A masterpiece of engineering and Gothic architecture carried to a bold extreme, Amiens’ Notre-Dame Cathedral is also the largest cathedral in France. Building work started around 1220 and took just 50 years, financed by profits from the cultivation of woad, a plant valued for its blue dye. Built to house the head of St. John the Baptist brought back from the Crusades, which is still on display, the cathedral became a magnet for pilgrims. After restoration by the architect Viollet-le-Duc in the mid- 19th century, and miraculously surviving two world wars, the cathedral is famous for its wealth of statues and reliefs.
Like all Gothic churches, Amiens Cathedral is richly decorated. Sculpture served to detract attention from structural features, making a virtue out of a necessity, as with grotesque gargoyles that disguise waterspouts, or natural forms decorating columns. Even where the carvings would not be seen at close hand, they were still produced with tremendous skill and care Amiens’ choir stalls alone are decorated with more than 4,000 wooden carvings of figures, many representing local trades of the day, residents of Amiens and biblical figures.
The renowned architect and theorist Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-1e-Duc (1814-79) worked on the restoration of the cathedral in the 1850s. Trained in both architecture and medieval archeology, he was a leading figure in France’s Commission for Historical Monuments, which undertook early restoration work on many architectural landmarks, including Notre-Dame in Paris. Today, he is best known for his encyclopedic writings on French architecture and design, especially the Analytical Dictionary of French Architecture from the 11th-16th Centuries (1854-68).
BUILDING AMIENS CATHEDRAL
The cathedral was designed by the French architect Robert de Luzarches, and inspired by the Gothic cathedral at Reims, France. Work began in 1220 and by 1236, the facade, Rose Window, and portals were complete. By this stage, the architect Thomas de Cormont had taken over from de Luzarches, who had died prematurely in about 1222. De Cormont directed the building of the choir and apse. The cathedral was finished by 1270 and this speed of execution perhaps explains the building’s coherence and purity of style. Research has shown that the figures on the beautiful west portal would originally have been brightly painted. Modern laser technology has enabled experts to assess the original coloring of the sculptures, and a light show is put on periodically to illuminate the portal, re-creating how it would have looked over 700 years ago.
Vivid scenes from the lives of St. Firmin and St. John, carved in the 15th – 16th centuries, adorn the walkway.
Two towers of unequal height of unequal height frame the cathedral’s west front. The south tower was completed in 1366, the north in 1402. The spire was replaced twice, in 1627 and 1887.
The King’s Gallery, a row of colossal statues representing the kings of France, spans the west front. They are also thought to symbolize the kings of Judah.
St. Firmin Portal
This portal is decorated with figures and scenes from the life of St. Firmin , the martyr who brought Christianity to Picardy and became the first bishop of Amiens.
Sculptures in the north portal depict the signs of the zodiac and their corresponding monthly labors – from-seed-sowing to grape-treading – offering an insight into everyday life in the 13th century.
This immense, 16th -century window has a diameter of 43 ft (13m) and features flamboyant tracery.
Above the doors are scenes from the Last Judgment and there is a statue of Christ between the doors.
A double row of 22 elegant flying buttresses support the cathedral.
Soaring 130ft (42m) high, with support from 126 slender pillars, the airy, brightly lit nave is a hymn to the vertical.
The 110 oak choir stalls (!508-19) are delicately carved with more than 3,500 biblical, mythical and real-life figures.
Originally laid down in 1288, this was reassembled in the late 19th century. The faithful followed its labyrinthine path on their knees.
Sculpted by Nicolas Blasset in 1628, this sentimental statue in the ambulatory became a popular image during World War I.
The patron saint of Amiens, St. Firm in was born in Pamplona, Spain, in around 272. After ordination, he was sent to northern France, where he pursued his mission boldly, unafraid of persecution, and soon settled in Amiens. His persuasive preaching led to his beheading by the Romans in around 303.
1220: Bishop Evrard de Fouilly begins work on the foundation of the cathedral.
1279: The relics of St. Firm in and St. Ulphe are presented, atten ded by the kings of France and England.
1849: Restoration of the cathedral takes place underthe direction of the architect Viollet-le-Duc.
1981: Amiens Cathedral joins the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.