Amiens Cathedral

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Our Lady of Amiens
Notre-Dame d'Amiens
0 Amiens - Cathédrale Notre-Dame (1).JPG
Western front of Notre Dame d'Amiens
Basic information
Location Amiens, France
Geographic coordinates Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
Affiliation Roman Catholic
Region Picardy
Province Archdiocese of Reims
District Diocese of Amiens
Ecclesiastical or organizational status Cathedral
Status Active
Heritage designation 1862, 1981
Leadership Bishop Jean-Luc Bouilleret[1]
Architectural description
Architect(s) Robert of Luzarches, Thomas and Regnault de Cormont[2]
Architectural type Church
Architectural style French Gothic
Direction of façade NW
Groundbreaking 1220 (1220)
Completed c. 1270 (1270)
Length 145 m (476 ft)
Width 70 m (230 ft)
Width (nave) 14.60 m (47.9 ft)[3]
Height (max) 42.30 m (138.8 ft)
Spire(s) 1
Spire height 112.70 m (369.8 ft)[3]
Official name: Amiens Cathedral
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii
Designated 1981[4]
Reference no. 162
State Party  France
Region Europe and North America
Session 5th
Official name: Cathédrale Notre-Dame
Designated 1862
Reference no. PA00116046[2]
Denomination Église

The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens (French: Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens), or simply Amiens Cathedral, is a Roman Catholic cathedral and seat of the Bishop of Amiens (currently Jean-Luc Bouilleret). It is situated on a slight ridge overlooking the River Somme in Amiens, the administrative capital of the Picardy region of France, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Paris. It is the 19th largest church in the world.[citation needed]

Medieval cathedral builders were trying to maximize the internal dimensions in order to reach for the heavens and bring in more light. In that regard, the Amiens cathedral is the tallest complete cathedral in France, its stone-vaulted nave reaching an internal height of 42.30 metres (138.8 ft) (surpassed only by the incomplete Beauvais Cathedral). It also has the greatest interior volume of any French cathedral, estimated at 200,000 cubic metres (260,000 cu yd). The cathedral was built between 1220 and c.1270 and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981.[5] Although it has lost most of its original stained glass, Amiens Cathedral is renowned for the quality and quantity of early 13th-century Gothic sculpture in the main west façade and the south transept portal, and a large quantity of polychrome sculpture from later periods inside the building.


Floor plan of Amiens Cathedral

The lack 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 bent cross (to symbolize Jesus' triumph over death). 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 by fire, and failed attempts at rebuilding 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 on thriving agriculture and a booming cloth trade, that made the investment possible. The great cathedrals of Reims and Chartres are roughly contemporary.

Structural defects

The original design of the flying buttresses around the choir had them placed too high to counteract the force of the ceiling arch pushing outwards resulting in excessive lateral forces being placed on the vertical columns. The structure was only saved when, centuries later, masons placed a second row of more robust flying buttresses that connected lower down on the outer wall. This fix failed to counteract similar issues with the lower wall which began to develop large cracks around the late Middle Ages. This was solved by another patch that consisted of a wrought iron bar chain being installed around the mezzanine level to resist the forces pushing the stone columns outward. The chain was installed red hot to act as a cinch, tightening as it cooled.[6]

The exterior

The west front of the cathedral, built in a single campaign from 1220 to 1236, 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 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.[7]

The spire over the central crossing was added between 1529 and 1533.[3] The surface area is 7,700 square meters; the largest in France.

The façade in colour

During the process of laser cleaning in the 1990s, it was discovered that the western façade of the cathedral was originally painted in multiple colours. A technique was perfected to determine the exact make-up of the colours as they were applied in the 13th century. Then, in conjunction with the laboratories of EDF and the expertise of the Society Skertzo, elaborate lighting techniques were developed to project these colours 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. The projected colors are faint to photograph, but a good quality DSLR camera provides excellent results, as shown below.

The full effect of the colour may be best appreciated by direct viewing, with musical accompaniment, which can be done at the Son et lumière shows which are held on Summer evenings, during the Christmas Fair, and over the New Year.[8][9]

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 north aisle, 1903

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. There are notably baroque paintings of the 17th century, by artists such as Frans II Francken and Laurent de La Hyre.

John the Baptist's head

Reliquary for the head of Saint John the Baptist

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.


In popular culture

  • 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 only for God."[10]
  • The cathedral was featured in the video game Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, as a stronghold for the Ancient aligned with the main antagonist, Pious Augustus. In the game it first appeared as a chapel in the final year of Charlemagne's reign; it later appeared during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Lastly, it was used as a hospital for injured soldiers during the Battle of Somme during World War One.
  • The cathedral was featured in an episode of the PBS science show NOVA as an example of design flaws that now threaten the structural integrity of Gothic cathedrals.[6] In this case improperly installed flying buttresses have resulted in the main supports bowing outwards over time. Measurements indicate that the structure's walls were built to a height of 144 units, echoing a statement in the book of Revelation that the walls of heaven's mansions would be 144 cubits high.
  • The 1979 album Winter Songs by Art Bears comprises fourteen short songs composed by Fred Frith around texts by Chris Cutler that were based on carvings on the dado of the Cathedral's west façade.

References and sources

  1. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mérimée database 1992
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  4. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  5. For the UNESCO citation details see
  6. 6.0 6.1 NOVA | Building the Great Cathedrals Archived 15 December 2010 at WebCite
  7. footnotes Archived 15 December 2010 at WebCite
  8. Gothic art in Picardy at the Wayback Machine (archived February 8, 2009)
  9. Official site of the polychromatic façade of the cathedral Archived 15 December 2010 at WebCite
  10. Buchan, John. Mr Standfast. (London: Penguin Books, 1960)

Further reading

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External links