Ste. Foy and St. Etienne: Comparing Religious Architecture

Comparing Ste. Foy, Conques, France (1050-1120 CE) to St. Etienne, also known as Bourges Cathedral, Bourges, France (1195-1250), it is obvious that the change in architectural style from Romanesque to Gothic was accompanied by a change in the religious feeling embodies by these buildings. (History) Ste. Foy is typically Romanesque with its massive walls and columns, barrel vaulted ceiling, and heavy sculptural program that all convey a somber mood. St. Etienne, on the other hand, is almost its exact opposite. The space inside this Gothic cathedral is full of dynamic forces that draw the eye up to its spectacular interior heights. These include a much slimmer wall structure, made possible by the flying buttress, rib vaulted ceiling and most importantly, large spans of stained glass windows.

Both buildings have many basic elements in common. The two plans are variations on a common pattern – that of westwork, nave, ambulatory, a double ambulatory in the case of St. Etienne, and an apse opposite the westwork with radiating, semi-circular chapels. While Ste. Foy makes use of a transept, St. Etienne does not. The former uses round arches and barrel vaults while the latter is filled with pointed arches and rib vaults. The monolithic piers and columns of Ste. Foy create a heavy structure that blocks most light from entering the nave. At St. Etienne, although dark by modern standards, the nave is filled with colorful, rich light that filters through the double row of pared down piers and column clusters.

In addition to the differences of style between this Romanesque pilgrimage church and this Gothic cathedral, the treatment of the religious iconography is quite different in each example. First, Ste. Foy was built in the wake of the year 1000 CE, a time when many Christians believed that the world was going to end. These beliefs are reflected in the decorative sculpture of this building, which Henry Focillon, a French art historian, likens to, “the images of some vast collective nightmare.” (Kostov) This is especially apparent in the tympanum of the main portal of the west facade, which depicts “The Judgement” with Christ in the center, the pious on the left and sinners writhing in Hell on the right, ironically with a door beneath each scene of the saved or damned mortals. This scene must have been quite terrifing for any church-goers with thoughts of sin on their minds as they walked through the doors. At St. Etienne, similar religious scenes are laid out in brightly colored stained glass in a style somewhat reminiscent of Byzantine mosiac. These scenes are uplifting and fill the cathedral with luminous light that Suger compared to the Light of Christ that illuminates the world. (Trachtenberg)

Overall, these two sites, though similar in function, have a great many differences between them. These range from stylist changes between Romanesque and Gothic, as well as the type of spirituality that is embodied within them.

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