedrals has its own character as a tourist site and makes a distinct impression on the visitor: Chartres is usually filled with school groups and tourists happily lingering in the colored light or following the labyrinth; at Bourges visitors weep or drop to their knees, staggered by the revelation of the interior, and Reims one encounters well-heeled Europeans on dégustation tours of Champagne. Due to the ominous presence of the braces, and the audible straining on the masonry on windy days, the atmosphere inside Beauvais Cathedral is one of tension and apprehension—the few visitors that make it there usually do not linger—but also of sobering historical insight, as the radicality, modernity, physics and humility of a 900-year old architectural undertaking become vividly apparent.

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