In the early 13th century, Bourges was located at the southern edge of the royal domain, on the border of Aquitaine, then in the possession of the British. The city was therefore important for the prestige of the King of France and of the archbishop, and so a large-scale architectural project was initiated.
Saint Etienne Cathedral
Place Etienne Dolet, 18000 Bourges
Tel: 02 48 23 02 60.
Cathedral : April through September : 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. ; October through March : 9 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.
Crypt (only accessible by guided tour) : 5 visits a day between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Guided tours of the Saint Etienne Cathedral
Visit "Cathedral and medieval city" (duration: 2 hours, available in English in July and August)
Full price / reduced price: €8 / €6. Information available at the Tourist Office.
Visit of the cathedral (duration: 1hour30 min)
Full price/ reduced price: €7/ €5.
The architectural gamble, a cathedral without a transept, was daring at the time, but is what contributes to the effect of unity of its space and makes the cathedral unique, simple and harmonious. Saint Etienne, with its exceptional size, is considered as the pinnacle of Gothic architecture : 118 meters long, 41 meters wide and 37 meters high in the vault of the central nave. Using Notre-Dame of Paris as a reference, the builders innovated and elaborated in an effort to express the power of the Capetians toward the south of France and that of the Archbishop of Bourges, who had the title of Primate of Aquitaine and whose authority, although challenged, extended to Bordeaux. The absence of transept, the five naves that correspond to the five exterior portals and double ambulatory all characterize the innovative development of the "Master of Bourges."
Unlike other cathedrals of the same period, the cathedral of Bourges is not based on the earlier building but was totally rebuilt due to the decay of the old Romanesque cathedral. The construction started with the chevet, built in the classic Gothic style emerging at that time. It was built on the site of the former moat of the Gallo-Roman wall on foundations from the former church, which were connected to the cruciform Romanesque crypt, the only vestige of the old church.
The layout of the cathedral, basilical in form, contains chapels surrounding the nave, two side aisles and a double ambulatory. The pyramidal composition of the elevation and the boldness of the flying buttresses correspond to the grand effort for new perspectives and opened volumes in the interior. This is what gives the choir a certain lightness. The unknown architect of the cathedral sought to give the cathedral better luminosity compared to that of the cathedral of Paris through its impressive heights.
The facade of the cathedral, at 41 meters wide, has five portals, which is unique for a Gothic cathedral in France. They correspond to the five naves (central nave and double aisles). The central portal is a masterpiece of Gothic art from the 13th century. Made in 1240, it recounts the Last Judgment through a beautiful carved fresco. The facade is decorated with many bas-reliefs relating the life of Christ and the Genesis. It is dominated by two towers, the "deaf tower" (to the south, still unfinished) and "butter tower" (on the north side). In the center, the canopy called "the great housteau" was added in the 14th century thanks to a donation by Duke Jean de Berry.
The portals of the facade
The central portal : Judgement Day
The tympanum is dominated by the majestic and welcoming Christ, here shown shirtless, which is very rare. Above him the sun and the moon are held up by two angels. Four angels carry the instruments of the Passion. The Virgin and Saint John are shown begging.
Below, the Archangel Michael weighs the souls of the elected (on his right) and the damned (on his left). The subtle expressiveness of his smile is reminiscent of the smiling angel of the Cathedral Reims. Among the elected Saint Peter with his keys is beside Abraham (far left), gazing at the sky. Hell is represented on the other side with devils and creatures. Note the disorder and chaos, unlike the tidiness of Heaven. The resurrection of men and women out of their graves is illustrated on the lower register.
The six arches framing the tympanum are made up of (closest to furthest) : 12 angels and 14 saints, 16 confessors, 18 martyrs , 20 kings or prophets.
At the top of the portal, around the small 8-panel rosetta, a second judgment is shown: Christ judges Mary and Saint John.
With those of the north and south portals, these sculptures are undoubtedly some of the finest examples of art from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Other portals, from left to right
The portal of Saint Guillaume (16th century)
Dedicated to Saint William, Archbishop of Bourges during the construction of the cathedral, it was destroyed at the same time as the north tower in 1506 and rebuilt around 1515. He can be seen sitting on the right side, receiving five figures that seem important and rich. Perhaps these are the valuable donors who made the realization of the cathedral possible. They are themselves followed by four figures, either coming to ask for help or to participate in the building of the cathedral. Illustrated above are the miracles performed by Saint William (healing). At the top, a demon fighting with a man flees when the Archbishop intervenes, and transforms into a wolf. Angels, musicians and bishops are represented in the arches. Saint William is once again represented on the trumeau.
The portal of the Virgin (16th century)
Also damaged during the fall of the tower, this portal is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Scenes from her life are illustrated : the Dormition and Assumption. At the top of the tympanum Christ, surrounded by angels, is shown crowning his own mother.
The portal of Saint Etienne
The images on this portal are read from left to right. This portal is dedicated to the first Christian martyr, to whom the Cathedral is also dedicated. It shows the consecration of Stephen (Etienne) and six other deacons, Gospels in hand. Above, Stephen prays on his knees as he is stoned. The arches are made up of angels and prophets.
The portal of Saint Ursin
This portal is dedicated to the first bishop of Bourges. The images are read from left to right and top to bottom. Just and Ursin are sent on a mission by a pope. Just dies, and is buried by Ursin. Above, the cathedral is dedicated. At the top, the baptism of Léocade and his son Ludre is shown. The arches that frame the tympanum are composed of angels, confessors, deacons and prophets.
The north and south porches
The two side portals on the north and south facades are portals from the previous Romanesque cathedral. They date from 1160. In the absence of transept, the architects may have desired more sober portals than those of than the front gates.
Portal of the south facade
Christ is represented holding the Book of the Word. He is surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. The 12 apostles are represented on the lintel. The first arch is decorated with angels. On the outer arch to the left, the Virgin is pictured below four evangelists and to the right, Saint Joseph is pictured below by four prophets. The carved figures on the splays represent characters from the Old Testament. The statue of Saint Etienne represented as witness of the Word (symbolized by the book), dates from the late 13th century. It is also present on the trumeau.
Portal of the north facade
Virgin and Child dominate the gate. The arrival of the Magi, as well as scenes of the Annunciation and the Visitation, are pictured. This portal was severely damaged during the Protestant takeover in 1562.
The towers of Saint Etienne Cathedral
The north tower
Place Etienne Dolet, 18000 Bourges
Website - tel : 02 48 65 49 44.
North Tower + crypt : full price / reduced price: €8 / €6.50. For free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free for non-EU citizens under 18.)
Combined ticket : tower + crypt of the cathedral of Bourges + palais Jacques Coeur : Full price / reduced price : €12 / €9. For free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free for non-EU citizens under 18.)
Open every day except Sunday mornings :
October through March : 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. / 2 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.
April and September : 10 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. / 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
May through August : 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. / 2 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
The South Tower, called the "Deaf Tower" because bells were never installed due to its fragility, is supported by a pillar that serves as a buttress. It can not be visited.
The North Tower, called "Butter Tower" was rebuilt in harmony with the Gothic facade after its collapse in 1506. It was completed in 1542. It was nicknamed the "butter tower" because of the nature of its funding : exemptions from fasting were then granted against a tax on the consumption of butter. The terrace of the tower, which rises to 66 meters, is accessible via its 396 steps. It offers an exceptional view of the cathedral, the city and the Berry plains.
Upon entering the building, one is struck by the volumes that provide soft light and deep perspective of the nave and its aisles, which in this building is without rupture in the absence of transept. This unique architecture gives an impression of supreme unity, which was not found in any other gothic cathedral at this time.
The stained glass windows
The windows of the cathedral of Bourges are exceptional, even if they are not equivalent to those of Chartres. A number of them date back to the 13th century and spread over three levels surrounding the choir. Their hues let through a soft colored light, in accordance with the wishes of architects and artists of the time to bathe the interior of the cathedral with a divine and holy light. The interplay between the internal volumes and the light was a commanding element in the ensemble’s design.
The windows are read from left to right and top to bottom. The illustrated themes are varied : Christ of the Last Judgment, the Passion and the Apocalypse, the Virgin and Saint Etienne, the guilds, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the life of saints and martyrs, archbishops of Bourges, prophets and apostles. These "books of light" illustrate the teachings of the Church.
From the 15th to the 17th century, the windows of the side chapels were ordered by and completed for notable families of the city. The most remarkable of them is without a doubt the Annunciation window located in the Jacques Coeur Chapel (Saint Ursin Chapel).
The cathedral houses stained glass from the 13th to the 17th century, allowing visitors to see the evolution of this art.
A part of the stained glass in the chapels are dedicated to Saint-Jacques and to pilgrimages :
The Saint Ursin Chapel or the Jacques Coeur Chapel, named after its donor (on the north side), completed in the 15th century, is decorated with a stained glass featuring the Annunciation. This is one of the masterpieces of stained glass from the 15th century. Saint Jacques is recognizable by his pilgrim's staff.
In the Sainte Anne Chapel, or Chapel Tullier (the first chapel on the right from the south gate), Saint Jacques with his pilgrim's staff is shown in one of the lancets with Saint Peter and Saint John.
Pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela
Association des Amis de Saint Jacques de Compostelle en Berry (Friends of Saint Jacques Association)
4 Rue Louis Billant, 18000 Bourges
Tél : 02 48 65 82 32 after 8 p.m..
The rood screen
The rood screen, or jube, marks the boundary between the nave, accessible to the faithful, and the choir, reserved for divine worship. It marks the passage from the profane world to the sacred world. Built around 1250, its sculptures illustrate the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. During the Religious Wars, the sculptures were heavily damaged. It was finally removed in 1758 by the canons. Between the late 19th and early 20th century, many elements of the upper parts of the rood screen were discovered during restorations. Some of these sculptures are now visible in the crypt.
The grand organ
The buffet, in carved oak, dates from 1663 but the current instrument was built in 1985. It is equipped with 50 sounding registers and over 3400 pipes. On Tuesdays in the summertime, the music festival "Les Très riches Heures de l’Orgue en Berry" organizes prestigious concerts.
The Astronomical Clock
The astronomical clock was made in 1424 by the canon and mathematician Jean Fusoris. It has two dials of a remarkable precision. With a rare complexity, the top dial shows the hours and minutes while the bottom dial indicates lunar cycles, the height of the sun and the signs of the zodiac.. Formerly located above the rood screen, it is now visible in the first bays of the nave, on the south side. With such complex and extraordinary mechanisms, it has a margin of error of only one second every 150 years.
Crypt of the cathedral
Place Etienne Dolet, 18000 Bourges
Website - tel : 02 48 65 49 44.
Crypt + north tower : full price / reduced price : €8 / €6.50. For free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free for non-EU citizens under 18.)
Combined ticket : tower + crypt of the cathedral of Bourges + palais Jacques Coeur : full price / reduced price: €12 / €9. For free for EU citizens under 26 years old (free for non-EU citizens under 18.)
Open every day except Sunday morning :
Only accessible by guided tour: 5 visits a day between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Guided tour of the crypt : 45 min.
The crypt, or lower church, was built at the beginning of the construction of the cathedral around 1195, building on the former Gallo-Roman ramparts and moat. It was built to accommodate the dimensions of the new cathedral, much longer than the former Romanesque church. This base is located in the choir of the cathedral, accessed through the north gallery. In the main room, the rotunda is surrounded by a walkway on the interior, and another exterior walkway lit by several stained-glass windows from the 15th century. It has contained the tombs of the Archbishops of Bourges for two centuries. On the ground you will notice an engraved drawing of the rosetta that adorns the facade of the cathedral. This is not a reproduction, but the blueprint of the rosetta, as the crypt was used as a workshop for the stonemasons.
The tomb of Duke Jean de Berry
The crypt also contains the tomb of the Duke Jean de Berry (1340 - 1416), brother of King Charles V and great patron of the cathedral. The Duke’s figure was located in the Sainte-Chapelle until 1757, before its destruction. The tomb is made of white marble inlaid with black marble. It shows the Duke robed and crowned, his feet on a chained bear. His tomb was also surrounded by 40 mourners that were subsequently dispersed during the Revolution, though some are still visible today at the Berry Museum. A copy of the tomb is also visible at the Jacques Coeur Palace.