Bourges Cathedral, a unique example of gothic architecture (2024)

If there is one cathedral, I have been meaning to see for years, it is the Bourges Cathedral! I have been passing by Bourges so many times, I can not count. I used to live close, too. Yet, I had never seen its cathedral.

On my last French road trip, I finally made it there! Follow the link and you’ll see a map of such road trip, including Bourges, of course.

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Note: this post includes an Amazon affiliated link down below. If you decide to purchase the lecture about cathedrals, I may get a small commission, at no extra cost to you.

Bourges is probably not on your radar as a destination. Yet, if you’re looking for a charming old city, with cobbled streets, Medieval houses and a unique Gothic cathedral, then maybe it should be, as Bourges has it all!

Let’s say that if you are planning a road trip in France, going from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea, Bourges can easily be one of your little breaks, on your way.

A short history of the Bourges Cathedral

I’ve already taken you to soo many incredible cathedrals, that it’s getting hard to not repeat myself on how incredible one is. The Bourges Cathedral is no exception to how impressive cathedrals are and maybe especially Gothic ones.

Like many others, the Bourges Cathedral is built on the remains of other constructions. The remains of the mid-11th century preceding cathedral are now the crypt of the present cathedral. Works on the new cathedral probably started around 1195. The nave was finished by 1255 and the west facade by 1270. The North tower took longer and collapsed in 1506, destroying part of the facade in its fall.

A very usual history, really! With maybe fewer damages than other cathedrals during the French revolution and the WWs.

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Bourges Cathedral architecture highlights

First, it may be important to note, as an introduction, that the Bourges Cathedral is considered amongst the 5 most representative example of High Gothic architecture.

The other jewels of High Gothic style are:

  • The Chartres Cathedral
  • The Reims cathedral
  • The Amiens Cathedral
  • The unfinished Beauvais Cathedral

Yeah, you can follow the links as I’ve visited quite a few gothic cathedrals in the past!

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What is High Gothic?

I’m sure you know the basic characteristics of Gothic architecture: pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses and all.

Pssss….If you’re not familiar, you should check out my architecture mini guides.

So what is High Gothic? It’s kind of the paramount of gothic as architecture design before gothic style turns into flamboyant, and emphasis turns to decoration rather than architecture features.

High Gothic is about reaching for the sky! Gothic started in the 12th century and by the 13th century, cathedrals were getting bigger, higher and let in more light than ever.

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What makes the Bourges Cathedral architecture special?

The Bourges Cathedral has many features that makes it unique.

The first thing you’ll notice, when you arrive, is its impressive West facade which has not 3 but 5 portals. As you know that is pretty unusual (Milan Cathedral is another great example). It creates a very wide facade which unfortunately, is hard to photograph because the square, in front of the cathedral, is not very big.

The 5 portals lead to the central nave and 2 aisles on each side of it. The 2 aisles continue all the way and wrap the choir into a double ambulatory. The Chartres Cathedral also has a double ambulatory, but it starts at the transept. Notre Dame de Paris has 2 aisles and a double ambulatory but not 5 portals.

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Bourges Cathedral, a unique example of gothic architecture (9)
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So indeed, the Bourges Cathedral isn’t the only cathedral to have 2 aisles on each side of the nave. However these 2 majestic aisles create an ensemble which is probably the lightest & most elegant you will get to see. Why? Because of the way the nave and the inner aisles are designed. Specifically and as it is usual in High Gothic, galleries are omitted and the triforium acts as intermediary. The tall clerestory extends below the springing of the vaults. The sexpartite rib vaults pushes the nave up.

But in Bourges, the same principles applies to the inner aisles, not just the nave. And thereafter, the very tall nave arcades allow the light form the inner aisles clerestory to fill in the cathedral with light. It is just very impressive!

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Bourges Cathedral, a unique example of gothic architecture (12)
Bourges Cathedral, a unique example of gothic architecture (13)

It is simply grandiose when you walk in.

Other specificities of the Bourges Cathedral

There are many other interesting things about the Bourges Cathedral, I’ll point out just to a few of them and let you in my favorite!

The crypt and its 12 stained glasses

As mentionner above the crypt of the Bourges curent cathedral is basically the old cathedral. I didn’t get to visit as there were no tours I could join. But it’s worth noting that the crypt has stained glasses. Yes natural light coming into the crypt! Not that common!

The weathervane is a pelican not a rooster!

If you’re brave enough to follow Louis XIV who walked up the 396 steps of the butter tower, you will get to see up close the weathervane of the cathedral.

It is the only pelican weathervane of France! The Pelican is a symbol of Eucharistie as it was believed that the pelican opened his side to give his own flesh and blood to its babies.

By the the way, the butter tower is named like this as a reference to the tax that financed its reconstruction: people paid such tax to be allowed to eat butter during lent.

Naughty sculptures on the portals?

It was not uncommon for masons to add naughty sculptures on portals. Their representation of good & bad, satan and else was always… interesting to say the least. Look up and look for details 😉

The oldest astronomic clock of France

I shouldn’t forget to mention that Bourges host the oldest astronomical clock of France. It dates from 1424 although it was completely overhauled in 1872 and restored several times.

This clock leads us to my favorite bit…

The one thing that mesmerized me in the cathedral: the gnomon!

The what? The gnomon! If you read the Da Vinci Code, you already know what that is. If not, let me explain.

There is in the Bourges Cathedral, a coper line, crossing the cathedral from North to South and located close to the narthex. Some believe that it is the Paris Meridian. Even today. But it isn’t! It is a gnomon, a sort of sundial which gives time.

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The gnomon in the Bourges Cathedral dates from 1757 and the true magic happens once a year.

On the 21 June, at 13:50 (13:48 or 13:52 depending on the source!) the sun light crosses the line and comes into the circle on the ground. When it fills up the circle, it is exactly 12 o’clock for the sun.

This gnomon has been used to adjust the astronomical clock, since the 18th century.

If the weather isn’t optimal, there is second devise that comes to the rescue: a simple rope hanging a little further away. It’s a vertical gnomon.

If you visit the cathedral, you will see the sign to the gnomon and it does describe the line as a meridian. It’s because the word is used to describe the meridian line crossing the Earth from North to South as well as the lines used to tell time.

*****

Look at me closing on this incredible cathedral without even mentioning its mesmerizing 13th century stained glasses or Saint Stephen! Well I guess you’ll have to visit it to see all its glory for yourself!

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The technical bits

An excellent article on the cathedral: https://frenchmoments.eu/bourges-cathedral/

Like many of religious edifice in France, you can visit freely. However the crypt can only be seen with a tour and access to the tower is not free.

The Bourges Cathedral became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.

Oh my! There is a whole course on Amazon about Cathedrals architecture and I didn’t even know about it! All styles are featured, from Romanesque style to Gothic. How they were built, who paid, how long it took… It looks amazing! Bourges Cathedral is included of course! You should check it out.

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A nice pin!

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