Pointed Arches Circling the Globe
Mid 19th century England saw a flowering of Gothic Revival architects: George Gilbert Scott, William Butterfield, William White and of course the Pugin dynasty. Across the Channel, things were pretty pointed too. At the dawn of the Second Empire, 200 churches were under construction in France. The Gothic style enjoyed official State endorsement as Napoleon III garnered support among the Catholic clergy.
It’s 1854. The booming city of Lille is declared a diocese, independent of the declining capital of French Flanders, Arras. Time for a church dedicated to a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary protected by an iron trellis. Time for an international architectural competition. A diktat declares it must be Gothic Revival. What can possibly go wrong? English Protestant architects winning? In the words of one assessor, “L’Angleterre qui a triomphé!” And so William Burges and his sidekick Henry Clutton take first prize.
William Burges was the master of polychromatic romanticism. Witness his rather bonkers Tower House in Kensington. A neo medieval mini fortress on an uppity middle class leafy avenue. Further witness his bold and brilliant maximalist St Fin Barre’s Cathedral of Cork. But Lille was never to benefit from William Burges’ boldness and brilliance. Much curmudgeonly fudgery later, winner of the third price – the Gothic Revivalist and very French Jean-Baptiste Antoine Lassus – was commissioned to build the “Cathedral for the North of France”.
The church was indeed later upgraded to a cathedral with the establishment of the seat of the Bishop of Lille in 1913. But the dosh ran out in 1947 and Monsieur Lassus’ twin peaked entrance was never executed. Fast forward to the 1990s and the front was finally completed to the design of Lille architect Pierre-Louis Carlier. The style is Minimalist Gothic. A vast arch dominating the façade is filled with 28 millimetre thick white marble which appears opaque outside but allows orangey light to flood the interior. A rose window by Ladislaus Kijno is set into the top of the arch. Shadows crisscross as candles flicker against 21st century artworks. Overhead, a hanging reads: “Revenez à Dieu: Il vous appelle à la Vie en Jésus Christ!”