One of the second week tasks from my course was to look at the interiors of two gothic cathedrals, Wells in England (1180) and Bourges (1195) in France, identifying the stylistic differences that make them representative of Early English and French gothic. I’ve included my answer below some zoomable Google maps images, and also had a crack at describing the west fronts first.
Above: Wells Cathedral (1180) – west front
The western elevation features none of the large gabled porches to be found in French gothic structures of the period, with the small doorways dwarfed by the columns and niches displaying around three hundred sculptures. The string course above the frieze of simple quatrefoil tracery draws the eye horizontally rather than upwards, a facet of Early English Gothic that continues inside. The arched lancet window are tall and narrow, without the elaborate conjoined tracery of the later English Decorated style.
Above: Bourges Cathedral (1195) – west front
In contrast to Wells, the emphasis at the west front of Bourges is on the five large portals with their recessed pointed arches and twin towers. There is also an early introduction of the rose window, though smaller in Bourges’ case, and not yet the dominant feature of the west front, when compared to other French cathedrals started over the next half-century, such as Laon, Amiens and Reims.
Impressive though the front is, there’s a curious lack of windows, with blind arcading where one might expect lancet glazing. This, together with the large entrance portals, elaborate tympanum sculptures, and the dearth of outside space (you can see from the Google image that it’s hard to take a complete photo of the eastern elevation due to the proximity of nearby housing), suggests that the glory of this end was intended to be experienced when entering the cathedral, and not from standing back and admiring it, which could be said of of the east, north and southern facings.
Above: Wells Cathedral – nave looking east
Moving to the interior of Wells, we see the gallery arcades running the length of the nave with the gallery and clerestory above as distinct sections – a strong indication that the cathedral was built in the Early English Gothic period, with the emphasis on horizontality rather than height. There are no floor-to-ceiling shafts, as typical of the French gothic style that English builders took inspiration from. The nave ceiling is lower than found in French cathedrals of the same period, with the vaulting shafts beginning from beneath the clerestory rather than from the floor. The later addition of the spectacular strainer arches (1330) show that architecturally we’ve moved into the English Decorated Gothic period.
Above: Bourges Cathedral, nave looking east
The interior of Bourges is a strong case study of gothic as “an aesthetic of line rather than mass”1. The thin vertical arcade shafts reach uninterrupted to the beginning of the vault ribs, emphasis the height of the nave: at 121 feet it is almost double that of Wells. The huge east window and clerestory windows allow light to flood in, creating a luminous interior that must have astonished its early worshippers.
There are no transepts at Bourges: instead a double set of aisles run the length of the building, forming an ambulatory at the east end, with the inner aisle vault taller than the outer one. The necessity to build vertically rather than horizontally in this period was a constraint faced more by French than English masons, as the preceding Norman/Romanesque structures were more likely to be situated in areas of more highly concentrated housing (see west front, above).
1 Sutton, I. Western Architecture (1999) p.74