Cathedrals – 8. Bourges

Preamble : Bourges, its history

Before discovering the cathedral, another masterpiece of Gothic art, let’s take a brief look back at the history of the town where, in the first half of the 15th century, a few remarkable figures played an important role: this are King Charles VII, Joan of Arc and Jacques Coeur.

– Charles VII, the nice Dauphin derisively nicknamed “the little King of Bourges” will be crowned King of France, thanks to the intervention of Joan of Arc.

– On her arrival in Bourges Joan of Arc, said to be sent by heaven to liberate France from English occupation. She will be received by the Dauphin two days later, during an interview during which she persuades him to be crowned in Reims, considering that only the coronation will confer royal dignity on him. In 1429 she delivered Orleans; in July of the same year takes place the coronation of Charles VII. In 1430 she was taken prisoner and judged. His ordeal takes place a year later.[1]

– Jacques Cœur, a rich fur trader who became Grand Treasurer to King Charles VII, was ennobled, and had a mansion built on the walls of which we discovered with surprise that the phases of the moon appear – essential in the alchemical process – as well as in the chapel, suggesting that he practiced the hermetic art. Jealous for his wealth and his privileged ties with the king, he was arrested in 1451, thrown into prison from where he escaped and went to Rome to the pope whom he trusted. Two years later he left for an expedition to Constantinople to face the Turks who besieged the city, and died in Cyprus in November 1456[2]. He offered a chapel to the cathedral chapter.

It should be noted that since the end of the Middle Ages, and during the Renaissance, Bourges like Prague or Paris, has become one of the capitals of Alchemy: “Bourges is a city that ‘smells of sulphur’ with the rue de l’Alchimie, and this district at the foot of the Cathedral which includes the rue du Mauvais Secret, the Devil’s Tower or the rue du Puits Noir » [Roland Narboux, ancien maire adjoint de la ville de Bourges].

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

St Etienne, the first martyr of Christianity died stoned and the question arises whether the choice of this saint for the cathedral of Bourges has any connection with the philosopher’s stone of the alchemists for the manufacture of gold, taking into account the reputation of the city?

Built between 1195 and 1230, the cathedral was classified as a historical monument, then listed in 1992 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On this same site, four buildings had preceded the current cathedral which had great importance for the prestige of the King of France. The Bituriges (kings of the world in Celtic) did not settle in the center of Gaul by chance. “Celtic civilizations were obsessed with the idea of ​​a center. Sanctuaries, gathering places, these “umbilicus” ensured the relationship between the human world and the divine world. Bourges, the Gallic Avaricum [N.d.E. : Avaricum : Avaric, nom de la ville de Bourges, rebaptisée Avaricum par les romains] “of the Gauls the first city” was one of these privileged places”.[3]

“The builders have contained in the cathedrals the traditional esoteric data. At the same time, the Order of the Temple appeared in France”.[4] The Templars contributed greatly financially to the construction of cathedrals. Some communications announce “the current reincarnation of former Templars coming to prepare the new era with the one who is the patron saint of the knights. » [5]

We have seen in previous articles the importance of water under cathedrals so that the building is at the confluence of the four elements, Earth, Air, Water, Fire. In Bourges three important telluric currents cross and move one towards Saint Jacques de Compostelle, the other towards Strasbourg, the last towards Marseilles; it is in the lower church (the crypt) that tellurism reaches its maximum power, in the northern part.

1) Architecture

Due to its large area, the cathedral occupies the 5e rank after Cologne, Amiens, Chartres and Reims.

Its plan, which substantially reproduces that of ND de Paris, could be due to the family ties uniting the Archbishop of Bourges, Henri de Sully, and the Bishop of Paris, Odon de Sully. The plan is in the form of a basilica with 5 naves, without transepts, which is atypical among large cathedrals. “Saint-Étienne has 5 portals, 5 naves, 5 floors and 5 radiating chapels (at the end of the choir). The number 5 is the quintessence, the most refined,” explains Thérèse Legras.[6]

The five portals of the west facade are dedicated, from left to right, to:

– Guillaume de Bourges (archbishop), the Virgin Mary, at the Last Judgment (central portal), St Etienne (first martyr of Christianity), and St Ursin (he evangelized Berry in the 3rd century)

Image credit: JP Roche | Wikipedia, CC

has) The North Tower or butter tower

Completed in the 1480s, the North Tower collapsed in 1506 ; its reconstruction is financed by various receipts and donations, in particular those of rich faithful in order to obtain the authorization to eat butter during the periods of Lent.

b) The South Tower

Never having received bells, it was nicknamed the “deaf tower”. Lower than the North Tower, it was consolidated by a major buttressing pillar in the 13th century because it was threatened by cracks.

2) Carving

The cathedral is considered to be a museum of sculpture through the centuries. The examples below make it possible to appreciate both the finesse of the representations, and… the humor of the stonemasons.

St Guillaume portal: The saint grappling with the temptations of the devil

Cathedrals – 8 Bourges

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Noah’s ark

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Tympanum of the Last Judgment: The smile of the elect

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Unusual sculpture: In an angle, the buttocks of a stonemason

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Contrary to usual, here it is not a rooster that dominates the cathedral, but a pelican, a singularity unique in France. The belief in the Middle Ages was that the pelican pierced its side in order to feed its young with its flesh and blood, in reference to Christ giving his life to save humanity.

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Picture credits: Ji-She | Wikipedia CC

3) Interior

The cathedral is of harmonious proportions, the fact that it has no transepts is unique in France. It has five radiating chapels at the apse, benefits from a very high quality decoration, and its elevation allows an appreciable luminosity. The difference in level of the land allowed the construction of a low church, wrongly named the crypt because it is not buried. It has large windows letting in the sun for most of the day.

The central nave

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Picture credits: Unesco

The tradition wanted that when a cardinal of Bourges died he went to purgatory and his hat was hoisted under the vault of the cathedral. When it fell, it was said that its owner had finally been received in paradise.

The stained glass windows

The most important 13th century stained glass windows are in the choir and the radiating chapels. In Bourges, too, the stained glass windows have suffered absurd mutilations due to the canons, who had them replaced by grisailles to be better seen by the faithful.

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Canopies in grisaille of the upper parts of the choir, north side. Image credit:

“The XVIIe century seeks clarity: the windows are white and simply adorned with a colored border. In the XVIIIe century, colored stained glass was simply banned”.[7]

Stained glass window in the Jacques Coeur chapel: The Annunciation

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Picture credits: MOSSOTWikipedia Commons, CC

Astronomical clock

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Picture credits: City Bourges

Commissioned by King Charles VII, it is one of the oldest clocks in France. Its design is due to Canon Jean Fusoris in 1424. The upper dial indicates the hours and minutes, the lower one gives the signs of the zodiac, the position of the sun, and the lunar cycles. It is located near the main entrance on the south aisle.

The patch of light

As already seen in other cathedrals, this patch of light appears on June 21, at noon solar time, the longest day of the year, coming from a small hole in the stained glass located 19m above. This luminous sign was an opportunity for the canons to set the clocks and thus to faithfully observe the office hours.


4) The Lower Church

It dates from the years 1194-95 and houses the first Romanesque crypt where the relics of St Etienne are found. The recumbent statue of Duke Jean de Berry and the tombs of many archbishops are kept in this low church. The stained glass windows are partly from the 13th century.

This low church served for a time as a workshop for stonemasons.

Recumbent figure of the Duke of Berry

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Image credit: Penelily Wikimedia Commons

Duke Jean de Berry went down in history as the sponsor of a book of prayers, around 1410-1411, which remained famous because of its delicate illuminations: The very rich hours of the Duke of Berry.

The bear at the foot of the recumbent bears the inscription “Oursine your time will come” which testifies to the place that the bear occupied in the symbolic universe of the Duke. On the other hand, the history of the city of Bourges teaches us that the name of its patron saint “Ursin” derives from the word bear, and in the city center there is a Saint Ours door.

The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry

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Picture credits: Limbourg Brothers (Herman, Paul and Jean) Wikipedia, Public domain

The Entombment

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Image credit: Ji-Elle, Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally seven characters are present during the setting [au tombeau du Christ : Marie, sa mère, l’apôtre Jean, les trois saintes femmes [Marie Madeleine, Marie Salomé et Marie Cléophas] Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.


[1] Wikipedia:

[2] Father Audoin: Bourges first city

[3] Father Audoin: Bourges first city

[4] P. Le Cour: The Age of Aquarius

[5] P. Le Cour: Ibid. Concerning the Templars, see “Le Templier m’a dit” by Patricia Darré (Ed Lafon). In Paris, on the Ile de la Cité, is the stake of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple.

[6] The Republican Berry:


The Cathedrals Series

1. The secrets of the cathedrals

2. Primitive religions

3. Basics

4. Companionship

5. Sacred Architecture

6. Chartres

7. Amiens

8. Bourges

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Cathedrals – 8. Bourges

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