Beauvais Airport is the 3rd airport that gravitates to Paris (around 60 km / 37.2 mi away), and most people use it without knowing that there is a true gem of Gothic architecture in the Beauvais town centre. The Saint-Pierre Cathedral, commonly known as the Beauvais Cathedral, is extraordinary from various points of view, and its awe-inspiring proportions that would make the Parisian Notre Dame Cathedral a dwarf in comparison are just some of them. So, if your way leads you to Beauvais, you’ll be handsomely rewarded if you allocate some time to dedicate it to this exceptional structure.
What makes the Beauvais Cathedral so exceptional?
First of all, it’s the cathedral’s astonishing size. The Saint-Pierre soars around 70 meters / 229.6 ft skyward, barely allowing you to perceive its roof. Just imagine if the spire that once adorned the cathedral (153 meters / ~502 ft) was still there; you would probably have an impression that it tears the universe apart.
Secondly, how many cathedrals have you seen that lack a nave?! The nave was certainly planned to be adjoined, but a disaster that deprived the cathedral of its spire impeded the plans for construction of the nave.
If your flight timetable allows you (since it didn’t allow me), try to get into the Beauvais Cathedral before 6:00 pm, which is the closure time. I can only imagine how inspiring the interior is, but keep your eyes open for two clocks.
Shall we elaborate now?
Commissioned in 1225, the Beauvais Cathedral was envisioned to be the largest and, accordingly, the grandest cathedral in the Christian world. The construction of the choir (48.50 meters / 159 ft – the tallest Gothic choir in Christendom) and the transept dragged on until 1548 due to various sorts of difficulties. When the latter was completed the religious authorities gave precedence to the construction of the spire over the nave. Such decision significantly contributed to the instability of the Beauvais Cathedral in the long run.
The main motive for installing the spire out of turn was a desire to make the Saint-Pierre the tallest human-made structure. Such a goal was achieved in 1569, and, had the spire remained, the cathedral would have been the tallest structure until 1884, when the Washington Monument (169 meters) in Washington was erected. However, due to the constructional limits during the time it was built, which couldn’t tolerate a structure of such magnitude, the bell tower and the spire collapsed in 1573. This misfortune occurred during the service, but no one was badly hurt. By that time, work on the nave started, but the funds needed to be transferred for the repairs.
The Saint-Pierre Cathedral still had to endure two major calamities. The first followed in 1793, during the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) and the second in 1940 (Second World War), when a bomb dropped during a German air raid hit the cathedral, which miraculously didn’t collapse. Damage, however, had been inflicted and around 70% of the medieval stained glass windows were destroyed.
Façade and works of art
Main features of the façade are pointed arched windows, flying buttresses and huge rose windows. While flying buttresses had decorative and practical use (they transmit the weight downward, which enables Gothic structures to be elevated to such great heights), the main features of the windows are purely embellishment. As you examine other details of the façade, empty niches (refer to this section’s photo) will hardly miss your eye. These niches used to be filled, in general, with the sculptures of the kings of Israel and Judea from the Old Testament, but the revolutionists mistook them for the French kings and had them toppled and destroyed.
The Saint-Pierre Cathedral features northern and southern portals. The northern portal is topped by an image of a Jesse Tree, which illustrates various circumstances that preceded the birth of Jesus Christ. The portal itself features symbols of Francis I, a French king. The southern, wooden carved portal brings the observer into the lives of the apostles St. Paul and St. Peter. The decapitated bodies of the saints are most probably doing of the revolutionists.
As for the above-mentioned clocks, the chiming clock is, most probably, the oldest still operating clock in the world. The year of its origin is 1305. Another exceptional piece of art is an astronomical clock, which reveals a great deal more if you observe properly. It shows the solstice, the world’s age and current time in 12 hour time format; a figure of Christ is in the middle of the clock, while 12 apostles encircle him. The clock is surmounted by a mechanism with figures that perform scenes from the Last Judgment.
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Have more time at your disposal?
If so, round the Beauvais Cathedral and examine:
-the remains of the Collegiate Church of Saint-Barthelemy to the southeast of Saint-Pierre;
-the Notre Dame de la Basse Oeuvre Church next to the cathedral, which was intended to be demolished had the works on the nave proceeded;
-the Episcopal Palace, which houses the Oise Museum; the palace is classified as a historical monument and works of several notable French artists are on display here.
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