The Cathédrale St-Étienne in Bourges, near the Loire Valley, is a magnificent early Gothic cathedral on par with its more famous neighbors to the north. It is based on the Notre-Dame in Paris but with improvements in design, which can be seen especially in the astonishing height of the aisles. For its unique feats of architecture, impressive sculptures and glorious 13th-century stained glass windows, Bourges Cathedral has been designated a World Heritage Site.
History of Bourges Cathedral
This has been a site of Christian worship since the 3rd century, when the Roman city of Avaricum sheltered the first Christian community in Gaul. Successive monumental crypts were built here in the 3rd, 4th and 9th centuries.
The first cathedral of Bourges was a Romanesque edifice, built in the 11th century by Archbishop Gozlin, the brother of Robert II of France. A century later, this was determined to be too small; rebuilding in the brand-new Gothic style began in 1195. Funding was provided in large part by a donation from Henri de Sully, Bishop of Bourges (and brother of the Bishop of Paris).
Construction began in 1195. The lower church was built about 1200, followed by the choir above it in 1214. Glazing of the windows in the ambulatory was underway between about 1215 and 1225. The nave was finished by about 1230, then work slowed down considerably.
The west facade was constructed throughout the latter half of the 13th century. In 1313, great cracks began to appear in the southern tower, which had to be supported by extensive buttressing. The structural problems are such that it has never been able to carry bells and is dubbed a "deaf tower."
The new Cathedral of Bourges was finally dedicated on May 13, 1324, but the north tower was still incomplete. This was finished by the end of the 15th century, but then came crashing down in 1505. The north tower was rebuilt in 1542 in a Gothic style harmonious with the much older facade, although some Renaissance elements crept in. It is known as the Tour de Beurre (Butter Tower), since it was funded by offering donors an exemption from fasting during Lent.
What to See at Bourges Cathedral
Bourges Cathedral has a highly unique floor plan. It has no transepts, which form the cross-shape of most churches. This lends the cathedral a unique appearance inside and out. On the exterior, thick walls and a myriad of flying buttresses support the unbroken weight of the long nave (122m/400 ft).
Inside, around the central nave wrap two side aisles that flow continuously into two ambulatories at the east end. This unique, transept-free layout allows for a much longer view down the aisles, which is made even more striking by the exceptionally great height of the aisles. In other churches these are much lower than the nave.
The west facade is among the broadest of the Gothic cathedrals in France at over 40 meters. Each aisle has its own door at the west end, making a total of five portals. All are beautifully carved with sculptures; one tells the life story of St. Stephen. The central door's 13th-century tympanum is of the highest quality, depicting the Last Judgment in figurative carvings alive with movement and imagination. The devils come complete with snakes' tailes and faces appearing below the waist, symbolic of the soul enslaved to sinful appetites.
The north and south portals are also filled with sculptures, which are even older than those on the west portals. They date from about 1160 and were reused from the earlier Romanesque cathedral. The south portal has a tympanum of Christ in Majesty with the Four Evangelists and full-length statues of prophets and kings on the side columns. It is very similar in subject, layout and style to the central bay of Chartres Cathedral's Royal Portal (c.1150). The north portal at Bourges has a theme of the Virgin Mary and as such was savagely attacked by Protestants in 1562. The wood doors in both portals date from the end of the 15th century.
Magnificent stained glass windows fill the cathedral, but are especially astonishing in the ambulatory at the east end, where they can be examined up close at eye-level. The beautiful jewel-toned windows of the ambulatory date almost entirely from between 1215 and 1225 (overlapping with the stained glass at Chartres).
Of the original 25 windows, a remarkable 22 survive. The three windows in the central east chapel were lost. The large windows in the main wall of the ambulatory are entirely original. Unfortunately the narrower windows in the chapels have lost their original lower registers, due to Baroque altar installation in the 17th century. These panels were replaced in the 19th century with medieval-style stained glass of high quality, but without reference to the lost originals. The subjects of the windows from left (north) to right (south) are as follows:
Also notable are the polychrome statues of Jean de Berry, the great artistic patron of late 14th-century Bourges, and his wife. These can be found kneeling in prayer on either side of the central chapel in the apse. Look also for the astronomical clock in the nave, which commemorates the wedding of Charles VII and Marie d'Anjou here on April 22, 1422.
Two towers of the cathedral are available for climbing under a single admission ticket. The Tour de Beurre is on the northwest side of the nave aisle and provides magnificent views over Bourges and the countryside beyond. It was rebuilt in flamboyant style after the original collapsed in 1506.
The crypt, which is more properly called a lower church, was built in 1200 and mirrors the double ambulatory above, with beautiful vaulting. It contains the tomb (built 1422-38) of Jean de Berry, which includes an alabaster statue of the duke with a sleeping bear at his feet, symbolizing strength. Nearby is a semicircle of tombs of Bourges’ archbishops.
The dark center of the crypt contains a polychrome Holy Sepulchre from the 1530s under a panelled baldachino. Also on display are fragments of the original rood screen, which managed to survive the Protestant seige of 1562 but not 18th-century fashions. It was returned here from the Louvre in 1994. Among the stone carvings are the jaws of hell and clergy boiling in a pot.
Stretching southeast from the cathedral are the impressively landscaped Jardins de l'Archevêché (archbishop's gardens), from which one of the best views of the cathedral can be enjoyed.
Quick Facts on Bourges Cathedral
|Names:||Bourges Cathedral · Cathédrale de Bourges · Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges · Cathédrale St-Étienne|
|Categories:||cathedrals; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||47.082229° N, 2.399139° E|
|Hours:||Apr-Sep: daily 8:30-7:15pm|
Oct-Mar: daily 9am-5:45pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Bourges Cathedral|
- Personal visit (July 18, 2008).
- Jean-Yves Ribault, Saint-Etienne's Cathedral, Bourges (Éditions Ouest-France, 1996).
- Bourges Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Rough Guide to France 9 (April 2005), 543-44.
- Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges - French Wikipedia
- Bourges Cathedral - Medieval Stained Glass - Stuart Watling of MedievalArt.org.uk
- Tour et crypte de la Cathedrale de Bourges - Centres des Monuments Nationaux
- Photos of Bourges Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Bourges Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Bourges Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.