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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Beauvais Cathedral

Roman Beauvais: Beauvais is located in the Thérain valley of Picardie, at the intersection of roads leading to Amiens, Soissons, and Paris. At the time of the Roman conquest, the region was occupied by the Bellovaci, a Belgic tribe who, as Caesar notes in his Gallic Wars (Bk. II, ch. 13), had a small settlement called Bratuspantium in the immediate area of Beauvais (R. Bedon et al 1988).

The Roman town, known as Caesaromagus, was the chief town of the civitas of Belgica. Caesaromagus, organized on an orthogonal plan (fig.2), was probably divided into insulae, or city blocks, measuring 100 x 100m. The cardo ran SW-NE along rues Desgraux, Sadi Carnot, and Gambetta, while the decumanus can be traced along the rue St. Pierre. Roman remains include upper-class houses, wells, 2nd century baths, a public hypocaust, a glass manufactury, an amphitheater, and just to the east of the cathedral, a large 3rd century exedra or fountain. Remains of a sacred site known as a fanum have been found beneath the Abbey of St. Lucien (R. Bedon et al 1988).

Renovations to the town occurred during the Severan era (AD 146-211), due in part to incursions of the Chauci, a Germanic tribe, between 170 and 175. Invasions in the second half of the 3rd century prompted the construction of a rampart around the town. Some traces of its foundations are still extant, and two of its gates (porte du Limason and porte du Chastel) have been located. In 320, the Emperor Constantine visited the town.

[Fig.1: West façade of Beauvais cathedral (photo: Athena Review].

Saint-Pierre Cathedral: According to legend, the bishopric of Beauvais was founded by Saint Lucien, first bishop of Beauvais, in the 3rd century AD. During the following centuries, a series of churches were erected on the tomb of St. Lucien, the site today’s Gothic cathedral. The latest of these was the Romanesque church called Basse Oeuvre, built during the second half of the 10th century. Some remains are still preserved along the western end of the Gothic cathedral. A fire in 1180 and again in 1225 caused considerable damage to the Basse Oeuvre. After the fire of 1225, it was decided to replace the old church with a new Gothic cathedral, one of the last and most ambitious to be built in Picardie (fig.1).

The cathedral chapter and Bishop Milon de Nanteuil (1217-1234) thus commissioned an architect to create a new cathedral dedicated to St. Pierre. Together they designed a layout of a cathedral which would become the largest and highest yet known in the world.

According to Stephen Murray, who has spent four decades studying Beauvais cathedral (fig.1), the construction of the new cathedral may have been partly intended as an act of defiance against the French crown (1989). Confrontations between the powerful northern barons allied with the bishop and the bourgeoisie siding with the king were typical at that time. Bishop Milon de Nanteuil was loosely connected with the northern barons who revolted against King Louis VIII, and even unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap his son Louis IX.

The plan to create such a massive cathedral may have been a tactic used by the bishop to assert his independence from the king. Due to both the lack of funds and severe constructional flaws, however, these plans could only partly be achieved. While still unfinished, the overly grandiose cathedral collapsed in 1284. Although only the transept and choir survives today, it nevertheless remains one of the most impressive Gothic buildings.

Beauvais cathedral (fig.1) marks the climax of Gothic architecture, and provides a radical example of its technical limits. The architect of Beauvais cathedral here pushed those limits, while using a bold experiment with new construction techniques. The experiment failed when the design surpassed technical feasibility. Even today specialists struggle with the problem of stabilizing the cathedral, with braces still visible in the transept.

[Fig.2: Roman Beauvais (Caesaromagus) overlaid on a modern city street plan, showing the typical Roman gridded street pattern, with the cathedral built within the fortified wall].

Cathedral Exterior: The transept façades were designed by Martin Chambiges (1460-1532), who applied the then fashionable late Gothic Flamboyant style. Chambiges accentuated the south façade by designing a large rose window, which is integrated into a huge lancet tracery window. Five smaller lancets and a glazed gallery form the bottom of the wide opening. The façade’s gable, the spandrels beside the window zone, and the tympanum of the portal are decorated with a dense network of filigree mullions or vertical bars (Bony 1983). Two slender flanking towers, decorated with canopies, frame the façade and show the influence of the emerging Renaissance style. Scenes from the life of Saint Peter and Paul decorate the 16th century wooden doors of the south portal.

Both transept façades were completed during the mid-16th century. Since then, the south transept façade has served as the main entrance of the cathedral. During the same time, the bishop and cathedral chapter of Beauvais decided to crown the cathedral’s crossing with a tall lantern tower surpassing the height of the vaultings by another 105 m, thus reaching the incredible height of 153 m. It became the highest tower in Christendom. To realize these ambitious plans, another architect, Jean Vast, was entrusted with the further improvements to the cathedral in1564.

Shortly after the completion of the four-story masonry tower in 1569, further stabilization problems occurred. Architects consulting the cathedral chapter proposed to immediately strengthen the four piers of the crossing, and to erect two bays in the nave to secure the building. Although the cathedral chapter was aware of the critical state of the building, it approved the necessary measures with reluctance. On Ascension Day 1573, less than two weeks after they finally agreed to allocate money for the stabilization of the church, the crossing tower collapsed immediately after the clerics and churchgoers had left the church in a procession. The vaultings of the transept and choir were once more damaged, along with the furnishings of the interior, including the choir stalls, the choir screen, and the stained glass windows. Instead of rebuilding a comparable huge tower, only a small belfry was erected.

In 1605, the nave was closed with a provisional wall, since there were no financial means left to complete the still missing part of the nave. The nave and west façade (fig.1) have never been finished, and Beauvais cathedral still consists only of a choir and a transept.

Cathedral Interior: Upon entering the cathedral, the great height of the vaults creates an unforgettable impression. The transept, which measures about 58 m long, serves in place of the nave to hold the congregation during services, with an organ placed against the rear wall. Most of the stained glass in the transept dates to the 16th century, including the southern rose window with God the Father in the central medallion. Below are two rows containing figures of 10 Prophets and 10 Apostles or Doctors. At the north end of the transept, 10 Sibyls are portrayed. Three of the choir chapels retain some 13th century stained glass, much restored.

Even now, the fragile construction is threatened by further collapse, and variety of measures have been taken to prevent this. Recent attempts were undertaken in July 2001 by a research team of Columbia University who scanned the whole building in detail (NY Times 10/27/2001). An analysis of the 3-dimensional data may lead to a better understanding of the way the cathedral was originally built and later restored, and where critical constructional weaknesses exist, so that more precise measures can be taken in the future to protect the building.


Bedon, R., P. Pinon, and R. Chevalier. 1988. Architecture et Urbanisme en Gaule Romain, Tome 2. Paris, Éditions Errance.

Bony, J. 1983. French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, University of California Press.

Eakin, E. 10/27/2001. “Cybersleuths Take on the Mystery of the Collapsing Colussus.” The New York Times.

Murray, S. 1989. Architecture of Transcendence. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

This article appears on pages 71-73 of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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