Thursday, October 2, 2008

St. Pierre Cathedral Beauvais, France

Beauvais is capital of the French departement of Oise, north of Paris. It already was an important center in pre-Roman Gaul. The Romans called it Bellovacum, and tradition has it that Lucianus, Maxianus, and Julianus founded Christianity there at the cost of their lives in about a.d. 275. Beauvais became a countship in the ninth century. Power passed to the bishops in 1013, although the date of the foundation of the diocese is unknown. The first cathedral was built in the tenth century alongside the Romanesque church still known as the Basse Oeuvre, and dedicated to Peter, the patron, saint of Beauvais. That cathedral was damaged by fire in 1180 and again in 1225, and reconstruction was undertaken. The second cathedral, never finished, is regarded by many as the most ambitious structure in Gothic architecture, one of the wonders of medieval France.

Because it is among the last Gothic churches, the architects of Beauvais Cathedral were able to draw widely on the experience of other builders. The High Gothic phase (1225–1232)—a five-aisle church with wide transepts and towers—was commissioned by Bishop Miles de Nanteuil. But little was built before his funds were exhausted. Changes were made when work resumed in 1238 for Bishop Robert de Cressonsac; although more modest than de Nanteuil’s project, his church (had it been completed) would have been much grander than most of its contemporaries. But more significant changes were yet to be made. The final phase was built for Bishop William de Grez from about 1247.

In order to allow more light to enter the churches, the High Gothic mason-architects pushed the structural boundaries to the limit by increasing the height of the vaults. Their architecture is distinguished by its emphasis on verticality and the apparent slenderness of the structural elements. In the rayonnant style—the name comes from the spokes of its characteristic rose windows—which became popular during the reign of Louis IX (1226–1270), the emphasis on height was displaced by the refinement of the masonry frame; the consequently larger window area produced the same net effect as greater height: more light penetrated into the church. Beauvais Cathedral synthesizes the High Gothic and the rayonnant. The piers were more widely spaced, thus reducing masonry and gaining more stained glass. Moreover, by superimposing a tall clerestory on the already lofty arcade of the choir, William’s architects added more than 16 feet (5 meters) to the height of the building, whose soaring vaults then reached 157 feet (48 meters)—about three and a half times their span.

The choir was completed in 1272. Its vaulting collapsed only twelve years later. When it was rebuilt (to the same height) between 1337 and 1347, additional piers placed between the existing ones strengthened the structure and allowed the builders to replace the quadripartite vaults with a more conservative sexpartite system. The flying buttresses were reinforced at the same time, and iron tie rods were introduced for extra security. Transepts were added in 1500–1548, and in 1558–1568 a 495-foot-tall (151-meter) tower was built over the crossing. It collapsed in 1773 and was never rebuilt. Even today, Beauvais Cathedral is without a nave.

Debate continues about the reasons for the collapse of the choir. One theory suggests that the vaulting system was underdesigned, with too widely spaced piers, while another blames uneven and too rapid settlement of the foundation soil beneath the highly concentrated loads that weakened the buttresses and superstructure. Yet another attributes the failure to interruptions to the work and changes to the plans when the building was partly completed. Current experience presents a plausible alternative: the buttresses swayed (as they still do) in the gale-force winds that come off the English Channel, affecting the overall stability of the church. It seems likely that the choir ceiling fell through the combined effect of all these factors.

The town of Beauvais was heavily bombed in 1940, and after World War II it was reconstructed to the original plan. Although the cathedral escaped the bombing, its structural stability is still compromised, for all of the reasons stated. Some well-meaning efforts at preservation have only exacerbated the problem. Informed and urgent action is necessary to save the highest medieval church in Europe. Beauvais Cathedral was included on the World Monuments Watch 2000 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites; in June of that year a grant to meet the engineering costs related to a structural-modeling project was received from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

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