The Mysterious Master Builder of Bourges

Old Bourges

Bourges ‘centre ville’ has retained many of its half-timbered medieval houses, despite the many fires that have ripped through it in the past. It’s no surprise – all those closely constructed wooden buildings and narrow passageways. They look top-heavy and unstable, and it is not a trick of the eye. People chose to build the top floors larger, and wider, than the ground floor to escape the window taxes levied on them. If you look you can see the strong, thick cross beams going across the lintels of the first floor which shoulder the top floors. What clever tax evasion.

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For me, though, Bourges is quite simply all about stained glass windows. I am to visit cathedrals more famous for their stained glass than Bourges but it is upon entering St Etienne’s that I am literally awe-struck. I discover that it is true, one’s jaw literally does drop in these circumstances, because I am agape. Not only are they exquisitely designed, and their gemstone colours so attractive, but there are layers of them, looming high above you into the cathedral space.

Glass tiers 1

This cathedral was not built on an ostentatious hill, you come across St Etienne’s almost by surprise as you walk through the medieval streets. You glimpse it down an alleyway, then another, before you can find it in its small square.

Cathedral glimpse

Then you behold its magnificent front portal and gaze in amazement at the stone carvings there. Like every tourist you try to get a camera angle to capture the front aspect of this church, but the square is too confining.

Front facade

The tympanum over the central portal, with the Archangel Michael holding scales to judge the saved and the damned.

The tympanum over the central portal, with the Archangel Michael holding scales to judge the saved and the damned.

When you pass through these glorious gates into the church it is dark at first, and then you look up.

A nave the height of 37 meters means nothing to me from the guidebook until I stand there, beneath the tiers of galleries with their bejewelled windows.

Glass tiers 2

There are five levels to this nave, two of stone and three of stained glass. The effect is breath-taking. A camera, not even a professional photographer’s I see from postcards, can capture the impact on a sunny day such as this. It has to be viewed in person, which is perhaps how it should be. It should be an experience one lives rather than observes.

The designer wanted to achieve a much-desired ‘lux lumina’ effect – the play of light on stone – and when I catch the rainbows and pastel hues on columns and paving I know that he succeeded spectacularly.

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If I am awe-struck on entering, I who am well-travelled and who live in a pleasant modern house, just imagine the effect that walking into this cathedral would have had upon the ordinary people of the Middle Ages. People who lived in simple buildings, with limited light, colour or height, maybe even smoky from their cooking.   They must have thought they had had a glimpse of paradise.

The central nave

The central nave

This is a landmark site, an important stepping stone for St Jacques pilgrims leaving Vézelay, but it has another, intriguing story. The story of its master builder.

St Etienne’s design was highly original when it was imagined  in the mind of its twelfth century creator.  For one thing it has no transept, the part of a church that crosses the nave at right angles to give it the traditional cross shape. This was unheard of at the time. The effect is a clean, long and wide space, an incredible 41 metres, that one can circumnavigate smoothly.

Other effects are said to be ‘revolutionary’. There are five naves in fact, the large central one and two narrow ones to either side of it, and each has its own portal so that the façade has five entrance gates. The number of these portals, the double walkway around the choir, and the practical but beautiful solutions to bearing the height of the stone construction were all unique.

When one looks at the size of the cathedral, particularly the nave’s height, you cannot but wonder at the challenge it posed its architect. And whilst the guidebooks tell us, quite rightly, that St Etienne’s is a masterpiece of gothic art, I am struck more by its being a masterpiece of medieval civil engineering.

How the architect managed to design this building so that it stayed up, not only then but for centuries, confounds me. I look at the wide yet beautifully sculpted columns that are part of the solution, the weight-bearing arches, the vaulted ceilings and ribs, the tiered galleries, the external double flying buttresses, another original feature, and I am astonished at his skill. He went to no architectural college, had no computer to calculate stress-bearing loads, no geometrical or mathematical formulae I imagine, and probably learned his craft from others and in the practicing of it. I wonder what tools he would have had in fact to calculate his plans.   It is a magnificent achievement.

And here’s the thing. Unlike other cathedrals or secular buildings of note, no one knows who designed and started work on this masterpiece.  He is unknown.   His name has been lost over the centuries and he is simply referred to as ‘The Master Builder’.

Imagine designing such an edifice, an unparalleled achievement at the time in design, originality and beauty and not have lasting recognition. So many lesser buildings have a record of their architects, statues in their honour even, but our Master Builder remains anonymous. And he could have left his mark, in the stone, on a plaque, on a statue.

At first I feel sad for him about this. Then upon reflection I understand that there is greatness in it. To construct a thing of such magnificence to the glory of your God and receive no personal glory is perhaps the most Christian act one can perform, is it not?

So maybe there is perfect symmetry in the Master Builder’s story as well as in his creation.

–  *  –

Stained glass 2

The oldest astronomical clock of its kind in France, built in the fifteen century and with a margin of error of only one second every 150 years.

Stained glass 3

The beautifully carved stone Holy Sepulchre in the crypt.

The beautifully carved stone Holy Sepulchre in the crypt.

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