Amiens Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens) is the tallest Gothic church and largest cathedral in France. Along with the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims, Amiens is a member of the illustrious triad of "High Gothic" or "Classical" French cathedrals built in the 13th century. Amiens Cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for the beauty and harmony of its art and architecture.
History of Amiens Cathedral
According to local legend, the first church in Amiens was founded in the third century by St. Firmin, a disciple of St. Saturninus of Toulouse. After his martyrdom, he was succeeded by another man named Firmin, known as St. Firmin the Confessor. Nothing is reliably known about these Firmins; their biographies were invented in the Middle Ages.
But even if we rely only on historical evidence, Amiens is still an ancient foundation. It was in this city in 334 that St. Martin of Tours was baptized and famously shared his cloak with a beggar, and the first Bishop of Amiens is recorded in 346. This first Christian community was short-lived, however - it was wiped out by pagan barbarians (Vandals, Alans and Sueves) who swept through northern France in 407.
Amiens was re-evangelized beginning in the late 400s under the direction of St. Remi, Bishop of Reims, and became more intense after the conversion of Clovis to Christianity in c.498. The first known bishop in this period is Ebidus, whose presence is recorded at a council of 511.
Evidence is scanty when it comes to early churches in Amiens, but it is known that there were two places of worship on the present site of Amiens Cathedral: one dedicated to St. Firmin the Confessor and the other to the Virgin Mary and St. Firmin the Martyr.
After a fire destroyed much of the city, construction on a Romanesque cathedral began in 1137. Consecrated in 1152, this building hosted the wedding of King Philip II of France and Princess Ingeborg of Denmark in 1193. During this period, Amiens Cathedral attracted a respectable number of local pilgrims due to its relics of local saints, such as Fuscien, Victoric and Gentien.
But in 1206, Amiens became one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe when the head of St. John the Baptist was brought back from Constantinople by Crusaders. This impressive relic would be the principal source of revenue for the cathedral for years to come, enabling the construction of the grand Gothic cathedral that endures today.
After a fire destroyed the Romanesque cathedral in 1218, planning began immediately for a building worthy to house the head of St. John. The foundation stone was laid in 1220 and the nave was completed by 1236. By 1269, only the tops of the towers remained unfinished.
This quick completion gave Amiens Cathedral an usual harmony of style, one of its most celebrated characteristics. It is pure High Gothic, little influenced by later architectural fads. The only subsequent change to the cathedral's appearance was the completion of the west facade with the addition of two unequal towers, the south one in 1366 and the north one in 1402.
Like many European cathedrals, Amiens Cathedral suffered damage from various wars and disasters in subsequent centuries, including Huguenot iconoclasm in 1561, hurricanes of 1627 and 1705, and even the explosion of a nearby powder mill in 1675. Much of the medieval stained glass was lost during these calamities.
During both world wars, extensive measures were taken to protect Amiens Cathedral: the stained glass windows were carefully removed and sandbags were stacked high in the nave. Fortunately, the cathedral remained untouched during both wars, yet did not entirely escape destruction - a fire in the artist's studio used to store the stained glass during World War I tragically destroyed the majority of it. Among the windows lost in this disaster were two of the cathedral's oldest windows (c.1250) from the apse: one depicting the Tree of the Jesse and the other the Acts of the Apostles.
The renowned architect Viollet-le-Duc restored the cathedral in the 1850s, with his usual mix of important preservation work and overzealous creativity. In 2000, the three great portals of the west front were cleaned with an expensive but very effective method called "photonic disencrustation," which used lasers to remove centuries of dirt and grime from the stone. Revealed underneath were traces of the original polychrome paint that decorated the sculptures, a rare and remarkable survival.
UNESCO designated Amiens Cathedral a World Heritage Site in 1981, citing the "the coherence of its plan, the beauty of its three-tier interior elevation and the particularly fine display of sculptures on the principal facade and in the south transept."
What to See at Amiens Cathedral
Amiens Cathedral has been admired throughout its history, but it was the English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) who is best known for waxing lyrical about its perfection. Ruskin declared that Amiens was: "Gothic, clear of Roman tradition and of Arabian taint, Gothic pure, authoritative, unsurpassable, and unaccusable... not only the best, but the very first thing done perfectly in its manner by northern Christendom."
The plan of Amiens Cathedral is like that of the other Classical cathedrals at Chartres and Reims, as well as the Notre-Dame in Paris: a three-aisled nave with a twin-towered west facade, a three-aisled transept, a five-aisled choir, an ambulatory, and radiating chapels.
Fine views of the cathedral's roof and the city of Amiens can be had by climbing the west towers.
The famously beautiful west front of Amiens Cathedral consists of three portals protected under deep porches, two galleries, a large rose window (16th century), and twin towers connected by a third gallery. The second gallery is called the Gallery of Kings and, like the one at Notre-Dame Cathedral, consists of 19th-century replacement statues by Viollet le Duc.
Every night during the summer and at Christmastime, a multicolor laser light show provides a vivid idea of what it must have looked like to medieval visitors, for whom this was their only way of "reading" the Bible. The light show is accompanied by atmospheric music and an explanation of the various sculptures (in French).
The facade is pierced by three portals, each spectacularly decorated with sculptures of biblical figures and saints. Recently cleaned, the sculptures are remarkably well-preserved and fully harmonious, thanks to their short period of construction from 1230 to 1240.
The central portal is known as the Beau-Dieu Portal or Last Judgment Portal. From bottom to top, the sculptures on the tympanum depict: the Resurrection of the Dead with the Weighing of Souls; the Redeemed and the Damned; Christ in Judgment; and the Apocalyptic Son of Man with two swords coming from his mouth.
In the judgment scene, St. Francis of Assisi is the first to enter heaven. He was canonized only a few years earlier in 1228; this is the earliest known French depiction of him. The figure of Christ in the tympanum is beautifully sculpted but a bit frightening, due mainly to the 13th-century paint that has survived on his eyes and wounds.
The voussoirs of the portal are populated with angels; souls of the redeemed carried by angels; martyrs; confessors; virgins and holy women; Elders of the Apocalypse; Tree of Jesse; Old Testament Patriarchs.
On the trumeau is a sculpture of the "Beau-Dieu of Amiens," a more serene portrait of Christ whose French nickname means "Handsome God," with a king unfurling a banner below. Surrounding Christ on the embrasures are statues of the Twelve Apostles: Simon or Jude; Philip; Matthew(?); Thomas; James the Lesser; Paul; [door]; Peter; Andrew; James the Greater; John; Simon or Jude; Bartholomew(?).
The statues continue onto the facade, where they now represent prophets. On the left side: Sophonia; Habakkuk; Nahum. On the right: Micah; Jonah; Abdias. The jambs of the portal have low-reliefs of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, with the wise virgins on the left.
The low-relief quatrefoils along the base of the portal depict the Virtues along the top and the Vices along the bottom, as follows:
The portal on the right side of the west facade is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is the patron saint of the cathedral and town of Amiens. The tympanum depicts the dormition, assumption and coronation of the Virgin. The lintel depicts six seated figures from the Old Testament; a visual parallel with the six bishops on the Portal of St. Firmin.
The trumeau bears a statue of the Virgin carrying the Christ Child and trampling on a snake with a woman's head; below them is the story of Adam and Eve, representing Original Sin. The statues on the embrasures represent biblical stories, which are elaborated and illuminated in the scenes on the quatrefoils below.
The portal on the left side of the west facade is dedicated to Saint Firmin, the first bishop of Amiens. The tympanum depicts the translation of his relics and six seated bishops.
Saint Firmin appears on the trumeau, flanked by local bishops and saints on the embrasures. The vouissoirs depict angels carrying various religious objects: crowns; candelabra; holy water; books; and censers.
The quatrefoils on the base of this portal depict the Zodiacs and Labors of the Months, as follows (from left to right):
The statue of the Madonna made for the south portal (c.1245), known as the Golden Virgin, is considered the finest sculpture on the cathedral; it was used as the model for many later Madonna statues throughout Europe. It is now protected inside the south transept. The tympanum of the south portal depicts the life of St. Honorat, a sixth-century bishop of Amiens. The column figures represent local saints.
The north portal has a single statue representing St. Firmin. The tympanum was modified in the 14th century.
The east end is a magnificent sight, resembling a giant medieval reliquary with its pinnacles and pyramids. The chevet with nine radiating chapels and was used as a model for many other churches.
In contrast to the elaborately decorated exterior, the interior of Amiens Cathedral is beauty in simplicity - all vertical lines stretching to the tall ceiling in a light and calm space. The floor is tiled in striking black-and-white geometric patterns that echo the labyrinth in the center of the nave.
The Amiens labyrinth was installed in 1288 by the architect Renaud de Cormont (who signed his work) and bears an inscription naming the architects of the cathedral. Unfortunately, unlike the medieval labyrinth at Chartres, this one did not survive the Revolution intact; the present version is an exact copy made in the 19th century. Its path stretches 240 meters in length.
The central stone of the labyrinth bears portraits in inlaid marble of the bishop who built the cathedral and the first three architects, with an inscription in copper naming the four figures and noting the year the foundation stone of the cathedral was laid (1220). The original central stone can be seen in the Musée de Picardie.
The choir stalls were carved in the early 16th century, and are stunning works of art with some 3,500 figures. Also notable is the Flamboyant Gothic choir screen, which depicts the life of St. Firmin, Amiens' first bishop, on the right side, and the life of St. John the Baptist on the left.
The 10:15 Sunday Mass features glorious Gregorian chanting to add to the medieval atmosphere.
Quick Facts on Amiens Cathedral
|Names:||Amiens Cathedral · Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens|
|Categories:||cathedrals; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||49.894665° N, 2.301912° E|
|Hours:||Easter-Oct daily 8:30am-6:45pm|
Nov-Easter daily 8:30am-5:15pm (until 6pm Sat)
Tower: Mon-Fri 3-4:30pm; Sat, Sun 2-5:15pm
Light show: daily Jun 15-30 at 10:45pm; Jul at 10:30pm; Aug at 10pm; Sep at 9:45pm; Dec 15-Jan 6 at 8pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Amiens Cathedral|
- Personal visit (July 28, 2008).
- Philippe Plagnieux, Amiens: The Cathedral of Notre Dame (Paris: Monum, 2005). Excellent book purchased at cathedral shop.
- Bernhard Schütz, Great Cathedrals, 34-37.
- Rough Guide France
- Frommer's France
- Amiens Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Amiens Cathedral - Structurae
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens - Cathédrales de France
- The complete guide to Picardy - Independent.co.uk, April 12, 2003
Map of Amiens Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Amiens Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.