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Gothic Architecture in France
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Saint-Pierre de Beauvais
Professor Stephen Murray

Begun some sixty-five years after the start of work at Notre-Dame in an important episcopal city fifty miles to the north of Paris, the choir of Beauvais Cathedral with its five-aisled pyramidal structure and great transept, its unusually broad central vessel and prodigious height, is amongst the most spectacular works of Gothic architecture.

Click here for an Interactive Groundplan of Beauvais Cathedral in a new browser window.

France, Beauvais, Map of the medieval town

France, Beauvais, Cathedral, Aerial view

France, Beauvais, Cathedral, View of the choir, crossing and north transept

Its vertiginous vertical surge is more dramatic than Amiens Cathedral; its spatial program more ambitious. However, the monument has had a history plagued with conflict and structural failures. Begun in 1225 and occupied by the clergy in 1272, the choir was rebuilt during the half century that followed a collapse in 1284. Extended in the sixteenth century with the construction of the transept and beginnings of the nave, the cathedral, badly damaged in the collapse of the central crossing tower in 1573, was never completed and is still subject to chronic structural problems. Today Saint-Pierre of Beauvais, braced and trussed to avert further disasters, stands as a truncated giant, dominating a city itself devastated and extensively rebuilt after World War II. We must attempt to understand this great and enigmatic monument within the context of Gothic architecture and in light of its peculiar historical circumstances.

Beauvais Cathedral, contemporary structural supports added to brace the medieval building.

France, Beauvais, Cathedral, Plan

France, Beauvais, Cathedral, North transept

France, Beauvais, Cathedral, Transept

Gothic Architecture and Beauvais

The great Gothic cathedrals that encircle the Ile-de-France—Laon, Noyon, Soissons, Chârtres, Bourges, Reims, Amiens and Beauvais—share certain essential characteristics and differ sharply from the buildings of the immediate.


None of them are "copies" of Notre-Dame of Paris or any other building, yet all share in the same process of structural and formal invention. In "Gothic" architecture the reiteration of the classical forms of "Romanesque" was transformed through a deliberate search for novelty—a kind of medieval "modernism."1 The new architecture embodied light-weight rib vaults and external supports in the form of flying buttresses that allowed for the construction of lofty cages of stone. Extraordinary control over the process of stone cutting led to increasingly delicate effects of articulation. Rationalization of production facilitated the construction of enormous and complex edifices whose multiple elements were, in a sense, mass-produced—stamped out in the pattern of the templates designed by master masons who combined ingenuity with vision.

While it was once customary to consider the Gothic cathedral of Chârtres (begun in 1195) as the "classic" progenitor of a family of look-alike offspring, we now recognize the significant differences of each edifice. This was a kind of common language (koine) expressing a new awareness of time and place; a new kind of cultural identity, and yet preserving at the same time the peculiar character of local dialects—a kind of local pride of place. The meaning of the common language thus varied in different localities according to local circumstances. Although Gothic projected an ecclesiastical agenda, it was also capable of reflecting the agency of the various local secular powers—king, count and commune. In its own way each great edifice created an image of Heaven and an appropriate theater for the liturgy—yet each also responded to immediate political and material circumstances.

1.   M. Trachtenberg, "Gothic/Italian 'Gothic: Toward a redefinition," Society of Architectural Historians, March 1991, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 22–37.

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