Gothic Cathedrals are like giant history books to whom wishes to take the time to read them. The Amiens Cathedral is the biggest of all, or at least it is the biggest one ever finished, in France.
Amiens is a little and, quite surprisingly, charming city located 100km North of Paris. Surprisingly charming even to me, a French Gal who should have known better.
We had passed by Amiens several times over the years, never stopping by lack of time. But you know, when all UNESCO World Heritage Sites are on your BID list, and when you are a Cathedral fan, at some point, you make time. And you soon realize that you should have done so, way before!
We were on our way to spend a lovely week-end in Chantilly and this time there was no reason to not stop. The weather was glorious and even a bit too hot for me, so visiting a cathedral was the perfect activity to cool off. As we drove into Amiens, the cathedral appeared in the skyline and the closer we got the more the whoa effect took in!
Come along! As usual, I’ll show you a lot of pictures. But first I want to give you a bit of historical background. It’s ok if you want you can skip this and go to the pictures! But hey, you might learn a thing or 2!
A touch history: France in the 13th Century
The Amiens Cathedral, as we know it today, was built in the 13th Century and its construction started in 1220.
In 1220, France looked very different from what it is today. Ruled by King Philip II, known as Philip Augustus, he is actually the first King to have called himself King of France. King Philip II transformed France from a small feudal state mainly located around Paris, into a prosperous and powerful country. (Check this Wiki map to fully understand)
Following King Philip II, 5 kings ruled France during the 13th century, some of them didn’t last very long while others like Louis IX (1226-1270) and Philippe IV the Fair (1285-1314) left their marks.
Louis IX regained English territories located in France and launched further crusades.
Philippe IV‘s reign was marked by wars with England and his ambitions to rule an uncontested monarchy. Philippe might have not been as fair as his name suggest as he is the one (with Pope Clement V) who got the Knights Templar arrested on the pretext of heresy, idolatry and so forth. Seizing the Templars fortune helped Philippe financial problems significantly.
Medieval times have a certain charm. What we see today of such period are dreamy castles, incredibly beautiful cathedrals and every now and then, a tapestry or a painting depicting a hunting scene.
But when you study Medieval times a bit deeper, you soon realizes that there are many dark sides to them. Wars fought for power, crippling superstitions, decapitation under any false accusation, despotic rulers… This is not even mentioning terrible health issues, plagues, famine, sky-high mortality rate at any age… all very charming! Nether-the-less, I’ll continue my visits of Medieval castles, don’t worry!
Another pinch of history: the construction of the Amiens Cathedral
The little city of Amiens benefitted from prosperous years during the 13th century and relative peace. The development of a textile industry linked to the indigo dye partially financed the construction of the Cathedral.
During such century, Amiens quickly became an important pilgrimage city. The holy relic skull of St. John the Baptist was brought to the city by the Crusaders in 1206 and attracted many people affected by the evil eye, demonic possession or things of the sort (basically epilepsy!).
Therefore and as it was customary, using the site of the former cathedral which was destroyed by a fire, it was decided to erect a new and bigger cathedral designed on the ‘modern’ and widespread model of the time. Construction started in 1220 and lasted until around 1270.
To put things into perspective:
Notre Dame de Paris‘ construction which had started in 1163, lasted much longer as it is considered to have ended in 1345.
The Reims Cathedral‘s construction was quite lengthily too as it went through various stages of construction and extension lasting until the end of the 13th century.
The price for the longest construction of all could probably given to the Rouen Cathedral which was built, rebuilt and transformed several times from 1063 to 1880!
Now on the other end of the spectrum, the price for the shortest construction period could probably be given to the Chartres Cathedral. This cathedral was mostly built between 1194 and 1220, an astonishingly short period of time.
Why is it important? Because Cathedrals built within a ‘short’ time frame usually display a great architectural unity. This is the case for Chartres and Amiens. While Cathedrals built over a long period of time usually reflect the changing of styles, from early gothic to late gothic and even flamboyant gothic and a neo-gothic, like it is the case for the Rouen cathedral.
So, as you can see on the UNESCO World Heritage website: The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens is “one of the largest ‘classic’ Gothic churches of the 13th century. It is notable for 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.”
Let’s go inside!
View of the the Choir
Gothic Trancept and Nave architecture
North Transept chapel with its iron screen
Just the North Aisle
The South transept rose window is in Gothic Flamboyant style. The triforium is blind unlike in the nave.
Most stained windows have been destroyed during WWII although they had been taken down.
The pictures above and below show the chevet and the radiating chapels decorated walls.
The choir organ dates from the 16th century (picture above)
While the main organ dates from the 15th century (picture below)
A few decoration and furnishing pieces are not from the 13th century like the pulpit pictured above which is from 1773.
The below statue of the suffering Christ is from the 17th century (although it does look quite medieval).
Like in many cathedrals, there is a labyrinth on the floor of the nave.Installed in 1288, it had to be completely recreated in the 19th century. Pictured above is the center.
The Choir Screen
One of the most impressive thing about the Amiens Cathedral are the high reliefs of the choir screen.
On the North Side, the scenes describe the life of Saint John the Baptist. Created in 1531, these are still in Gothic style.
The South side depicts the story of Saint Firmin and such high relief were created between 1490 and 1530.
Lot’s of lovely scenes including lots of decapitations! Yet very interesting and impressive.
That’s it! You can find more information and pictures on the websites listed below. Do check them out!
Oh! One more thing…
Why did I start this article by saying the Amiens Cathedral is the biggest gothic cathedral ever finished? Because the Beauvais Cathedral would have been the biggest of all if it had been finished… but that is for another time!
The South facade and its flamboyant gothic rose window.
The Technical Bits:
The official website: http://www.cathedrale-amiens.fr/en/
Another site of great interest is: mappinggothic.org. Includes amazing pictures and great infos.
Amiens is about 100 km north of Paris and there is much to do in Picardie!
Visits are free on Saturday and Sunday’s afternoon and there are guided tours. You can go up the South tower.
The Amiens Cathedral has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981.
The Amiens Cathedral, is a place of worship, please dress accordingly and visit respectfully.
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Transept, nave, triforium, flying buttresses… Sounds like gibberish to you? Check out my mini guides, they are completely free.