St. Etienne Cathedral, Meaux

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Western facade of Meaux Cathedral, France
Western facade of Meaux Cathedral / Haltar, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Meaux Cathedral is an interesting example of the eternal battle between the aspirations for pure beauty and the sad and often tragic reality, preventing the realisation of many ambitions and dreams.

This Gothic church remains unfinished up to this day – but its ornamentation and harmonious build is worth admiration.

History

First church

Sometimes in 1175 – 1180 here was started the construction of the first cathedral. We know little about this building – but most likely its architecture represented a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Until 1200 there was built ambulatory, three chapels, double aisles of the choir. Ribbed vaults were built sometimes around 1220, in 1235 was built a transept.

In the Middle Ages the construction often was faulty too. The foundation of the cathedral was badly made (some sources say that there were nearly no fundaments) and whole structure was badly made. Soon the church had large cracks, it was close to the collapse.

Gautier de Vainfroy starts a new cathedral

Expert architect – church builder Gautier de Vainfroy was invited to settle the problem and he did it with excellence. His contract was for 10 livres per year and there were some more benefits.

He assessed the situation and decided – a new church should be built. Now it was built in pure Gothic style. He built the choir in 1253 – 1278 – and it stands up to this day.

Western facade of Meaux Cathedral. Sculptural groups show Annunciation, Nativity, Dormition of Virgin and Coronation of Virgin
Western facade of Meaux Cathedral. Sculptural groups show Annunciation, Nativity, Dormition of Virgin and Coronation of Virgin / Vassil, Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

Eternal construction

Citizens of Meaux certainly were used to the eternal construction works in the centre of town. Construction works of Meaux Cathedral lasted for centuries. Sometimes when the times were peaceful and there was financing, works advanced fast, but always something bad happened and works stopped soon.

Next architect after de Vainfroy was Pierre de Varinfroy. He built some of the present facades, sometimes reusing the earlier sculptures from the 13th century.

While the construction of the cathedral was unlucky regarding many other things, the choice of chief architects has been a success. Many observers have noted that, in spite of long centuries and many experts involved, the cathedral represents a single, harmonious whole.

Chapels and some more additions were built over the 14th century but around 1358 the political situation in this region became unsuitable for construction. Peasant’s uprising and then the Hundred Years War followed. Meaux suffered heavily in the war and was long occupied by English troops (1422 – 1439). Some works of smaller scale took place in 1390 – 1410. Step by step at the end of the 15th century the works though resumed – now the construction was done in the trendy Flamboyant Gothic style. Left portal was completed before 1506. Finally (in 1505 – 1540) there was built the right tower of the church.

In 1562 the cathedral was looted and damaged by Huguenots.

New times

In 1793 – 1794 there were destroyed the archives of the diocese, thus deleting much knowledge about this interesting building.

At the first half of the 19th century cathedral was is very poor condition. There were lengthy restoration works in 1839 – 1913, with many parts rebuilt anew. Unfortunately many details were "adjusted" as the restorers from the 19th century found it necessary, thus loosing medieval details.

Cathedral is a protected monument since 1840.

Description

Meaux Cathedral, interior
Meaux Cathedral, interior / Vassil, Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

The structure remains unfinished, with assymetrical facade. It represents all flavours of Gothic architecture.
Interesting feature is the unusual color of the building stone (Varreddes stone) of the cathedral. Unfortunately the quality of this build stone is not that high and the erosion of Varreddes stone is one important reason why in the 19th century the building was in dire condition.

The dimensions

Meaux cathedral is not the largest Gothic cathedral in France. The nave of vaults is 31 (some sources mention 33 m) high. Northern tower (built in 1540) is 60 m high. Southern tower (so called black tower) was built as a temporary wooden structure in 1460… but, oh… it has been so lasting. Length of the interior – 85 m. Unusual feature is the impressive height of the vaults of aisles – roughly 15 m.

Exterior

Nave of cathedral is comparatively short, with five bays.

Maugarni portal, Meaux Cathedral
Maugarni portal, Meaux Cathedral / Vassil, Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

The great west facade has three monumental portals which were made in the second half of the 14th century – early 16th century.

The sculptures which adorn the central portal, are dedicated to the Last Judgement. Nearby are very interesting sculptural groups, f.e. showing how the dead are resurrected and are heading towards the hell or heaven. Hell (which always is more interesting to look at… from a safe distance) is represented by a pot with sinners in it.

Tympanum of the left portal is dedicated to the life of St. John the Baptist, right portal – to the life of Virgin Mary.
The large rose window represents Flamboyant Gothic style and was created in the second half of the 15th century.

In the southern side of church, at the end of the transept, is St. Etienne portal (Merciers portal), which depicts his life. This sculptural group is rather difficult to read. St. Etienne (St. Stephen) was the first Christian martyr.
There is an interesting detail of the exterior of the church – a carved archer at 15 m height. He is aiming towards the house of canons, where the builders of the cathedral received their pay. Most likely some of stone carvers were not too happy with their pay…

Interior

Meaux Cathedral, choir
Meaux Cathedral, choir / Vassil, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Interior is luminous, very bright. Ornamentation here is smooth and very rich.

Especially beautiful is the back of the transept facades which looks as stone lace. Such a beautiful and extremely detailed stone carving is rare in Europe.

Church has several valuable monuments of art and history, such as the tomb of Jacques-Benign Bossuet – the most important personality in the history of Meaux, a bishop in 1682 – 1704. Several more statues of people important to the of the town.

Organ was built in 1627 by Valéran de Héman – one of the best organ builders in France in these times. Now it has been restored and there are given beautiful concerts.


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St. Etienne Cathedral, Meaux 48.960194, 2.878976 St. Etienne Cathedral, Meaux

Coordinates: 48.9602 N 2.8783 E
Categories: Churches
Values: Architecture, Visual
Rank: 5
Address: Europe, France, Île-de-France, Seine-et-Marne, centre of Meaux town
Name in French: Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Meaux
Architectural style: Gothic
Year of construction: ~ 1175 – 1540
Branch of Christianity: Roman Catholic

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Chimera of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
Chimera of Notre Dame Cathedral / Brian Jeffery Beggerly, Flickr CC BY 2.0

For many centuries in the region of Île-de-France has been located one of the power centres of the world politics and culture – French monarchy. Thus it comes as no wonder that here are concentrated many of the most impressive buildings in the world, such as palaces (including Versailles) and numerous other buildings, especially in Paris.

Churches

St.Peter's Basilica, Vatican
St.Peter’s Basilica / P.Landy, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Throughout the history Christian churches have been the epitome of architecture and arts achievements in Western culture.

Recommended books

Great Gothic Cathedrals of France: A Visitor’s Guide


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How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture


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