April 30: Gloriously Overreaching

2016/04/30 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1573 the tower of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais collapsed.

This was not the first cataclysmic failure at the site of the ambitious church that had been under construction since 1225.  Starting already in what we now see as the culminating decades of Gothic architecture (Chartres was begun in 1193, Reims in 1210, both mostly concluded by the end of the thirteenth century), Beauvais aimed for the greatest height and elegance of any church in France.  That, of course, is the entire history of French Gothic in a nutshell: constant one-upmanship.  Except, of course, that it ends here.  In 1284, the efforts of the Beauvais builders to go really high, light and slender led to the collapse of a portion of the vaults over the choir, which also pulled down a number of flying buttresses.  Work resumed more slowly, and with a more prudent structural design and (no doubt) greater prayers for assistance to Saint-Pierre.  Work proceeded slowly until, on 289 years later, its soaring tower fell to the ground.  Surely not only the Muse finds it ironic that all 502 feet of masonry (of course, that’s 463.38 baguettes, in French measure) came crumbling down on Ascension Day.

After that, the builders thought maybe it was time to throw in the beret.  A few piddling projects have been pursued but nothing comes close to the original plans to complete the lengthy nave flanked by double side aisles.  The stunning chevet and transept stand, leading one to wonder: should we forgive the overreaching flight of fancy in the face of the tremendous achievement that was accomplished?  It’s a brilliant start, but: imagine only having those first few measures of Beethoven’s Fifth?  The first four acts of Hamlet?  David Bowie’s Scary Monsters missing Ashes to Ashes?  Only the first sixteen lines of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”?  Carravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul” as an unpainted cartoon?

The spectacular, truncated hunk of stone in Beauvais: not an incomplete church as much as a mournfully unfulfilled promise.

For more–actually much, much more–on the first collapse, see this site (as long as phrases like “dendrochronological analysis” and “wind buffeting and oscillation” do not scare or bore you).

Image: what’s left (from this source)

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