After a cataclysmic fire incinerates the old cathedral in the town of Beaulieu on May 1, 1214, a young boy named Pierre (voice of Derek Jacobi), presumed dead in the conflagration, emerges from the flames with the veil of the virgin, one of the holiest objects in Christendom, in his hands. Taking the miracle as a sign, the town's bishop, Philippe (voice of Geoffrey Matthews), appoints Pierre to chronicle the construction of a new cathedral, grander and more durable than the one that had come before. After Bishop Philippe and the town's chapter agree upon the initial source of funds for the construction project, a veteran master builder, Guillaume de Solis (voice of BRIAN BLESSED), is put in charge of the project. Amazed at the scale and hitherto impossibility of the project, Pierre is reassured by Master Guillaume that his techniques, and divine inspiration, will make it not only possible but a reality. The project, known by the name of Notre Dame de Beaulieu, has its ups and downs, and some of the staff is lost to time and other circumstances, but through it all, the project is seen through to its completion after over half a century. In the live-action wrap-around sequences, Macaulay and French actress Caroline Berg explore the real-life cathedrals that served as Macaulay's inspiration for the setting of his story. A standalone version featuring only the animated sequences was also made available.
Original production funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding for the 1994 rebroadcast was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.
Useless trivia: on its premiere on April 30, this was shown as a double-header with the gospel documentary Say Amen, Somebody, and the 1994 rebroadcast was followed by a half-hour Mark Russell comedy special and the 13th Annual Championship Ballroom Dancing special.
Here be these blessed examples of various tropes:
- 1-Dimensional Thinking: Master Guillaume just stands there as a wall made from inferior stones collapses on him, crushing him to death.
- And There Was Much Rejoicing: Father Pierre notes that this is the chapter's reaction when the King sends Bishop Gervais on a crusade that he had put off for his entire career. Pierre adds that Gervais later died in exile in North Africa, barely hiding his own pleasure at learning of the corrupt bishop's fall.
- Beyond the Impossible: The construction project, in the context of the period.Pierre: Twice the height of the old cathedral... heavy stone ceilings... walls of glass... Master Guillaume, it cannot possibly stand!
Master Guillaume: Oh, it will stand. And as we build it, you will see how.
Pierre: This new style of building must truly be inspired by God!
Master Guillaume: As are all things, Pierre.
- Big Fun: Thibaut, the portly merchant who thanks the Queen of Heaven for his successes by making contributions of his own to the cathedral, eventually giving all of his possessions towards completion of the project when all seems lost and retiring to a monastery immediately afterwards. At one point during Gervais's rule as Bishop of Beaulieu, he even invites some fellow traders on a tour of the unfinished cathedral to show them the glories of God her favor has brought upon the town thus far.
- Bittersweet Ending: The cathedral is finally completed, but everyone who had been there when work began is dead, including Bishop Philippe, Master Guillaume, and Father Pierre, or retired, including Thibaut.
- Cassandra Truth: Master Guillaume warns Bishop Gervais that the stones from his family's quarry are of a low quality and unsuitable for use in the construction of such a great cathedral as Notre Dame de Beaulieu. These same stones kill him later on, just as he had warned.
- Cold Open: Or, rather, hot openand a white-hot open, at that. The destruction of the old cathedral is depicted before the opening titles in both the full-length and standalone animated versions.
- Corrupt Church: The self-serving, embezzling Gervais was mirrored by real-life examples discussed by Macaulay. In one dispute, the townspeople and the bishop sent volleying petitions to the king; unlike Beaulieu, the king sided with the bishop and had many of the petitioners executed. He also notes that cathedral projects tended to bleed local churches of money and resources due to the high tithes placed on people in the surrounding parishes and sucking up labor and construction materials from other needed building projects.
- Could Say It, But...: Several times during Gervais's rule as Bishop of Beaulieu, Father Pierre mentions some optimistic mantras in his narration, making a point of prefacing each with "I would be telling an untruth if...". The last time he does it, it's instead an example of And There Was Much Rejoicing.
- Darker and Edgier: This one depicts construction hazards like Castle never did, and construction is actually impeded by a corrupt official's actions (and lack thereof). Additionally, the special opens with the destruction of an older cathedral in a fire.
- Darkest Hour: The end result of Bishop Gervais's stinginess, beginning with Master Guillaume's death and manifesting itself in the form of the project's bankruptcy when it's discovered that he embezzled the construction funds. Only the final act of generosity from Thibaut restores everyone's will sufficiently to resume construction.
- Due to the Dead: Upon his death in the year 1233, Bishop Philippe is interred with the sacred remains of Beaulieu's patron saint in a fitting funeral ceremony. As Pierre explains in the narration, "Were it not for His Grace, this cathedral, now nearly half-complete, would still be no more than a dream."
- The Hero Dies: On September 4, 1267, Father Pierre dies peacefully soon after the bells for the cathedral are cast. A younger priest, Ansel, picks up where Pierre had left off.
- I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Inverted. When Bishop Gervais insists that the stones from his family's quarry are of a sufficient quality to be used in the project, Master Guillaume is quick to voice his incredulity.Master Guillaume: Is His Grace now a stonemason as well as a bishop?
- In Soviet Russia, Trope Mocks You: A rare non-comedic example. In the cold open, the townspeople proclaim Pierre a hero for having saved the veil of the virgin. In his modesty, Pierre claims that the veil saved him.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Bishop Gervais's corruption ends with his dying far away from the town he once ruled as Bishop in the middle of a crusade he was supposed to have gone on over half a century before.
- No OSHA Compliance: Cathedrals, as Macaulay notes at one point late in the special, were notorious for having a lot of opportunities to frag people who other workers didn't like, the point being driven home by a pan from Macaulay to a huge drop from the platform he's standing on as he explains this tidbit.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Bishop Philippe serves as a true example for the townsfolk to follow; though he is a stickler for God's law, this is presented as a good thing, in that he answers to God, king, and country and is a willing collaborator in the cathedral project. A notable example of Philippe's wisdom in play is after Master Guillaume is chosen to oversee the project. When one member of the chapter suggests building for Beaulieu "the tallest, widest, most splendid cathedral in all of France", Philippe cautions him against succumbing to the sin of pride, and when the chapter member responds by adding that such a grandiose project would be all for God's glory, Philippe is quick to agree on that sentiment.
- Sacrificial Lion: Master Guillaume reiterates in his old age that he intends to see the construction project through to the end. A wall made from Bishop Gervais's stones brings the end to him rather quickly.
- The Scrooge: Bishop Gervais is largely responsible for the construction problems that followed the death of his predecessor. At first refusing to make any contributions whatsoever, he later contributes stones from his wealthy family's quarry under duress, and even that isn't of the best quality. Suffice it to say, it's for the best that Master Guillaume showed his vision to his apprentices as he grew older even if the inferior stones didn't send him to his maker.
- Shout-Out: The three books that immediately followed Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction (City, Pyramid, and Castle) are mentioned quickly by Caroline Berg in reverse chronological order early on.
- Smash Cut: From Master Guillaume complaining about a slowdown in construction to Bishop Gervais snapping at the chapter about his complaints.
- True Blue Femininity: True to popular depictions, Mary is depicted as wearing blue in Thibaut's vision. Bonus points because she's even tending to a bluebird when she appears.
- Wham Line: "That moment will be forever engraved in my memory." Almost as soon as Father Pierre says it in his narration, things start to go truly sour for the project as Master Guillaume is crushed to death under a wall made from Bishop Gervais's stones.