Amiens Cathedral

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens (French: Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens), or simply Amiens Cathedral, is the tallest complete cathedral in France, with the greatest interior volume (estimated at 200,000 m³). The vaults of the nave are 42.30 m high, the tallest nave vaults in any completed French cathedral, and surpassed only by the incomplete Beauvais Cathedral. This monumental cathedral is located in Amiens, the chief city of Picardy, in the Somme River valley a little over 100 kilometers north of Paris.

Notre-Dame d'Amiens has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981.

Construction

The paucity of documentation concerning the construction of the Gothic cathedral may be in part the result of fires that destroyed the chapter archives in 1218 and again in 1258—a fire that damaged the cathedral itself. Bishop Evrard de Fouilly initiated work on the cathedral in 1220. Robert de Luzarches was the architect until 1228, and was followed by Thomas de Cormont until 1258. His son, Renaud de Cormont, acted as the architect until 1288. The chronicle of Corbie gives a completion date for the cathedral of 1266. Finishing works continued, however. Its floors are covered with a number of designs, such as the swastika. The labyrinth was installed in 1288. The cathedral contains the alleged head of John the Baptist, a relic brought from Constantinople by Wallon de Sarton as he was returning from the Fourth Crusade.

The construction of the cathedral at this period can be seen as resulting from a coming together of necessity and opportunity. The destruction of earlier buildings and attempts at rebuilding by fire forced the fairly rapid construction of a building that, consequently, has a good deal of artistic unity. The long and relatively peaceful reign of Louis IX of France brought a prosperity to the region, based of thriving agriculture and a booming cloth trade, that made the investment possible. The great cathedrals of Reims and Chartres are roughly contemporary.

The exterior

The west front of the cathedral, (illustration, right) built in a single campaign, 1220-36, shows an unusual degree of artistic unity: its lower tier with three vast deep porches is capped with the gallery of twenty-two over lifesize kings, which stretches across the entire façade beneath the rose window. Above the rose window there is an open arcade, the galerie des sonneurs. Flanking the nave, the two towers were built without close regard to the former design, the south tower being finished in 1366, the north one, reaching higher, in 1406.

The Western portals of the cathedral are justly famous for their elaborate sculpture, featuring a gallery of locally-important saints and large eschatological scenes. Statues of saints in the portal of the cathedral have been identified as including the locally venerated Saints Victoricus and Gentian, Saint Domitius, Saint Ulphia, and Saint Fermin.

In the book Mr Standfast, John Buchan has his character Richard Hannay describe the cathedral as being "the noblest church that the hand of man ever built for God."

The facade in color

During the process of laser cleaning in the 1990s, it was discovered that the western façade of the cathedral was originally painted in multiple colors. A technique was perfected to determine the exact make-up of the colors as they were applied in the 13th century. Then, in conjunction with the laboratories of EDF (Electricity of France) and the expertise of the Society Skertzo, elaborate lighting techniques were developed to project these colors directly on the façade with precision, recreating the polychromatic appearance of the 13th century. When projected on the statues around the portals, the result is a stunning display that brings the figures to life. Since the projected colors are very difficult to photograph, the accompanying picture provides only a general idea of the result. The full effect can best be appreciated by direct viewing, which can be done at the Son et lumière on summer evenings, during the Christmas fair, and at New Year.

The interior

Amiens cathedral contains the largest medieval interior in Western Europe, supported by 126 pillars. Both the nave and the chancel are vast but extremely light, with considerable amounts of stained glass surviving, despite the depredations of war.

The ambulatory surrounding the choir is richly decorated with polychrome sculpture and flanked by numerous chapels. One of the most sumptuous is the Drapers' chapel. The cloth industry was the most dynamic component of the medieval economy, especially in northern France, and the cloth merchants were keen to display their wealth and civic pride. Another striking chapel is dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, a 13th century dedication that complements the cathedral's own very full list of martyrs.

The interior contains works of art and decoration from every period since the building of the cathedral.

The Baptist's head

The initial impetus for the building of the cathedral
came from the installation of the reputed head of John the Baptist on 17 December 1206. The head was part of the loot of the Fourth Crusade, which had been diverted from campaigning against the Turks to sacking the great Christian city of Constantinople. A sumptuous reliquary was made to house the skull. Although later lost, a 19th century replica still provides a focus for prayer and meditation in the North aisle.

Renaissance polychrome sculpture

Some of the most important works of art are sequences of polychrome sculpture, dating mainly from the late 15th and the 16th centuries. A large sequence in the North transept illustrates Jesus' Cleansing of the Temple, with imaginative tableaux of the Temple. Both sides of the ambulatory are lined with sequences illustrating the lives of the two saints whose cults brought large numbers of pilgrims to the cathedral: John the Baptist and St Firmin, the first bishop of Amiens. The artists took care to create a parallelism in the telling of the stories: both saints, decapitated for offending the rich and powerful, suffer neglect and loss, until a later generation discovers their relics and houses them fittingly.

The pulpit

The baroque pulpit, constructed of marble and gilded wood, dominates the nave of the cathedral. It is supported by three allegorical female figures, apparently representing Faith, Hope and Charity, the three Theological Virtues.

Lodging

See the listing of the Hotels in Amiens