Out Of The Archives:
A Day In Beauvais

Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Beauvais
Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Beauvais

Arriving in Beauvais around 11:30 in the morning, my chest puffed up like a proud hen’s. So pleased with my self for having made like clockwork this morning so that I could catch an early train to spend another day in the country visiting yet another gothic architectural cathedral. Following the signs to the Centre du Ville, I made my way to the gothic gem of Beauvais.

Climbing the steps and pushing through the door, my eyes naturally looked up. Up is always the way to look when entering a Gothic universe. Looking up in a gothic cathedral gives one perspective. It allows us to know just how very small and unimportant we really are.

While my neck was stretched and my eyes were pointed to the ceiling, a man came over, smiling, and said that the cathedral was closing for lunch although, of course, it would open again in two hours. He then politely turned me around and, guiding me by my elbow, escorted me back through the door to the outside, turning around only to lock the door behind us. Mais, mais … my buts were falling on a smiling face yet very deaf French ears.

So much for clockwork.

Outside I looked up at the cathedral and wondered what’s to do for the next two hours. Not expecting to have to eat lunch in Beauvais I strolled over to the Office du Tourisme, where I was told by the woman behind the desk that the only thing there is to do in Beauvais for the next two hours, between 11:45 and 2PM, is eat, like all good French people do.

Silly me.

Sometimes when I’m in France I know that I just have to do what I’m told. Actually, I now know that every time I am told what to do I should just consciously choose to do it, as long as it’s not hurting me. It makes everyone around me happy as I appear to assimilate into French culture. Good girl, pat, pat. This is a lesson well learned from past experiences in various parts of France, with various different families and friends. Do what you are told. You are not hungry? Eat anyway. You don’t want to wait? Sit down and be quiet. It’s one lesson not worth repeating, even though, for some stubborn reason, I have repeated it many times. Doing what I’m told is a lesson that goes against my hyperactive nature, but what can I do? French culture is much much stronger than I, and in the countryside it is even more so than in Paris. Even though it wasn’t in my plans I gave in, relaxed, and ate, making a little picnic in the park outside of the cathedral with a baguette et fromage sandwich.

I waited.

And waited.

The sun passed over the outside of the cathedral, casting shadows here and there. Moving, bending, shadows that changed and morphed with the clouds and the wind. People came to join me anonymously, sitting on the park benches and low garden walls surrounding the church. People talked with their heads together, gnawing on baguettes and then letting out a laugh at something funny that was said.

In the meantime I caught up on cathedral history.

The Cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Beauvais is a cathedral steeped in disaster. Like, real disaster. One after the other. From its unfinished design to its current condition – being held together by a lacework of rebar connecting its delicate and fragile butresses on the outside, and wood struts inside to keep the walls from caving in.

This haut-oeuvre gothic building was built during the 13th century on the site of an older religious structure which was damaged by fire in 1225. In part, the older structure still exists, and is called Notre-Dame de la Basse-Oeuvre. Over the centuries, pieces of the basse-oeuvre kept being demolished in order for the gothic cathedral to be built on a continuous basis.

Soon after the completion of the choir in 1272, the first disaster struck this cathedral. On November 28, 1284, part of the vault collapsed above the chancel bays. The vaults and the flying buttresses that supported them needed to be repaired. The choir was strengthened by thickening the walls and doubling the internal supporting columns. Repair work was finished in the 14th century.

In 1500 the work on the north and south transepts began and it took fifty years to complete the execution of the building and the installation of the stained glass windows. In 1567 a tower was added to the transepts, one that does not seem to have been designed well, because on April 30, 1573 the tower collapsed taking with the vaults with it.

Only one bay of the nave was ever completed in the 1600s. A partitioning wall was erected to keep the church protected from the future construction site that never happened. The partitioning wall was eventually accepted to be the final rendition of the west wall, the wall that is considered to be the face of the cathedral.

During The Revolution the cathedral was turned into a parish church and was stripped of all of its relics, with the gold and silver being sent to the mint in Paris to be melted down. Beauvais’ cathedral status was eventually returned in 1822.

The State finally bought the structure in 1840 to avoid further destruction by generic use of the site and preserved it as a religious structure.

Then, in June of 1940 the cathedral of Beauvais was hit by five bombs, but had considerably less damage than the area around it. Most of the town of Beauvais was flattened during this bombardment and when looking at an aerial photograph of the area from that time, it is simply amazing that any of it even survived at all.

Currently the metal braces between the buttresses on the outside of the building are keeping the cathedral from being, of all things, blown over.

After awhile the clock turned to 2.

Walking over to the West Portal, I reentered the cathedral. My eyes knew what to expect, but I decided to entertain myself and pretended that I had not yet seen the interior. My neck stretched back and my eyes pointed towards the ceiling. I begun where I had left off. Vaults and arcs and scaffolding crisscrossed the ceiling, columns reached to infinity, and the light of God came through the stained glass windows to touch the stone floors in magical colors.

The cathedral in Beauvais has to be one of the strangest cathedrals I’ve seen on my lifelong chasse du architecture gothique. Not strange in a bad way. I’m not criticizing it. But strange in a way that is a bit unnerving. For the most part because after all of this time the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre remains unfinished. Not to mention the rebar. Or the wood braces. Or the fact that someone at some time thought that it was possible the cathedral could be blown over. Even though a true gothic church is built in the shape of a cross, this cathedral instead consists of only a choir, one bay of the nave and two transepts, which means that its shape is more like an oval, with one flat end. The characteristics that make this building a gothic gem are the same characteristics that cause me to feel unbalanced, a little edgy, while passing my time there. I keep trying to walk into places that don’t exist. Places that I intuitively know should be there.

Before returning to the train station for my trip back to Paris, I sat in a chair in the back of the cathedral and watched as rays of light fell through the windows, transforming the interior of the cathedral – a bit like each experience on my journey transforms me.

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