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The brick

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

The originality of Albi Cathedral resides primarily in the material from which it is built: brick.

Unlike stone, which needs to be cut and laid by specialist workers, and sometimes involves difficult and costly transportation, bricks can be produced on site. Their standard dimensions render them easy to put in place; due to their modular character, and simple manoeuvres suffice allowing construction to advance rapidly. This is especially true as the walls of the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile are uniform throughout their breadth and no rubble work was necessary in their construction.

The choice of brick was principally due to spiritual motives. Conceived as a response to the Cathar heresy, the Cathedral needed to be quickly completed. Also, in its simplicity and sobriety, brick expresses a turn towards austerity in response to the criticisms of the luxuriousness of places of worship made by the “enemies” of the Church.

The bareness and the grandeur of the architecture suggest, in defiance of the heretics, that matter can evoke spirituality. The inevitable variations of colour which come with the use of brick contribute to this effect.

A particular form of brick was used in the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, ’brique foraine’. The name may come from the fact that the bricks were fired in an oven (’four’) and of better quality than non-fired bricks. On the other hand it could come from the fact that they were generally sold at fairs (’foires’).

The ’brique foraine’ responds to the basic requirement of an easily manipulable building unit - it weighs around 8-9 kg - but additionally, its average dimensions (5.5x22x37cm) approach the proportions of the ’golden number.’ 1

The ’brique foraine’ had a very large weight-bearing surface which allowed complete structures to be built with no recourse to additional structural support in stone.

The use of this material allowed builders to avoid the delicate stone-cutting necessary for stone constructions enabling walls to be built without the help of qualified specialists.

Whilst the Cathedrals of northern France, at Reims or Amiens, were being built using standardised architectural elements, pre-cut in the quarry, at Albi, ’brique foraine’ a structurally standardised material, was being used.

Finally, the use of brick was linked to the Gothic spirit which valued structure and technical thought. Gothic architecture saw a decomposition of the architectural art to the different technical functions, giving emphasis to the supporting structures; arches, pillars and walls.

In religious buildings the use of brick is fully justified as it goes hand in hand with the bareness and simplicity of forms and volumes. The Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile is thus an exemplary demonstration of the art of brick construction.

’Brique foraine’ is a common factor linking many sites spread along the Tarn and Garonne rivers but among them all it is Albi that stands out.

The Episcopal city of Albi, in its extraordinary monuments, takes a simple and widespread building material to the greatest heights of architectural and aesthetic expression.

1The golden number, equal to (1+√5)/2, approximately 1.618, corresponds to a proportionality which is considered particularly pleasing aesthetically. It was first found in Greek thought at the end of the 6th and beginning of the 5th centuries BC in the works of Pythagoras but it was Euclid, in his Elements, who developed a theory around this number when he attempted to define the most logical fashion of cutting a segment into two unequal but ’harmonious’ parts. For many artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Le Corbusier – to cite only the most celebrated – the golden number would provide the key to the harmony of a work of art. This belief was further popularised with the appearance, in 1930, of a book entitled ’The Golden Number’ by the Romanian Matila Ghyka. According to Ghyka, ancient Greek artists deliberately used the golden number, or golden section, to inspire emotion in the spectator. This would explain how the statuary and architecture of Classical Greece, the Parthenon or the Propylaea, speak so directly to our senses. Among the most fervent admirers of Ghyka’s work was Paul Valéry who was readily convinced of the truthfulness of this thesis.

Édité par la Mairie d’Albi

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