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A Gothic Disaster: St. Peter of Beauvais Cathedral

The Cathedral of St. Peter of Beauvais was an ambitious project with lofty goals.

It was supposed to be bigger and better than the other cathedrals being built at that time. But, it was not to be. Instead, Beauvais Cathedral wound up as one of the most unluckiest projects of its time, the unfortunate victim of its own elaborate architectural plan, which was hindered by both funding problems and structural defects. Construction would be halted numerous times for any number of reasons. It has never been completed. The church has only its 16th-century transept, choir, apse and seven apsidal chapels.

Construction started on the eastern transept in 1225 and it was meant to become the grandest church in all of France. When the cathedral opened in 1272, it was the tallest monument for four years straight, standing at 159 ft at its tallest point. However, in 1284, the choir vault along with several flying buttresses collapsed. This collapse was a turning point in Gothic architecture, as now masons were hesitant to build such tall structures, marking the beginning the age of smaller structures. However, building of the monolithic cathedrals continued, with an improved architectural design. More columns were added in the chevet and choir, and the ceiling vaults went from four ribs to six ribs, called sexpartite vaulting.

An example of sexpartite vaulting, as this one seen here, from Lyon cathedral

After the collapse, work started immediately to shore up the remaining parts. But, after the death of King Charles IV of France, who left no male heir to carry on his reign, unrest and warring broke out. And thus started The Hundred’s Year War, halting any further progress on repairs to the cathedral. Luckily there was only minor damage to the cathedral and, 150 years after the original construction started, once again work resumed. Twenty years after work started, its architect, Martin Chambiges, died. This explains the fact why the turrets of the roof are in more of a Renaissance style, and, once again the transept is completed.

For whatever reason, it was decided that instead of building a nave, the money would go to build a grand spire (this would, later, literally prove to be the cathedral’s downfall). It took six years to complete and was almost 502 feet tall, making the cathedral the tallest building in the world at the time! But, as luck would have it, on April 30, 1573, the spire and three levels of the Bell tower collapsed. Fortunately, no one was killed.

So, once again, construction and repairs start. In 1600, plans to build the nave begin, but only one arch is completed. Without a nave for some support, it left the cathedral in quite the precarious state. Interesting point of fact here, there is a small Romanesque church dating back to the 10th-century, known as the Basse Œuvre, that occupies the site where the nave of the Beauvais Cathedral was supposed to be built.

Wars were a real jinx to Beauvais. In 1793, during the French Revolution, the church was ransacked. All the statues in the doorways were beheaded and the interior desecrated. During the bombings in World War II, the cathedral was further damaged, BUT, it did remain standing! Most of the stained glass windows were destroyed and the organ rendered useless.

Beauvais (in the distance) and the aftermath of WWII

In 1993, things began shifting once again. The north transept had four large wood-and-steel lateral trusses at different heights, installed to keep it from collapsing. Also, the main floor of the transept is punctuated by a much larger brace that juts out of the floor at a 45-degree angle. It was placed as an emergency measure to give additional support to the pillars in an effort to stave off any further movement. Then, in 2000, scaffolding was erected around the façade, as renovations and solidification of the building began. Presently, Columbia University is performing a study on a three-dimensional model using laser scans of the building in an attempt to pinpoint where the weaknesses are greatest to see what further can be done to shore up the building.

Reinforcements of the transept at Beauvais, present day.

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