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French Art


French art originated in the Île-de-France region in the 12th century as a renewal of architecture and theology. Its purpose was to invite in light, symbolizing divine light. As it passed through the narrative stained glass windows, the sunlight was imbued with the word of God. It wasn’t until the 16th century (Giorgio Vasari in 1530) that it was termed ‘Gothic’ (barbaric), only to be later revived and celebrated by Romantics in the 19th century.

The origins of French art

French art first emerged at the Abbey of Saint-Denis in 1135 (left photo). Abbot Suger (1081-1151) is undoubtedly one of the main proponents of this new art, along with the architects of Sens Cathedral (St Etienne, on the right).

Saint Denis & cathédrale de sens
Abbey of Saint-Denis and Sens cathedral

He had the portal of the basilica of Saint-Denis inscribed with:

« Bright is the noble work, and if it shines with nobility, it will illuminate minds and lead them to the grace of true enlightenment, towards the True Light, of which Christ is the true gateway. »

Abbot Suger

The first ‘Gothic’ cathedral is that of Sens, also begun around 1135. At the time, this cathedral holds great significance, as the Bishop of Paris is under the authority of the Archbishop of Sens. The first ‘Gothic’ cathedral in Picardy is the one in Noyon (1140). The ones in Amiens and Beauvais, with their vaults reaching even higher toward the sky, date from the 13th century.

Saint-Pierre Cathedral and its 13th-century choir

It is the pinnacle of French Gothic art. In the 19th century, Viollet-le-Duc referred to the cathedral as the ‘Parthenon of French art.’ The vaults of its choir rise to over 48 meters, and the ridge of the choir roof reaches a height of 63 meters. The cathedral is visible from afar! The largest masonry structures are the buttresses, perpendicular to the walls of the building, which are themselves extensively pierced by large stained-glass windows. The 16th-century transept respected the older part while adding the delicacy of flamboyant Gothic decoration.

vue de la cathédrale St Pierre de Beauvais
View of Beauvais Cathedral

Inside the cathedral choir

The widely diffused light from the large windows of the choir draws the eye upwards. Below, at each level, large openings allow in a calming light, colored by the stained glass.

vue du choeur de la cathédrale de beauvais
View of the choir of Beauvais Cathedral

The light, colored by the stained glass, dances with the stone. Here in the vaults of the apse, at sunset.

lumière dans l'abside
Light in the apse

A 13th-century stained glass window

The stained glass windows in the lower sections were veritable comic strips depicting the lives of Jesus and the saints.

vitrail du XIIe siècle
This one, located in the Chapel of the Virgin, depicts the Nativity (on the left) and the Visitation (on the right).

It is part of the stained glass window depicting the childhood of Christ, which, along with the Jesse Tree, occupies the center of the axial chapel dedicated to Mary.

Rosace sud cathédrale
Detail of the rose on the south portal of the cathedral transept

The true painted masterpieces of the Creation rose window in the south of the cathedral, dating from the 16th century, play here with the stone in a shimmer of colors.

The vaulted choir of the cathedral

One of the characteristics of the so-called French ‘Gothic’ art is the systematic use of rib vaults with cross-ribbed groins. This type of vaulting helps reduce the pressure on the buttresses or flying buttresses. It also lightens the weight of the vault. In the choir of Beauvais Cathedral, on the side of the apse, the vault is original (13th century). This section did not collapse in 1284.

Vue de choeur de la cathédrale
The cathedral choir and its reflex in a chalice.

The center of the vault dates back to the 14th century, at the end of the reconstruction. Due to the addition of additional pillars, cutting through the old bays, the vault is hexapartite (divided into 6 parts). The vault of the first two bays had to be rebuilt at the end of the 16th century, following the collapse of the lantern tower at the transept crossing. During the reconstruction, as in the 16th-century transept, the hexapartite form was maintained.

A column capital and its plant decoration

Gothic capitals always feature a vegetal decoration. They symbolize the canopy (the treetop) that separates the earth from the sky.

Détail chapiteau
Capital adorned with a vegetal decoration symbolizing the canopy that separates the earth from the sky

The oldest capitals have a simple design of acanthus leaves, simplified into palmettes, as seen in the background of this capital. The top of the leaf curls into a more or less complex volute. In the 13th century, additional foliage, more carefully observed, is added, such as oak, hawthorn, and maple leaves, as seen here.

Flying buttresses allow ample passage of light.

Flying buttresses, designed to support the thrust of the vault, enable the construction of tall buildings. They are slender enough to allow the sunlight to pass through to the large windows adorned with stained glass.

foret d'arcs boutant
Forest of Flying Buttresses

It is also important to manage rainwater drainage, and for this purpose, gargoyles serve to divert rainwater away from the cathedral walls. They often represent fantastic animals or, less frequently, characters like the monk with his hood seen here on the left.

Due to their form and function, they are among the most delicate sculptures. Many have been replaced since the Middle Ages.

Gargoyles help divert water from the cathedral walls. Are these authentic?

In Beauvais, unlike Amiens, the flying buttress is double, which helps to lighten the load. The lower arch supports the thrust of the vault, while the upper arch is used for rainwater drainage. To accomplish this, it must reach the base of the roof.

vue des doubles arcs-boutants
Double Flying Buttress System

The choir of the Church of Saint-Étienne (16th century)

Choeur de St Étienne
View of the choir of St. Étienne and the stained glass representing the Jesse Tree.

Built in the 16th century, it is in the flamboyant ‘Gothic’ style.

The interior of the choir of the Church of Saint-Étienne (16th century)

vue du choeur de St Étienne
View of the choir of St. Étienne

It is illuminated by large white stained glass windows, which contrast with the darker Romanesque nave. The chapels feature sumptuous stained glass created by the highly renowned Beauvais workshops of the 16th century.

Flamboyant style keystones

Clé de voûte de la chapelle saint Eustache de l'église Saint-Étienne de Beauvais.
Keystone of the Chapel of Saint Eustache in the Church of Saint-Étienne in Beauvais.

The mastery of 16th-century sculptors allows for endless creativity!

The peak of the art of stained glass

Engrand Le Prince and his successors in Beauvais offer true paintings on glass.

Ici, c'est un extrait de l'arbre de Jessé de l'église Saint-Étienne. Un des vitraux les plus réputés de cette époque.
Here is an excerpt from the Jesse Tree of the Church of Saint-Étienne.
One of the most renowned stained glass works of that era.