With its enormous dimensions, the five-aisled cathedral, built from 1195 to 1255, is one of the great Gothic cathedrals in France. According to franciscogardening, its two asymmetrical towers are characteristic. The west facade with its five large portals is an impressive architectural masterpiece that embodies the idea of the church as a gateway to heaven.
Bourges Cathedral: Facts
|Official title:||Bourges Cathedral|
|Cultural monument:||the church consecrated to St. Stephen with mighty facade towers, in the left tower a spiral staircase with 406 steps; West facade with richly decorated portals such as the central portal with the depiction of the Last Judgment in the arched field; in the crypt, the largest lower church in France, remains of the rood screen and the tomb of the Duke of Berry|
|Location:||Bourges, northwest of Clermont-Ferrand|
|Meaning:||a Gothic masterpiece; Testimony to the importance of Christianity in medieval France|
Bourges Cathedral: history
|1195-1215||Construction of the choir and the apse|
|1200-06||Saint-Guillaume (Sankt Wilhelm) Archbishop of Bourges|
|1215-25||Medallion window of the choir with representations from the Old and New Testament|
|1225-60||Construction of the 124 m long and 37 m high nave and the main facade|
|1324||Consecration of the Church|
|1422-38||Manufacture of the tomb of the Duc de Berry by Jean de Cambrai|
|1506||Collapse of the north tower|
|1542||Completion of the reconstruction of the north tower|
|1562||Damage to the sculptures on the west facade in the wake of the Protestant iconoclasm|
Five portals on the way to heaven
In view of the sleepy, half-timbered streets of Bourges, a small town in the heart of France, it is difficult to imagine that the town at the confluence of the Auron and Yèvre rivers, known as Avaricum, was the capital of the Roman province of Aquitaine. Throughout the Middle Ages and far beyond, trade and commerce were in full bloom. Especially from the time when the Dukes of Berry held court in Bourges, numerous imposing town houses and aristocratic palaces have survived. The city palace, which Jacques Coeur, financier of King Charles VII and member of the court council, had built in his hometown, is particularly impressive, as it is one of the largest and most splendid late Gothic secular buildings in Europe.
But city palaces or city palaces, ultimately the cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen – Cathédrale Saint-Etienne – overshadows all other buildings in Bourges. The French writer Honoré de Balzac from Tours, whose main work is the “Human Comedy”, raved that all of Paris was not worth as much as Saint-Etienne, and the staunch atheist Stendhal, one of the most influential French writers of the 19th century, added reverently: “I have had a unique admiration, I have been a Christian for a while.”
As a masterpiece of the Gothic, the local church building is on a par with the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims. The sight of the west facade is downright overwhelming. Five richly decorated portals that take up the entire width of the church lead into the interior and symbolize the idea of faith as the “gate of heaven”.
Although Gothic was the predominant European architectural style in the 14th century, the creative centers remained largely confined to northern France, an area that stretched from the royal lands around Paris, eastward into Champagne and southward to Bourges.
The fact that one of the earliest and most glamorous French cathedrals was built in Bourges is due to a coincidence: Henri de Sully, the Archbishop of Bourges, had a brother named Maurice, who was Bishop of Paris and just in those years his Notre- Lady was rebuilt in the Gothic style. Spurred on by fraternal ambition, Henri now also dreamed of a Gothic church. It is therefore not surprising that the unknown builders from Bourges leaned on the plans of Notre-Dame, even though they did without the transepts and the gallery gallery. Since the planned cathedral, due to its size, protruded far beyond the Gallic-Roman city walls, a crypt of imposing dimensions was necessary under the choir to compensate for the difference in level.
The nave owes its fascinating effect to a clarity that dispenses with any superfluous pomp; Without any showmanship, the builders of Bourges erected a sculptural monument to the scholastic spirit. The gaze is skillfully focused on the slender ascending choir with its light refracted by colored glass pictures, whereby the paintings take up the teaching given in the vestibule. In addition, the light that falls through the choir window symbolizes the purity of heaven and announces the enlightenment in which the believer participates through the Incarnation of Christ.
The mostly original stained glass windows reflect the entire spectrum of Christian iconography: the apologetic scenes are put together in pairs on ten windows, so that their essential connection is clearly expressed. The Passion and the Apocalypse with Christ as Judge of the World, the New Covenant and the Last Judgment are confronted here with one another. Above it, the entourage of the prophets in the north and that of the apostles in the south, who frame the image of the Virgin and Child, are enthroned in monumental simplicity. Truly: a sky made of glass!
Since 1998, the cathedral has also been listed as part of the World Heritage “Camino de Santiago in France” (Via Lemovicensis).