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The word for the Amiens Cathedral is huge. It is the tallest Gothic church (139 feet) and largest cathedral in France. (The interior stretches 476 feet.). Unlike other Gothic cathedrals, its façade was built first. It is so imposing, with so many sculptures, that I sort of wonder that there was any energy left to build a church behind it. The raison d’être, beyond providing a grandiose edifice for the seat (cathedra) of the Bishop of Amiens, was to house the head of John the Baptist, which, in 1206, was brought back from the 1204 sacking of Constantinople (now Istanbul, also known earlier as Byzantium) by crusaders of the Fourth Crusade. (The horses of San Marcos and Venice are another famous expropriation by Roman Catholic crusaders of Greek Orthodox churches.)
That relic survived a fire that destroyed the Romanesque cathedral in 1218. The foundation stone for a new (High Gothic) cathedral was laid in 1220 and the nave was completed by 1236. The transepts were completed in 1288. Amiens Cathedral has a unity of style that is rare, without classical, Baroque, or modernist overlays. The hollow towers on the east side are of different heights
The places to go to see medieval stained glass are Chartres, south of Paris, and Sainte-Chapelle in the center of Paris. Some of Amiens’ stained glass fell victim to Huguenot iconoclasm in 1561, hurricanes of 1627 and 1705, and the explosion of a nearby powder mill in 1675. Not far from the front in World War I, the remaining stained glass was removed to what was thought to be safety. Alas, the storage place burned and most of the stained glass was destroyed. More light comes into the church through plain-glass windows, which I consider a dubious upside compensation, but more light makes seeing the interior decoration easier. (BTW the impressively large rose window in the west façade is 16thcentury.)
The hugeness of the windows and having windows rather than an opaque wall at the back of the triforium level (“glazed triforium”) of the double ambulatory of the choir (the rounded eastern end of the building, beyond the altar) guarantees lots of light. I think the clerestory windows (the highest of the three levels inside the church) are the largest of any Gothic church (at least of any I’ve seen).
During Advent (before Christmas) and during the summer, there are nighttime light shows (with music and explication in French of some of the many, many, many statues above the three massive doorways). Though the statues in the Gallery of (22) Kings of Judah, high up on the façade, are about one and a half times life size, binoculars are useful both inside and outside the cathedral. It is possible (for an admission price of 2.5 euros) to go 307 steps up one or the other tower to walk along the base of the very pitched stone roof. Binoculars are also useful up there (if not for looking at the city on the Somme River, for looking at the decorations on flying buttresses).
One of the highlights is “the golden Virgin” (La Vierge Dorée). The one that is the trumeau (middle) statue of the south transept is a copy, the original being inside. The rose window of the south transept represents “the wheel of fortune” with people rising on the left side, falling on the right (sic transit gloria mundi). Another highlight is le Beau Dieu (Handsome God), the trumeau on the central portal. The tympanum above the central portal illustrates the Last Judgment, including the Resurrection of the Dead with the Weighing of Souls; sets of the redeemed and the damned souls (the first of the redeemed was the then recently canonized Francis of Assisi); Christ in Judgment (with raised arms showing the stigmata of his hands); and the Apocalyptic Son of Man with two swords coming from his mouth. There is, indeed, a dizzying array of sculptures above each of the three entryways, with wise and foolish virgins, the Tree of Jesse (the human lineage of Christ), elders of the Apocalypse, Old Testament prophets, the apostles, and lots and lots of angels.
The right portal is dedicated to the life of the Virgin Mary, the left one to Saint Firmin, the first bishop of Amiens. He is the trumeau statue. Other local bishops and saints are represented, and the procession with his casket (relics). Inside, the Flamboyant Gothic choir screen shows scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. Firmin, Amiens' first bishop, on the right side, and the those of John the Baptist on the left. The choir stalls, carved in the early 16th century, number 3500 figures.
Inside on the floor is a modern copy of the 1288 maze (240 meters in length). It is not covered by chairs, as the one in Chartres is. (If I recall correctly, the one in Canterbury cathedral is also uncovered.) There are many chapels along the double ambulatory. The axial chapel resembles Sainte-Chapelle, reputedly having been designed by the architect of Sainte-Chapelle, Thomas de Cormont. The spire above the intersection of the nave and the transept (which together make the cross shape) was constructed 1529-33, a previous one having burned in 1528.
Gregorian chanting occurs during the 10:15 AM Sunday mass (other than for attending services, Sunday is the worst day to examine the cathedral).
Amiens is 120 km (75 mi) north of Paris and the site of the University of Picardy. The only other place of note in it is the Cirque Jules Verne" (Jules Verne Circus) one of seven permanent circuses (cirque en dur) in France Macarons d'Amiens, small, round macaroons made from almond paste, fruit and honey are available in the Christmas market and throughout the year.
Trains from Paris' Gare du Lyon leave every two hours and take two hours with multiple intermediate stops (see www.bonjourlafrance.com/france-trains/corail/picardie-nord-pas-de-calais/paris-amiens-boulogne.htm). The yellow bus from De Gaulle Airport goes to Amiens (see www.busjaune.com).
©2013, Stephen O. Murray
Thanks to Di (surgrn911) for adding this UNESCO World Heritage site to the epinions database.
Best Time to Travel Here: Mar - May