Highlights of Bourges Cathedral
Introduction to Bourges Cathedral
Built in the High Gothic style, the Bourges Cathedral (officially the Cathedrale Saint- Etienne) is situated in the city of Bourges near the breathtaking Loire Valley in the central portion of France. The centerpiece of the city, the cathedral sits on a piece of land that has been home to the city’s premiere place of Christian worship since the 3rd century. Built to replace an 11th century structure, Bourges Cathedral was one of the first ecclesiastic buildings constructed in the new Gothic style of the era, distinguishing it from other previous French cathedrals. It is, however, largely similar in style to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Chartres Cathedral (west of the capital city), both of which were built during the same era.
Bourges Cathedral Gallery
Guide to Bourges Cathedral
The Bourges Cathedral is unique both inside and out and a visit to this spectacular ecclesiastic structure is a must-do for anyone visiting the city and the surrounding Loire Valley. A visit generally begins with a look at the west façade, a breathtaking portion of the cathedral that is wider than that of any of France’s Gothic churches. At 40 meters wide, this side of the structure boasts a door at each aisle, for a total of five portals. One beautifully-carved portal tells the story of St. Stephen, the patron saint of the Bourges Cathedral. Most magnificent, however, is the central tympanum (the arched area above the center door), which depicts the Last Judgment in startingly realistic detail.
Many of the sculptures at the north and south portals were left behind from the previous Romanesque church that was located at this site. The tympanum of the south portal is known as Christ in Majesty with the Four Evangelists. The north portal is Virgin Mary-themed, which prompted its desecration by area Protestants in the mid 16th century. Other notable sculptures at Bourges Cathedral include those of arts patron Jean de Berry and his wife, which can be found in the apse on either side of the central chapel.
Of special note are Bourges Cathedral’s spectacular stained glass windows, which soar towards the sky and are among the best-preserved examples of High Gothic windows. An amazing 22 of the original 25 remain and a number of them are best viewed from the ambulatory. Some of the lower registers of the chapel windows, however, were replaced in the 19th century but are still a joy to view though they are not identical to the originals.
In addition to viewing the many aspects of the cathedral on a walk through the structure, visitors may climb two of the towers. This so-called Tour de Beurre is accessible on the northwest side of the nave and allows for amazing views of the town below and the surrounding Loire Valley.
Video of Bourges Cathedral
History of Bourges Cathedral
The Bourges Cathedral sits at the site of the Roman Avaricum, a fortified city that was the first Christian community in Gaul. Though a variety of sacred structures had been located at that particular site since the 3rd century, the current Cathedrale Saint-Etienne was preceded by a grand Romanesque structure built in the 11th century. A monumental building in and of itself, the Romanesque cathedral suffered a series of devastating fires in the early 1190s, necessitating rebuilding of the entire structure.
The new building plans were spearheaded by then-Archbishop Henri de Sully, who chose the new “High” Gothic style for the Bourges Cathedral. Plans were to be simple and basilical in form. There was to be no transept (the transverse section that lies across the main building to from a cross). Rather, chapels surround the entire nave and there are double side aisles that flow into a double ambulatory at the east end.
Though the exact date that work on the Bourges Cathedral commenced is somewhat unclear, expenditure records show that 1195 is a reasonable guess. The choir section of the cathedral was near completion and in use by 1214 and the nave was most likely finished between 1250 and 1255. However, the building wasn’t consecrated until nearly 70 years later in 1324.
The completion of the exterior took much longer. Records show that the magnificent west facade was finished around 1270. Work on the towers continued for the next two centuries, especially because the South tower was plagued with structural difficulties. This led to the building of a supporting buttress tower in the mid 1300s. The North tower was finished at the end of the 15th century but collapsed shortly thereafter, leading to the rebuilding of that tower and portions of the North façade, which were damaged in the collapse. Some Renaissance elements were added at that time.
Getting to Bourges Cathedral
Bourges Cathedral is open daily from 8:30 am until 7:15 pm from April through September. From October through March, the cathedral opens at 9 am and closes at 5:45 pm. Admission to the cathedral is free. A fee is charged for tours of the crypt and towers. Tours are conducted once per hour.
From Paris: The town of Bourges is in the geographic center of France and can easily be reached by train, bus or car from just about any part of the country. The train trip from Paris takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes. By car from Paris, take the A71 motorway and reach Bourges in about 2.5 to 3 hours. Ample parking is available outside the city center.
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