Amiens Cathedral is the largest gothic structure in France. This enormous building has a surface area of 7,700 m2 and can shelter 10,000 people within its walls, or the population of Amiens during the Middle Ages. A veritable feat of architecture, Amiens cathedral is one of the largest in Europe and was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1981.
Historic Overview of Amiens Cathedral
Following the model of Chartres cathedral, the cathedral of Amiens occupies the site where several sanctuaries have stood since the end of the 3rd century, each successively destroyed by fire, first in 850 during the Norman invasion, in 1019, then once again in 1107. A Romanesque church was built in 1152, although we do not know what it looked like.
On December 17, 1206, a crusader from Picardy and a canon, Wallon de Sarton, brought the Bishop of Amiens, Richard de Gerberoy, the supposed skull of John the Baptist. This had been stolen by the canon when crusaders pillaged the city of Constantinople in 1204.
The relic very quickly became the object of a great pilgrimage, attracting many princes from France and elsewhere, but mostly deaf, mute and blind people and those suffering from “St. John’s disease”, or epilepsy. The Romanesque cathedral soon proved too small to accommodate such an influx of pilgrims.
In 1218, when the cathedral was destroyed by a lightning strike to the roof, the bishop of the time Évrard de Fouilloy seized the opportunity to build a new cathedral, one much greater than its predecessor, in the Gothic style, which was the fashion at the time. The ambitious bishop wanted to build a building unequalled by all other cathedrals of Christendom. The new statuary was to be a Bible in stone that would teach the Christian people Bible stories. The great collection of statues at Amiens would later be known as “the Bible of Amiens”.
The Bishop of Amiens charged the architect Robert de Luzarches with the duty of building the cathedral and construction began in 1220.
The walls of the town were pushed outwards to the east and to the south between 1190 and 1193 in order to accommodate a swell in population, during which time the builders took advantage of the larger space within the new boundary. This allowed them to build a cathedral of epic proportions: 145 metres long and 70 metres wide across the transept. The church of Saint Firmin the Confessor stood on the proposed site of the north arm of the transept and so needed to be demolished. The Hôtel-Dieu which would have prevented the construction of the north tower of the main façade met the same fate. In contrast to Reims and Chartres Cathedrals, where construction started in the choir, the builders of Amiens Cathedral chose to raise the nave first. It is believed that the choir of the old Romanesque cathedral was still in use at the time.
The stones used in the cathedral’s construction all came from the great quarries of Picquigny. They were transported across the Somme to Amiens by boat.
The rapid progress made on the cathedral was possible due to prosperity in Amiens. In fact, under the reign of Philippe-Auguste (in the 13th century), the town enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the woad trade. Cultivated in the region, the plant was used in dying woollen fabric and built the fortunes of Amiens’ middle class. Amiens’ location also contributed to the fortune of the diocese, being between Flanders (where the textile industry was flourishing) and the famous fairs of Champagne.
The deaths in 1222 of Robert de Luzarches and Bishop Évrard de Fouilloy did not slow construction of the cathedral; in fact the opposite was true. Under the impulse of the new Bishop Geoffroy d’Eu and the architect Thomas de Cormont, donations continued to fund the great work. In 1228, the walls of the nave had already reached the point at which the vaults would begin and two years later in 1230, the nave was entirely finished. Around 1236, the façade had reached the height of the cornices above the rose window, and the base of the transept had been completed. Succeeding from Geoffroy d’Eu, the new Bishop Arnoult oversaw the creation of the choir and the construction of the apse chapels.
However, from 1240 the budget was exhausted and construction had to slow down. The ambulatory was nevertheless completed and Bishop Arnoult was buried there in 1247.
The new bishop, Gérard de Coucy did not pursue the continuation of work on the cathedral between 1247 and 1258, the year in which a fire tore through the apse chapels. This destruction only reignited the passion of builders and benefactors for the project. Work started again and continued at a good pace until 1269, the year that the choir was completed. Since then Amiens cathedral was operational, even though the towers of the façade were not finished at that time.
By 1288, the lion’s share of the cathedral’s structure had been completed, with Bishop Guillaume de Mâcon overseeing the completion of work on the transept spire (reaching a record height of 112.7 metres but rebuilt in 1528 when it was destroyed by a fire). That same year, the master-builder Renault de Cormont created the labyrinth of the nave. Thanks to the short period of construction (1220-1288) of Amiens Cathedral, this Gothic work displays a consistent architectural style that is rarely seen in the other French cathedrals.
That said, various works continued to embellish the cathedral from the 14th century up until the French Revolution.
The 11 chapels that line the nave were built between 1290 and 1375 and were not considered in the original plan. From 1508 to 1519, 120 magnificent choir stalls were installed, of which 110 remain today.
A broad overhaul of the decorations of the choir was undertaken in the 18th century. As with the majority of cathedrals in France, the rood-screen was destroyed in 1755 and replaced with superb “rococo” style railings in 1768, a work by Jean Veyren, designed by Michel-Ange Slodtz.
The choir walls which date from the beginning of the 15th century were largely destroyed. New statues and a remarkable cathedra of Baroque style appeared at this time.
These additions came at great expense and at the cost of repair work and maintenance of the building which, though minimal, were necessary.
On the western façade, the rose window that hangs 42m above the square was remodelled in the Flamboyant Gothic style of the 16th century at the order of the mayor of Amiens.
The towers of the façade were unfortunately not as high as those at Reims or Chartres, due to the lack of funds. The south tower was completed in 1366. The northern tower, however, produced some challenges: in 1375, a buttress had to be constructed to support the tower because of the slope on which it was built. The opportunity was taken to elaborately decorate the buttress in Flamboyant Gothic Style. It was only in 1402 that the peak of the north tower was finally completed.
The cathedral was chosen as a site for celebrating royal occasions, such as the marriage of Charles VI and Isabeau of Bavaria in 1385. The cathedral surely dazzled Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy who, in 1470 forbade his artillery to fire on the building.
Amiens Cathedral almost collapsed in the 16th century, like the unfortunate Beauvais Cathedral in 1284. In 1498, the master-builder Pierre Tarisel noticed that the building was about to collapse and so began work on strengthening the flying buttresses of the nave and transept. Tarisel found that the large pillars of the transept crossing were dangerously unstable under the thrust of the great archways which were 42.3 metres high. The master-builder had a genius idea: he surrounded almost all the building with an iron wall tie made in Spain, along the triforium of the nave and transepts. This wall tie, still here today, was put up in less than a year. It made the cathedral stronger and so protected it for the centuries to come.
The cathedral Notre-Dame d’Amiens has suffered little in the troubled period of the French Revolution. Damages were limited to few destroyed fleurs de lys (royal emblem), crosses and statues. The exceptional statuary of the cathedral’s great portals thus remained intact. At the time, the sanctuary was transformed into a Temple of Reason and Truth. The statue of Saint Genevieve converted in the Goddess of Reason is a testament of this (on the altar of the chapel of Puy Notre-Dame, to the left in the south arm of the transept).
In the 19th century, the cathedral benefited from the fashion days of Gothic art in Europe, due to intellectuals such as Victor Hugo, the author of the novel of Notre-Dame de Paris. The poor state of Amiens cathedral was of concern for the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who carried out the restoration of the building over 25 years. The renovation work was sometimes controversial, notably by the addition of completely new components which never existed in the Middle Ages. At the top of the great façade, Viollet-le-Duc added a gallery known as “Galerie des Sonneurs” (“Gallery of Bell Ringers”). The aim of the gallery was to link the two towers as a matter of aesthetics.
The cathedral suffered from the First World War under the German troops’ fire. The worst was avoided in July 1918 by the instant request of Pope Benedict XV, who persuaded the Germans to stop aiming at the cathedral. During the Second World War, the successive bombings of the Germans (1940) and of the Allies (1944) caused numerous damages in the city of Amiens but miraculously spared the cathedral.
Today, the cathedral Notre-Dame d’Amiens remains the loftiest and highest building of the capital of Picardie (112.70m), ahead of the Perret tower dating from 1949 and 104m high. It was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981.
Exterior of Amiens Cathedral
The Western Façade
- Saint Firmin Portal
- Portal of the Virgin
- Triforium formed by a series of twin arcades
- Gallery of Kings
- Rose Window (redesigned in the 16th C in Flamboyant Gothic style).
- “Galerie des Sonneurs” added by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th C.
- South Tower
- North Tower
Unlike the one of Chartres, the great façade of Amiens Cathedral appears particularly much decorated.
It is also “in harmony”, meaning it includes three portals, three elevation levels and two towers.
The elevation levels are:
The portals, the Gallery of Kings surmounting a triforium formed by a series of twin arcades, and the rose window (redesigned in the 16th century in Flamboyant Gothic style).
Then at the top are the two towers which the architect Viollet-le-Duc linked together with the “Gallery of Bell Ringers” in the 19th century. This curtain-wall, covering the area between the two towers, is surmounted by a second gallery containing exquisite ornamental archways.
The façade is vertically divided by four very strong buttresses which separate and securely frame the three portals. Their presence ensures the stability of both the façade and the two towers that it supports.
Each of the three portals is surmounted by a triangular gable, with its centre decorated with clovers. You can notice on the right like on the left two remarkable gargoyles positioned at the base of these gables.
The great gable of the central portal is surmounted by an angel statue sounding the trumpet, which was placed by Viollet-le-Duc to replace a statue of Saint Michael slaying a dragon.
Behind these galleries is situated a terrace named “Room of Musicians” containing beautiful statues known as “Musician Kings”.
Portals of the Western Façade
Like the one of the south transept, the portals of the western façade are lavishly decorated of sculptures, which display quite a theological program.
The portals have been cleaned during the 1990s with a procedure using laser. This technique has helped discover and preserve traces of polychromy. Studies have shown that this polychromy had an unsuspected range in very vibrant shades (red, blue, green…). Since then, a free sound and lighting show has been held at the end of the year and in summertime on the parvis of Amiens Cathedral, revealing what the coloured façade of the cathedral looked like in the Middle Ages.
The great central portal or Portal of the Last Judgement is surrounded by two other smaller portals: the Mother-God portal (right, south) and the Saint Firmin portal (left, north).
The tympanum above the great portal is decorated with a depiction of the Last Judgement, subdivided in three tiers:
- At the lower level of the tympanum: the resurrected leave their graves at the sound of the trumpet. Standing in the middle, the archangel Saint Michael weighs the souls with his scales. At the bottom of the scene, a demon attempts to cheat by leaning one of the pans on his side.
- At the intermediate tier: the elected are separated from the fully naked damned that are pushed by demons towards the jaw of a monster, the Leviathan.
- At the upper tier: Christ on his throne, with raised hands and a bare torso in order to show his injuries, is surrounded by the Virgin and Saint John who are kneeling and intercede on behalf of the salvation of the soul and angels carrying the Instruments of the Passion.
Hell and heaven are depicted in the lower arch-stones of the tympanum arches.
In heaven, souls gathered in the bosom of Abraham are then directed to a city representing heavenly Jerusalem.
In hell, a pot and naked horsemen are perched on rearing horses, evoking the Apocalypse. This depiction is very similar to the one of Notre-Dame de Paris.
At the trumeau of the central portal is located a remarkable statue which represents Christ the Saviour, nicknamed the “Beau-Dieu d’Amiens” by the people of Amiens. Standing and wearing a long tunic, his feet on a dragon and a lion, he holds in his left hand a closed book while blessing with his right hand. According to the legend, the sculptor was uninspired to create the statue. God would have appeared before him in the middle of the night. The next morning, the sculptor was found dead with the statue of the Beau-Dieu by his side.
On the piers of the splays are situated the large statues of the twelve apostles, surrounded by the four great prophets.
The Saint Firmin Portal (left, north portal) and the Picardy Calendar
The north portal is dedicated to Saint Firmin who is shown on the trumeau. The tympanum of the portal conveys the story of how his body was found.
There are six large statues on each side of the portal; most of them are saints whose relics have been displayed every year above the high-altar.
The bases of the Saint Firmin portal are lavishly decorated and contain the famous “Picardy Calendar” or “Amiens Zodiac”. It is an ensemble of beautiful sculptures, eight centuries old and remarkably well preserved. A series of medallions sculpted in a quatrefoil shape show the agrarian calendar which establishes a link between the zodiac and the work for the month. The depicted characters work in the country fields and wear different clothes according to seasons.
Portal of the Virgin (right, south portal)
Also known as the Portal of the Mother of God, this portal is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
On the trumeau, the Virgin is depicted crushing Evil, which is personified by a mythic animal with a human face. The static stance of the Virgin is a trend on statues inspired by the Chartres model (from Chartres Cathedral).
The base of the trumeau comprises of bas-relief carvings of the original sin. The association of this theme and the Virgin is particularly found on the trumeau of the Portal of the Virgin of Notre-Dame de Paris.
On the tympanum, the lower tier depicts a series of six characters from the Old Testament.
The middle tier shows the Death and the Assumption of the Virgin.
The top tier depicts the Crowning of the Virgin in heaven.
The statues that decorate the splays of side piers are particularly remarkable:
- To the right, the statues grouped in pairs represent three important events in the life of Virgin Mary: the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
- To the left, from the exterior to the interior are Queen Sheba, King Solomon, King Herod the Great and the three Wise Men.
The medallions at the bases represent scenes of the life of Christ but also of the kings at the left of the portal: Solomon (and Queen Sheba), Herod (and the three Wise Men).
The Lower Gallery and the Gallery of Kings
On top of the three portals is the lower gallery dating from 1235, which is lavishly decorated with archways and small columns. This gallery is lined with large openings which lit the central nave of the cathedral before the great organ was installed.
The lower gallery itself is surmounted by the Gallery of Kings, which is located at 30 metres above the parvis.
There are 22 statues in the Gallery of Kings and it is not certain whom these statues depict. They date back to the first half of the 13th century. The central part of the façade has eight statues 3.75 metres high. Six other statues are placed on the western side at the base of each of the arcades, while two are in the front of the central buttresses of the façade.
These statues appear relatively badly proportioned with their short limbs in comparison to their big head.
There are galleries reminiscent of Notre-Dame de Reims and Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedrals (the statues of which were made in the 19th century).
The Gallery of Kings supports an open and paved terrace. The heads of the long gargoyles that decorate the top of the Gallery of Kings drain outwardly water from the pavement.
The West Rose Window
The rose window is situated just above the central part of the Gallery of Kings and its paved terrace. This Flamboyant Gothic style rose window dates from the 16th century and was ordered by the mayor of Amiens. It is also known as the “The Rose of the Sea”. The rose window cannot be seen in its entirety from the outside as the ledge of the terrace balustrade covers the lower part.
The towers of Amiens Cathedral lack size and rather resemble to parts of a tower. Unlike those of the Rouen and Chartres façades, the small size of the towers at Amiens Cathedral does not contribute to the upward thrust of the building. It is the spire of the transept, more than 100 metres high and visible from afar, which fulfils this role instead.
The reason lies in the history of the cathedral construction: the towers were the last parts of the structure to be built and had a lack of financial means for their elevation.
The upper parts of the towers date from the 14th and 15th centuries and are not of equal height (height of the north tower: 68.19m for the north tower and 61.70m for the south tower).
The top of the south tower is of a Rayonnant Gothic style while the north tower is of a Flamboyant Gothic style. The two towers are flanked by a little quadrangular turret at the side buttresses, each containing a spiral staircase.
It is possible to climb the towers at Amiens Cathedral. When you reach the top, you will have an unobstructed view on the monument, particularly on the gargoyles and chimeras, and the city of Amiens.
The Statuary of Amiens Cathedral
The high parts of Amiens Cathedral have plentiful amounts of medieval sculptural works that are often over-the-top or frightening, such as gargoyles, chimeras and Musician Kings.
There are countless gargoyles at the top parts of the cathedral. Often they are very high and are real pieces of statuary. It is important not to confuse gargoyles and chimeras.
Gargoyles were placed at the end of the gutters to drain rainwater from the roof. They go over the edge to drain the water as far as possible from the cathedral walls, so that the walls do not get damaged. With opened mouths, gargoyles often take the form of mythical animals that are frightening and fierce. Designed by many artists who were given artistic freedom, these creatures are all different and have a variety that is close to infinite.
Chimeras, in contrast to gargoyles, do not have a purely decorative function. They are simply mythical, diabolical and often grotesque statues. They often have closed mouths and are perched on mounts that elevate them. They are found in the heights of the cathedral, on balustrades or at the top of buttresses where they replace pinnacles. The chimeras have duty to watch over the city, like the famous mythical animals of Notre-Dame de Paris, added by Viollet-le-Duc.
Unlike chimeras, the statues of the Musician Kings represent very pleasant characters. The Musician Kings are dispersed over all the roofs of the cathedral. A large number of them are found just behind the towers of the western façade, around the terrace of the “Chamber of Musicians”. This terrace is situated on the roof between the Gallery of Bell Ringers and the western end of the attic of the nave. Another series of Musician Kings that are much easier to admire are at the top of the buttresses of the axial chapel, at the chevet of the cathedral just behind the choir.
The South Façade of the Transept and the Portal of Saint-Honoratus
The south façade of the transept rises towards the sky at a height of almost 60 metres, surrounded by two strong side buttresses. There are three floors: the portal of Saint-Honoratus, the huge stained glass window and at the top, the pediment.
The portal of the south transept arm, or portal of Saint-Honoratus, is also known as the portal of the Golden Virgin, due to the statue that adorns its trumeau. 2.30 m tall, the statue is actually an identical casting of the original one. The real Golden Virgin that dates from 1288 was moved inside the cathedral in 1980 to protect it from bad weather and pollution.
The tympanum recounts various events in the life of Saint-Honoratus, the eighth bishop of Amiens, who lived in the 6th century.
The North Façade of the Transept and the St Firmin the Confessor Portal
The façade of the north transept arm is much less decorated than the façade of the south arm; in fact, there are no statues or sculptures apart from the statue of St. Firmin on the trumeau.
The St. Firmin the Confessor portal is dedicated to Firmin II, the third bishop of Amiens, who sat in the second half of the 4th century.
You will be surprised by the extremely elegant chevet of Amiens Cathedral and its strong structure. It has three floors of windows and a series of buttresses and flying buttresses. Everything is lavishly decorated with gables, statues, gargoyles and pinnacles. This ensemble gives the impression of a powerful thrust towards the sky.
Interior of Amiens Cathedral
The nave of Amiens Cathedral, built in a very short time (1220-1236), was the first part of the building to be constructed.
The elevation of the nave (like the choir) has three levels: large archways, the triforium and high windows.
It is lit by the great rose window of the façade, named the “The Rose of the Sea” and the high windows.
The nave covers an area of seven bays and is lined on each side with an aisle containing square vaults. Its height under the vault is 42.3 metres, the second in France behind Beauvais Cathedral (48m), but ahead of Metz Cathedral (41.77m) and Chartres Cathedral (37m). As to the columns along the nave, they are 13.85 metres high.
Amiens Cathedral is 145 metres long in total (the longest in France) and the nave is 54m long.
Unlike Reims Cathedral, Amiens has preserved its labyrinth. A work from the 12th century, it is an octagonal geometric shape engraved across the whole width of the main nave’s pavement, at the fifth bay.
The labyrinth appeared to be a symbolic road where man meets God. The centre of this great design would therefore symbolise heavenly Jerusalem or the hereafter.
Its path measures 234 metres. The pilgrims who came to venerate the relics of John the Baptist that were brought back in 1206, had the tradition of walking along it on their knees by following the black line.
The central stone of the labyrinth contains an inscription on a copper strip and summarises the groundwork of the cathedral. The stone is actually a copy; the original dating from 1288 is located at the Museum of Picardy.
The paving of the nave has a series of designs restored in the 19th century. They include, among others, the swastika pattern.
The transept of the cathedral is sumptuously decorated.
The two arms of the transept each have three bays and two side aisles, one to the west and the other to the east. The elevation of the transept has three levels, like the nave and the choir: large archways overlooking the side aisles, a transparent triforium and high windows.
Each transept arm is lit by a large stained glass window with a rose window.
The rose window of the south transept arm, called “Rose of Heaven”, is of a Flamboyant Gothic style, while the one of the north transept arm or “Compass Rose” is of a Rayonnant Gothic style.
The relics of John the Baptist
In the north transept arm, you can notice a 12th century basin that was used to wash deceased people and a relic consisting of a small “splinter” of cranial bone, which apparently belonged to John the Baptist, presented in a wooden chest with glass.
As for the skull (the only thing remaining from the destruction caused by the French Revolution), it is kept in the “treasure” near the sacristy. Also considered as being John the Baptist’s skull, it was brought back in 1206 during the Fourth Crusade by a canon of Picquigny, Wallon de Sarton.
The Choir and the Ambulatory
The choir of Notre-Dame d’Amiens is surrounded by a wrought iron gate and includes four bays, as well as a seven-sided apse. The latter is enclosed by a simple ambulatory in which are seven Rayonnant chapels.
Like the one of the nave, its elevation has three levels: large archways, the triforium and high windows.
In the axis of the choir, you can see in the central high window a large colourful stained glass window that was offered to the cathedral in 1269. It is the most beautiful and important stained glass window of the cathedral. Its theme is the Angels announcing the coronation of St. Louis.
The choir is surrounded by apse chapels which have superb sculptures from different periods (from the Middle Ages to Louis XVI …).
To the left of the choir is the cathedra of the cathedral, lavishly decorated and of Baroque style.
The ambulatory is bordered with apsidal chapels with high ceilings.
The incredible choir stalls of Amiens cathedral represent the biggest masterpiece of cabinet work (with those of Toledo Cathedral). These stalls of Flamboyant Gothic style were built with blond oak over 11 years, from 1508 to 1519. They consist of more than 4,000 characters originally spread over 120 stalls (110 today with 62 high and 48 low stalls).
The two major stalls, which were unique because they were surmounted by a huge 13.50m wooden lace, were reserved for the king and the dean of the chapter. On the stall reserved to the king sat Louis XII, Francis I, Henri IV, then Napoleon I and French President Charles de Gaulle.
Many guided tours are organised by the city of Amiens. Amiens Cathedral is open for visits from Monday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm. On Sunday, visits are only permitted after masses.
For further information, visit the tourism office of Amiens website: http://www.amiens-tourisme.com