Friday, 17 May 2013

Preview: Amiens Cathedral

John the Baptist certainly gets around. His severed head especially. One of the most popular saintly relics around, his head can be found scattered across Europe and the Middle East. San Silvestro church in Rome has his entire skull on display, the Residenz Museum in Munich does likewise, San Lorenzo cathedral in Viterbo, Italy, has his chin, and more recently scientists confirmed that bones, including part of a skull, found in a church in Bulgaria "could be" of John the Baptist. It's not just Christianity who claims him - Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul also have at least parts of his skull. And let's not get into the other body parts - I could base an entire tour around them. As it is, the only place I'll being seeing (part of) John the Baptist's skull will be in here: Amiens Cathedral.

Despite looking disturbingly like a skull from the future wearing a golden spacesuit, this very holy relic is hugely significant to the vast Gothic cathedral that surrounds it. In fact, its arrival into Amiens in 1206 is regarded as the key inspiration for the cathedral's construction. In the Bible, John the Baptist bows out when King Herod beheads him as a present for his dancing granddaughter. Jesus's disciples bury his body, but we last we hear of his head is Herod's granddaughter proudly showing the head to her mother. It was a different family dynamic from mine, I must admit. Tradition has it that the head was buried in Herod's palace, and a few hundred years later (long after the palace was destroyed) some monks happened to discover it. So begins a series of great voyages for John the Baptist's head, being taken to various cities, lost, then refound again often in mystical circumstances. There's more than sufficient vagueness about its exact movements, but the skull we see now was discovered by a man called Walon de Sarton, at the end of the Fourth Crusade. Crusades were usually against the infidel Saracen in the Holy Land but this crusade had ended up being a little diverted and had instead sacked the fellow Christian city of Constantinople. Oops. Walon wasn't too bothered though: he was quite a fan of saintly relics, with a suspicious knack for acquiring them, and found himself in a monastery in Constaninople. While praying, he discovered a bunch of relics stuffed in a hole, waited till the monks were busy elsewhere, then quickly pocketed them and slipped away. Among the relics was John the Baptist's skull (as testified by an inscription on the box) and it was this that he handed to the bishop of Amiens when he eventually got home.

The skull has been in Amiens ever since. Back in the Middle Ages, it was a huge draw - the equivalent of Justin Bieber signing a lifetime deal at the O2 Arena. The pilgrims flocked, the church grew richer, and when it burnt down in 1218, rebuilding it in grand style was a no-brainer. The new Gothic craze was already sweeping the land, almost competitively so. Who could build the biggest and most beautiful? The Bishop of Amiens, a man called Evrard de Fouilly, believed he could. The knowhow was already out there - the Notre-Dames of Paris, Chartres, and Rheims were all well underway. A mason called Robert de Luzarches was employed to take a good look at these and try and do better. How did he do?


Well, it's the biggest of these for a start. Amiens Cathedral is the biggest cathedral in France. The central spire reaches 112.7 metres, and the total length of the cathedral is 145 metres, but it's the overall interior that is most notable, the volume being around 200,000 cubic metres. I'll forgive you if that number doesn't mean very much, but it's roughly twice as spacious as the Notre-Dame de Paris, or in double-decker bus units, it is almost 2000 double-decker buses. Yes, that's quite large.

The size then can be easily qualified, the aesthetics less so. Chartres these days is typically called the most "perfect" in terms of the Gothic style, and Notre-Dame is the most famous (by virtue of being in Paris). So what about Amiens? Well, it's certainly no ugly pig. For the layman, such as myself, I really don't think there's any substantial difference - Amiens Cathedral, like the others, is beautiful. At least until I visit it and get a deeper impression, it looks just as good as the very best out there. But others, with a keener, more expert eye, have voiced their approval. Our good friend, Viollet-le-Duc, who was involved in its restoration, called it the French Parthenon, praising its structural clarity. The writer William Whewell - the man who coined the term "scientist" - went further, stating, "The interior of the Cathedral is one of the most magnificent spectacles that architectural skill can ever have produced". But my favourite is undoubtedly from the art critic John Ruskin, who wrote: "...if you have no wonder in you for the choir and its encompassing circlet of light, when you look up into it from the cross-centre, you need not travel any further in search of cathedrals, for the waiting room of any station is a better place for you..."

With this style of cathedral, one of the chief selling points is always going to be the western facade. Cathedrals always have their main facades facing west so that the congregation faces east into the rising sun, symbolic of Jesus's ascension, and therefore the western facade always goes to town with making an impression: design, grandeur, symbolism, beauty. Amiens Cathedral therefore is typically grand and ornate. It has five levels: the exquisite trio of portals, a gallery of windows, a gallery of 22 statues of kings, the large rose window, and two slightly asymmetrical towers, 66 and 65 metres high. In my opinion, it looks pretty great, but it's not attracted universal praise, having been criticised on architectural grounds due to some of the parts not relating to each other proportionately. But I'll be honest - I don't know what that means. Sometimes I think that being an expert takes the fun away a bit.

Amiens Cathedral only took 49 years to build, a pretty remarkable achievement for a Gothic cathedral back in the 13th Century. Robert de Luzarches was succeeded by Thomas de Cormont, and then Thomas's son Renaud. It would be lovely to know a little about these people, but they are mere names. Despite their incredible achievements, architects were regarded as little more than fancy foremen and not celebrated for the geniuses they were. In fact, "architecture" as a concept didn't even exist - these men were just master masons. At least their names were recorded - we don't even know the name of the man or men who built Chartres Cathedral. Although the bulk of Amiens Cathedral was finished by 1270, it took a little longer for further additions to make it more what we recognise today. A series of chapels were added from 1290 to 1375, and more significantly the two towers were only added in the late 16th Century. Viollet-le-Duc also had a restorative hand in the mid-19th Century, replacing the western facade's gallery of statues.

These days we appreciate, even revere, the Gothic style, but it's fair to say that we've lost some of its medieval spiritual significance. The cathedrals really are a gift from the past we can never fully understand. There is a huge amount of art and symbolism inside - art in a cathedral was often used as a bible for the illiterate during the Middle Ages. With the centuries passed, the meanings are often obscured. Values change, and John the Baptist's head, once worshipped as a super-attraction, is now, for the likes of me, a kind of curiosity. But the impact of the cathedral remains undimmed: awesome, vast, with a sense of the heavens that even impresses the unbeliever. I won't pretend to understand the meaning of much of the finer details, in the same way that a person from the 30th Century wouldn't understand all the references made in a 20th Century episode of South Park. But I hope to appreciate it, just as our futuristic spaceman might laugh at Cartman singing.

As far as my Wonder quest goes, Amiens Cathedral is up against some pretty steep direct competition. It's hardly the only cathedral, and fellow Gothic cathedrals such as Cologne (bigger) and Chartres (more celebrated) look to offer a stern test of comparison. It's pretty difficult to tell from photos and descriptions - are all the best cathedrals just as good as each other, or do they have very obvious differences for even the layman? I look forward to finding out.

I'll be visiting Amiens Cathedral in the summer of 2014 most likely, and will give a fuller account of it and its history, as well as my own impressions, then.


  1. I am a big fan of gothic architecture and have plans one day to do a grand tour of some of these great cathedrals.

    " In my opinion, it looks pretty great, but it's not attracted universal praise, having been criticised on architectural grounds due to some of the parts not relating to each other proportionately."

    I don't know about proportion but I have heard that one of the reasons why the two bell towers of gothic cathedrals are often asymetrical is that they symbolise the imperfection of the human condition (as opposed to the heavens).

    To be honest it sounds more like the architect's irritated response to "Why are your towers different?", but there you go. I would have snapped back "Cos the funds dried up half-way through construction!".

    1. I know that a lot of mosques have deliberate (though usually quite subtle) mistakes for the same reason. I've always thought that if you have to make a deliberate error to be worse than God then, well, your making quite a grand assumption about your talents.

      It's quite a good excuse for any general mistake in construction though. "It's to symbolise humanity's imperfection," should be the go-to phrase for any architect under fire.


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