Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Cathedral of St. Peter, Beauvais, Oise, Picardy, France

      The  Cathedral of St. Peter or Saint-Pierre is the Gothic cathedral that reached for the heavens but failed. It was tallest Gothic cathedral attempted at 150 feet or 48 meters, the height of the vaulting in the choir.  It is the cathedral that was never completed since it started to fall down almost as soon as some of it was built.  Even today the Gothic cathedral is a choir and a transept walled off from a small nave finished about 1000.  The choir includes the apse and projecting chapels of the chevet that form a hemicycle.  It is five aisles wide and is transected by the transept that once was topped with a lantern tower.  But that collapsed also.

      The Cathedral was commissioned in 1225, about the same time that the construction on nearby Amiens cathedral was beginning.  Fire had damaged the Romanesque church on the site.  Bishop Milon (or Miles or Milo) de Nanteuil commissioned the new cathedral of Saint-Pierre, and he saw and paid for the first part of the construction with 10% of his income.  The first phase of construction that began in the middle of the church at the crossing of the choir and transept was halted in 1232.  Bishop Milo died about 1234.  The reason for the stoppage was both fiscal (no money) and political.

     In 1232 the bourgeois of Beauvais rioted over the appointment of a new mayor. In the uprising the      more powerful members of the bourgeois tended to oppose the power of the count-bishop whose        taxes were considered onerous while the ordinary folk remained loyal. The event provided the            pretext for an intervention by the King, and in the subsequent struggle the count-bishop fled the          city and his income was confiscated. Bishop Milon's successor, Godfrey or Geoffroy de Clermont      (1234–1236), remained unable to regain possession of his temporalities. It was only with the              capitulation of Bishop Robert de Cressonsac (1236–1248) that episcopal revenues were restored.        In 1248 Bishop Robert left with Louis IX to participate in the Crusade. He died on the island of          Cyprus. (<http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ma/htm/ms/ma_ms_bc_discuss_context.htm>)

The floor plan of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre or St. Peter in Beauvais.

Looking down the choir to the east end of the Cathedral and the axial Chapel of the Virgin.  Note that there appear to four stories of windows, the ambulatory and then a row of windows above the ambulatory, a triforium level and then an exceedingly tall clerestory level.

     The second phase of construction began in the 1240s.  This is shown by a change in the carving that is more delicate and the supporting piers that are much thinner. The main arcade of the choir, the ambulatory and the seven radiating chapels were built while Robert de Cressonsac (reigned from 1236-1248) was Bishop of Beauvais until his death while on crusade.

    Following the death of Bishop Robert, Guillaume or William of Grez or Gres was consecrated Bishop of Beauvais.  This Count Bishop reigned from 1249-1267.  Under his leadership the third phase of construction began. The height of the upper choir or clerestory was raised. The phases of the construction generally moved so that the north flank of the cathedral was finished before the southern flank, and the western end of the choir was finished before the eastern end.  The new height of the vaulting meant that the height of the choir was 144 "royal" feet. (1 royal foot =32.5 cm. 1 foot=30.5 cm)  In Revelation 21.17, the height of the wall of New Jerusalem was 144 cubits. The monks and clergy began regular use of the choir in 1272.  The choir of the Gothic cathedral was in use only 12 years.

Eastern end of the Cathedral of St. Peter, Beauvais.  Three items of particular interest are the height of the flying buttresses, the height of the clerestory windows and the iron (later steel) tie rods placed between the flying buttresses to give the building additional stability.

     Then on "Friday November 29 [1284] at eight o'clock in the evening the great vaults of the choir fell, several exterior pillars were broken, the great windows were smashed...and the divine service ceased for forty years." (<http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ma/htm/ms/ma_ms_bc_discuss_collapse.htm>)
The reason(s) for the collapse are still not known.  What is known is that everything from the sill of the triforium to the top vaulting of the choir as well as flying buttresses had to be rebuilt. Yet somehow the main exterior roof of the choir remained substantially intact. A couple of reasons can be observed.  The hemicycle of 7 chapels and ambulatory is misaligned with the center and left isles of the choir and apse on the north side of the choir. This means that the easternmost straight bay on the northern side of the choir is significantly wider than its south side counterpart.  Given the prevailing winds from the English Channel to the north and west of Beauvais, wind can and does cause significant oscillation in the structure, worsened by the misalignment.  At some point during the Middle Ages, iron tie rods were added between the buttresses.  These were removed in the 1960s for aesthetic reasons.  Once removed, the amount of oscillation in the wind became worrisome and steel rods were reinstalled. These steel rods are stiffer than the old iron rods,and some have suggested that this additional stiffness may be adding to the  current structural problems of the cathedral.

An exaggerated line drawing of the misalignment of the hemicycle (ambulatory and chapels) with the main axis of the straight bays of the choir.  From the work of Stephan Murray.

     Reconstruction of the choir began soon after the collapse of 1284 and included dividing the three bay straight part of the choir into six bays.  The vaulting in the roof was changed and the side walls were thickened. The rebuilding took a long time, because the builders did not know what to do to prevent a repeat disaster. (Some authors have suggested a loss of will after the hubris of trying to built so high was exposed.) Also there was less money available because of political unrest even before the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1337.  Repairs were not finished until the 1340s, just in time for the arrival of Black Death in 1348 and dislocations from the Hundred Years War.

     Then there is a hiatus in construction for another 150 years before the transept was built. The transept was constructed from north to south beginning in the 1490s by master mason, Martin Chambiges. Much of the work on the transepts were complete by the time of M. Chambiges' death in 1532, though the completion date is usually given as 1550 or so.  The south transept became the main entrance to the church and employed Flamboyant Gothic style.  There is a large rose window and two rows of lancet windows.  It almost seems as though the wall dissolved into glass.

South transept door acts as main entrance to the incomplete Cathedral. The is a large rose windows and two rows of lancet window.

     Then beginning in 1550, a central lantern tower of 105 meters was added on top of the center crossing of the nave and choir without any further work to build a nave.

What the Cathedral of Beauvais probably looked like when the central lantern tower was completed in 1569.

     The lantern tower lasted only four years before it also collapsed on Ascension Day of 1573 just after the clergy and congregation had left the cathedral in an Ascension Day procession. The collapse not only damaged the roof and upper choir, it also did substantial damage to the interior of the church including breaking stained glass windows.  This collapse happened during the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) After repairs were made to the exterior and interior of the cathedral, construction halted except to erect a wall where the nave would have been built.  This was done in 1605, and the cathedral remains unfinished. 

     The Cathedral suffered damage in World War II to both its structure and stained glass windows. In the 1990s, it became clear that the cathedral was continuing to suffer from structural problems. Huge braces and trusses were installed in the church in 1993 to prevent collapse.  See the picture below for examples.  Now laser measurements and computer modelling is being used to assess the structural problems of Beauvais in three dimensions.  It is hoped that these models that show areas of stress and malaligments might help with deciding what needs to be done to prevent further structural damage to the cathedral.

To the right of the picture is the east end of the choir.  On the left one can see some of the trusses and braces installed in 1993 to stabilize the north and east wall of the north transept.

Jesse Tree lancet window at the east end of the Chapel of the Virgin at the Cathedral at Beauvais

     The chevet of the Beauvais Cathedral has seven chapels, and the axial chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  At its east end is a two lancet window with an oculus window at the top.

Jesse Tree window on the left of the two lancet window at the east end of the Chapel of the Virgin. The oculus at the top of the window contains the Crucifixion of Jesus.  The window to the right is the Childhood of Jesus containing both Biblical and apocryphal stories (such as the fall of the idols from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the first Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ)
Photo credit for all stained glass: Painton Cowen

The left hand lancet has a Jesse Tree and the right hand lancet contains the Childhood of Jesus window.  Above and between these lancets is an oculus showing the Crucifixion with the sponge bearer and the lancet bearer.  The sun and moon are above the crucifixion and St. Mary and St. John flank the Crucifixion. At the bottom of the Crucifixion, a man identified traditionally as Adam is arising from the grave holding a chalice to capture the blood and water coming from the pierced side of Jesus.  The wood of the cross is not gold or brown but green. (Much more about green wooden crosses to come.)   This 13th century window may be the first inclusion of a Crucifixion scene with a Jesse Tree stained glass window. The date of the Jesse Tree window is uncertain by may date to the 1230s or 1240s.

Detail of Crucixion window.  Jesus is hanging from a green wood cross with the sponge and lance bearers.  Virgin Mary is to the left and St. John is on the right.  The sun and moon are at the top.  Adam, arising from the grave, holds a chalice to catch to blood of Jesus from his pierced side.

Two lancet window at east end of Chapel of the Virgin.  Jesse Tree on the left and Childhood of Jesus on the right and the Crucifixion at the top.

 Detail of Jesus Christ seated in majesty holding a book in his left hand and holding his right had in blessing.  He is accompanied by two prophets, and his is surrounded by seven doves, the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Detail of the Virgin Mary seated holding a prayer book in both hands and accompanied by two unidentified prophets.

     Both Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are seated frontally.  Both are holding books.  Jesus is holding what is usually identified as a book of Gospels and St. Mary is holding a prayer book with both hands.  The four prophets are repeated figures.  Both prophets are the left are the same as are the two on the right though the color of the glass is their robes differ.  All the prophets in this window have red nimbi.  Bits of medieval architecture appear above the heads of the prophets forming a canopy for the prophets that flank St. Mary.  Note that all four prophets are set within blue glass and there is blue glass within the mandorle of Jesus Christ and Virgin  Mary.  But the background glass of the center section of both panels is red. The prophets do have some writing on the banderoles that they hold.  But I cannot read it sufficiently to make identifications of the prophets. The writing could well be nonsense.

       Above the figure of Jesse and below the panel with Virgin Mary are six kings.  All are seated frontally with both hands holding onto the vine of the Jesse Tree.  There is no way to identify any of the six kings. The prophet designs are repeated though the glass is colored differently. There are only four different designs for the 18 prophets shown in the window.  This probably saved some cost for the drawing of the cartoons to which the stained glass was fitted. The prophets are set in blue background and the kings have blue glass within the mandorle. Unlike Amiens where some of the prophets wear Jewish hats, the prophets at Beauvais all have red nimbi. The prophets stand on small mounds of earth and have medieval architectural canopies above their heads. The white Jesse Tree vine sprouts green, blue and golden yellow leaves.

 First king below the Blessed Virgin Mary and 6th king above Jesse with two prophets

Second king below the Blessed Virgin Mary and the 5th king above Jesse with two prophets

The third king below the Blessed Virgin Mary and 4th king above Jesse and two prophets

Fourth king below the Blessed Virgin Mary and 3rd king above Jesse accompanied by two prophets.

Fifth king below the Blessed Virgin Mary and 2nd king above Jesse, flanked by two prophets

Sixth king below Virgin Mary and the 1st king above Jesse with two prophets

Reclining Jesse, father of King David with white Jesse Tree trunk growing from his side.  He is accompanied by two prophets.

   The Jesse Tree window at the Cathedral of St. Peter has more even distribution of red and blue glass.  The window did under go restoration in the 19th century.  Even so, there is not much that is obviously 19th century when looking at the whole window.  The handling of the folds in the robes and the painting of facial features does vary among the panels suggesting that two or three men may have been painting the glass.  When comparing this window to its roughly contemporary window at Amiens, this window appears more sophisticated with it use of both red and blue glass.  At the same time it appears more primitive in  that it lacks the iconography to allow identification of King David.

Two Jesse Tree prophets owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Third owned by the Worcester Museum of Art

     Two Jesse Tree prophets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and one at the Worcester Museum of Art in Worcester, MA have been identified by Michael Cothren as belonging to the same school of stained glass window makers as the Jesse Tree window of the Chapel of the Virgin at the Beauvais Cathedral.  All three are dated to approximately to time period before or near to 1245.  All three prophets are stylistically similar, standing on small hillocks and holding long scrolls.  Cothren speculates that the prophets probably belong to parish churches nearby that may have had Jesse Tree windows such as Agnieres (Somme) or Belle-Eglise (Oise) or Villers-Saint-Paul (Oise). The letters that can be read on the scrolls make up non-sense words and the writer of the article notes that the banderoles of the prophets in the Beauvais Cathedral are not readable except as non-sense words. This may reflect illiteracy, but more likely the fact that the writing was too far away from any viewer for the writing to be read. (Jane Hayward. English and French Medieval Stained Glass in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Corpus Vitrearum United States of America, Part I.(2003) New York: Harvey Miller Publishers, pp.134-40.)

   Where I am going from here?

     This is the last of the single lance 12th and 13th century Jesse Tree windows from France that I am planning to write about at this time.  I reserve the option of changing my mind and adding more later.  For now though, I need to begin a wide detour before I cross the English Channel.  There are two areas that need discussion.  The first  item is what knowledge do we have about stained glass production in the Middle Ages,  It is surprising how much we know thanks to a monk who wrote under the name of Theophilus.  The second is a far more complicated trip into the origins of the elements that make up the Jesse Tree. Unlike England, there are fewer Jesse Trees in French manuscripts that have survived to the 21st century.  So it if much harder to trace the development of the style of the Jesse Tree in French manuscripts that have been published and are available for public access.  Where did the idea of divided panes with individual figures come from?  Where did the intertwining vines originate?  Why do some Jesse Trees use vines such as grape vines and other more tree like vines with leaves?  Why did the figures in French single lancet Jesse Tree windows continue to be stacked when the builders were making lancet windows with two or three or five lancets in one window?  What do Jesse Tree windows have to do with liturgical dramas or plays held in the church before eventually being removed from the Church to be played on secular stages for church festivals?


Michael W. Cothren,  Picturing the Celestial City: the medieval stained glass of Beauvais cathedral, Princeton, 2006

Michael W. Cothren.  "Holding hands in the Virgin Chapel at Beauvais Cathedral," The four Modes of Seeing: Approaches to medieval imagery in Honor of Madeline Harrison Caviness, Ed. Evelyn Staudinger lane, Elizabeth Carson Pastan, and Ellen M. Shortell, Farnham, 2009, pp 30-43

Stephen Murray. Beauvais Cathedral: architecture of transcendence. Princeton University Press, 1989.

Stephen Murray.  The Choir of the Church of St.-Pierre, Cathedral of Beauvais: A Study of Gothic Architectural Planning and Constructional Chronology in its Historical Context. The Art Bulletin (1980) 62(4) 533–551.


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