Slightly More Beauvais

I took a few other photos around town while I was in Beauvais; I don’t have a lot to say about them but for now this blog seems to be about the best place to post pictures. I’ve experimented with Instagram and will continue to post some pictures there, but I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the format. It’s no doubt genius for some things but I’m not sure photography is one of them.

Here is the parish church of Saint-Étienne, only a few minutes walk from the cathedral. This church is architecturally interesting due to the somewhat oddly-matched mixture of building styles, a consequence of fitful construction that spanned more than 500 years. When measuring time in centuries we can appreciate that styles will change drastically, building methods will evolve, and certainly the initial architect isn’t going to be around until the end to keep people in line. One reason the cathedral in Amiens is so beautiful is because its construction was completed in such a short amount of time, between 50 and 70 years, and therefore it maintains a very coherent and consistent design.

Saint-Étienne

Reading the incredibly lengthy French Wikipedia page on Saint-Étienne one finds an extremely convoluted history to the church, punctuated by various fires, hurricanes, Viking raids, funding shortages, squabbles over design decisions, and of course also the Revolution which was not terribly kind to churches specifically, and two world wars which were not very kind to buildings generally.

The dark romanesqe nave contrasts with the bright gothic choir.
The ancient high altar dating from the late 1700s, now moved for some reason to a side chapel

You can find interesting churches all over the place, here is Chappelle Saint-Joseph which I know nothing about and wasn’t able to go inside of. It is tucked away in a small square surrounded entirely by apartments. I noticed the tops of the towers peeking above the other buildings from a few blocks away but walked a good while before I found the lane to reach it. As modest as it is, it’s still not something you’ll see very often in America!

I also visited the Musée de l’Oise, also just called “MUDO.” It is just across from the cathedral and is located in the building that was formerly the bishop’s palace, which itself was built atop a pre-existing Roman structure. Entrance is free but the exhibit space is very small and if you skip the post-modern photography section you can see the remaining collections in a few minutes. I would have rather explored the palace but of course the majority of it was closed to the public.

But the box hedges smelled just like I remember from childhood.

Musée de l’Oise
Musée de l’Oise

Beauvais

The national train worker’s strike has been going on since I arrived in France and for that reason I have so far been hesitant to travel. The news is full of horror stories of congested train stations, stuck passengers, and women giving birth on Paris train platforms. This strike is the most drastic since 1995 but since there appears no end in sight I decided if I waited until the situation returned to normal I might never leave town until I leave for good. So I took my chances and traveled to Beauvais over the weekend, and as it turned out I had no problems. There were fewer trains to choose from and it took 4 hours to travel 40 miles on the way back due to a long layover, but what trains are running seem to be running on time. Also it probably helped that I didn’t go anywhere near Paris.

Beauvais at dawn

My goal was to see Beauvais Cathedral, which after Amiens is the cathedral I most wanted to see next. Beauvais has the distinction of having the tallest vaulted ceiling of any cathedral in the world, it also has the distinction of never having been finished.

Looking south-west at the choir

In the 3rd century Pope Fabian reportedly sent six missionary bishops to convert the Gauls in what is now northern France, among these was Denis (now the famous St. Denis) and others, including one Lucien, a Roman convert to Christianity. This Lucien settled in what is now the town of Beauvais and reportedly effected a large number of conversions as a result of his preaching.

He also had the misfortune of living during the reign of the emperor Diocletian, who oversaw the most far-reaching, but also final official Roman persecution against Christianity. Gaul was at that time a Roman province and ultimately Lucien, Denis, and many others were beheaded by soldiers sent from Rome for that purpose. Denis was beheaded on the highest hill in Paris, the now famous Montmartre. Lucien was beheaded in approximately 290 on a small hill north of Beauvais called Montmille, which is not famous although there is still to this day a chapel there.

Of course as history also records the Roman empire took a drastic turn only shortly after when Constantine declared in the Edict of Milan (313) that henceforth Christianity would be treated benevolently, and not long after it became the state religion.

Various Roman Catholic churches have therefore existed in Beauvais since the fourth century, but construction of the present-day cathedral was started in 1225, just 5 years after work started in Amiens. The builders had an ambitious goal to surpass all prior Gothic construction in scale and they nearly, or partly, succeeded.

The Basse Œuvre (“lower work”) 10th century parish church still occupies the space where the unfinished nave would have been located

The choir was built first and completed in approximately 1260. At 48 meters (158 feet) tall, its vaulted ceiling remains the highest ever achieved for any cathedral to this day (Amiens has the second tallest ceiling at 42 meter/140 feet).

In fact the builders purposefully mimicked some of the ratios described for New Jerusalem in the book of Revelations, the height of the ceiling is equal to its width which was measured by the builders of the day at 144 “royal” feet (see Revelations 21:16, note also that 144 is the square of 12, another important Biblical number).

The medieval church builders did not apparently have a formal knowledge of structural dynamics but rather acquired their skill and techniques through trial and error over the generations. At that time in church construction there were two competing engineering goals, on the one hand to build ever-taller vaults, and on the other to use ever less stone in order to provide room for more glass and therefore, more light. These opposing directives seem to have finally crossed each other at Beauvais when in 1284 portions of the vault collapsed. Repairs and fortifications were costly and time-consuming and the choir was not restored until 1347.

By this time the various ravages of bubonic plague had begun to affect Europe, and the Hundred Years War had kicked off in 1337. Over 150 years passed before construction resumed on the transept in 1499, which itself took another 50 years.

At this point another unfortunate decision was made, to focus funds and efforts in erecting a massive spire over the crossing of the transept, rather than to immediately start work on the nave. These large spires were common features of medieval cathedrals and served to make them easy to see from great distances across the countryside. Completed in 1569, the tower brought the height of the Beauvais cathedral to over 500 feet and thus made it the tallest structure in human history at that time. Unfortunately it only held the record for four years until the spire also collapsed.

The cost of rebuilding the damaged transept vaults meant there were no more funds to erect a new tower, and certainly not to complete the nave. This essentially marked the end of major construction on the cathedral, and it remains unfinished to this day.

The crossing, looking east

In fact the structure remained in a fragile state, and the lack of the nave for support has only made matters worse. Various reinforcement and buttressing regimes have been carried out at different times, today iron rods on the outside of the building and massive wooden supports on the inside mar the aesthetic beauty.

Some of the interior supports

As does of course the massive blank wall on the western side of the transept, which in appearance reminds me a bit of the sarcophagus built to enclose Chernobyl.

The blank western wall

Nevertheless I found it still to be a beautiful church and when you stand inside the height of the stone blocks suspended over your head is hard to comprehend even as you look at them with your own eyes. Even harder to comprehend is the audacity of the human men who suspended them.

Inside the church are also two clocks. The first is from the 14th century and is one of or possibly the oldest still functioning clock in the world, complete with working quarter-hour chimes.

14th century medieval chiming clock

The second is a highly complicated astronomical clock dating from the 1860s. It has 90,000 moving steel and brass parts and over 50 dials that in addition to the time also gives the rising and setting times of the sun and moon, the position of the planets, the tides, and complicated things I don’t understand like the “epact” and golden number used to calculate the date of Easter each year since it is apparently based on a lunar calendar and not the solar calendar. Over 60 moving figures play out scenes, at the top of the hour Christ signals the angels to play trumpets and a scene of Virtue being led to heaven by an angel is presented while Vice is pushed into hell by a demon. Frankly I don’t think my iPhone can even do all that.

19th century astrological clock

I leave you with a few more pictures of the cathedral.

South transept entrance
View of the choir
Stone tracery in one of the chapel ceilings
17th century painting of the resurrection in the chapelle du Sacré-coeur
Autel privilégié (privileged altar)