The Colossus of Beauvais

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of France  ,
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Dark and beautiful, she shot up from the ground like a shadowy mountain, her spires defensive shards of stone. In the tranquility of the low buildings of this midday town her presence is surreal, as if pertaining to some ancient fantasy world of dark artists and minxes. She is a serious temptress, luring souls in like a siren to a sailor; guardian of earth, watcher of Heaven. The Cathedral of Beauvais can be seen from the next town, and the town before that, and it looks as majestic as anything you've ever seen.

Truth is she is the highest Gothic cathedral ever built. Ambition alone was the fuel to construct this colossal which took close to 400 years of headaches and problems, and is still an unfinished masterpiece. It's no accident she was built in France, the cradle of Gothic architecture. Work begun in the 13th century, a time where the growing burgs of France competed against each other for the most beautiful and daring cathedral. The city of Beauvais simply wanted the highest one.

We arrived in the sleepy town of Beauvais at around noon, when not a single soul or car was in sight. We parked and looked around, wondering if we really were alone, half expecting tumbleweed to start rolling by. The sight of the massive church distracted us from the solitude, and we approached silently, carefully, as if afraid it was going to collapse. Construction scaffolding was covering the first few meters of the fašade, but we were able to observe the gargoyles and the details of the elegant spires as we drew nearer. Faces, some frightened and others placid, emerged from the stonework as well as flowers and vines. 157 feet of stone masonry and vitreaux windows loomed above us against a cloudy sky, and we quickly entered her.

The interior was darker and probably colder than outside, and although the eyesight immediately moves upwards in search for an end to its vaults, the cathedral itself is quite disproportionate. This is because it was never finished: it only consists of a transept and choir with an apse. This basically means that only about 40% of the cathedral was built, and even so, the vaulting collapsed a couple times in the 13th century and then again in the 16th century. Either way, it is large enough to hold a decently populated congregation during mass.

We walked around the choir where 7 small polygonal chapels were decorated with frescoes and tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries. The fashionable Gothic Flamboyant style was employed here, consisting of flame-like shapes of the arches and tracery. Although the walls are many meters thick, the colorful vitreaux make the interior seem airy and light, filling the church with light and color. After the first collapse of the vault, the architects became less interested in size and more interested in decoration and total stability of the building. Since it was still being added on in the 16th century, moments of Renaissance ornamentation can be seen in the woodwork. One of the chapels holds a lavish astronomical clock built in the 14th century, originally designed to signal the different offices of each day. It accounts for 700 years of time keepsake and is probably the oldest chiming clock still in working order.

It was getting bitterly cold inside so we exited in search of something warm to eat. While walking through the lonely lanes of the town, we turned back every now and then to get a glimpse of the omnipresent cathedral. And as we ate our moulles and escargot over cherry beer we could see through the window of the petit French country bistro the lace-like spires protrude from other lesser, humbler buildings. She seems rigid in her posture, proud and elegant too, crafted by hundreds of years of work and dedicated men who served her. And even though today's engineers are still having problems keeping her balanced, she is still the highest Gothic cathedral in the small feat for this tiny French burg.

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