Tuesday, 1 April 2014

39. Wonder: Amiens Cathedral

(For the Amiens Cathedral preview, please click here.)

I'd been tricked! With my usual sense of excitement when visiting a Wonder for the first time, I rushed to Amiens Cathedral, dragging Danielle behind me. It was Sunday. We'd arrived in Amiens late on Friday but although I'd had some time to appreciate the vast wall of detail that is the facade, I'd not yet been inside. I thought attending a Mass would be a nice debut. Amiens Cathedral comes with a reputation - aside from sometimes being regarded as the peak of the French Gothic style, an architectural style that I don't think has ever really been equalled, it also has the largest interior of any of the French Gothic cathedrals, 42.3 metres from floor to vaults (i.e. the ceiling). There was once one higher, 48 metres at Beauvais Cathedral - and it collapsed under its own weight. The space inside is cavernous, designed to draw the eye heavenwards, evoking the majesty of God.

I was looking forward to seeing this vast interior used for a service. We were running a little late - Danielle's fault! - and as we passed by the side of the cathedral, I could hear the sound of heavenly singing. The angels of Amiens were proceeding without us! We rushed to the facade, barely giving a glance at the two headless statues that watch those that enter via the north portal. These are headless by design, indeed they carry their heads in their hands; they are in the proud tradition of cephalophores, saints martyred by decapitation but whom are usually able to continue their business of preaching for some time after the beheading. I, for one, would pay full attention to a preaching headless saint.

The two headless saints depicted are thought to be local ones, St Ache (you bet it does) and St Acheul. The north portal is St Firmin's portal, Firmin being the legendary first bishop of Amiens, in the 4th Century. He died, yes, by beheading, although his statue adorning the centre of his portal is allowed the dignity of being "with head".

St Firmin was a busy fellow and is also said to have been the first bishop of Pamplona, in northern Spain, where some versions have him being martyred by having his feet tied to a bull and dragged through the streets, something doubly difficult if you're trying to hold onto your head the whole time. This has given rise to Pamplona's famous Running of the Bulls festival, held in his honour.

I'm sure none of these saints, heads or not, would be late for Mass, but we were. We rushed through St Firmin's portal, ready to take an order of service and find a discreet seat at the back. Only to find this:

It was empty! A few tourists ambled about the open space, footsteps echoing, but there was no sign at all of the singing, the worshipping, and the preaching that we expected, and had even heard. But then Danielle spotted a woman. She was striding purposely. "Come on," said Danielle, "Follow that woman." We did. She headed to the back of the cathedral, then took a turning left, down a corridor branching away from the main building. Again, we could hear the singing of people. Suddenly, I realised what was happening. "I don't think we need to go to this..." I said, but it was too late. We had arrived at a separate chapel, which I now know is called the Chapelle d'Hiver, or Winter Chapel, and found ourselves a seat at the back. I'd been tricked into attending Mass! By whom, I'm not sure, perhaps by the very cathedral, but this wasn't what I'd signed up for. I'd wanted to enjoy a Mass in the style I'd seen at Chartres or the Notre-Dame, with choirboys carrying candles and a priest swinging his pot of incense (it's got a name, you'll be pleased to know: a "thurible"), all while admiring the vast internal space of the cathedral and its inspiring architectural details. I wanted grandeur! Instead I got humility, in a cosy side chapel which looked every inch like a regular parish church. Danielle was happy because it was warm. I was less happy - I had to go through a Mass in French that seemed to last forever.

Having a special winter chapel for a vast cathedral like Amiens makes perfect sense. It's smaller and so much more easily heated. Almost every seat was filled creating a much more intimate atmosphere that the vast, cold nave of the cathedral would certainly not. But I can't help feeling that it's a bit of a shame. It kind of means that this terrific cathedral is virtually out of commission for half the year. The majority of ancient structures around the world have long lost their function - temples, mausoleums, defensive walls, palaces: all are now resigned to being places for tourists to wander around, they have become museums to themselves. But cathedrals still have that dignity of being useful. People still believe, and cathedrals offer a place for worship or for simple contemplation. But by removing the seating and shoving it to the side, Amiens Cathedral becomes just another pile of historic stone for tourists to traipse around and take photos of.

Which is somewhat ironic, as there's an argument that Amiens Cathedral is in the prime of its life, physically. It's a gorgeous cathedral, enjoying a new bloom of youth after extensive restoration over two centuries. We see today something like the third or fourth incarnation: the first was destroyed by Norman invaders in the 9th Century, and there were also devastating fires in 1019, 1107, and finally 1218. The final one was the most devastating - Amiens Cathedral was burnt to the ground, leaving almost no traces behind. Yet again, a new one had to be built.

The timing, for once, was fortuitous - perhaps suspiciously so. In 1206, part of the skull of John the Baptist had found its way to Amiens. This holy relic was a really big deal - it was an A-grade attraction that brought in a lot of pilgrims and thus their donations. You can still see it today if you're lucky. I was not - a peculiar blue box was its stand-in.

To accommodate the skull and the pilgrims, a really big cathedral was required and in the Gothic style sweeping the nation. Amiens intended for their cathedral to be the biggest and the best. The French historian George Duby compares the bishop of a town to a prince, with his cathedral being like a military campaign. The Gothic craze was as much driven by competition as it was religious (or financial) fervour. Construction starred in 1220, a little later than its neighbours: the Notre-Dame de Paris began in 1163, Chartres in 1194, and Rheims in 1211.

In this sense, Amiens Cathedral had the upper hand. It was able to learn from the mistakes and the innovations of its neighbours, which is why it is regarded by some - luminaries like Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, restorer-extraordinaire, included - as the culmination of the French Gothic style. The core of the cathedral was completed by around 1270, thus keeping the style pure to that single era. Amiens Cathedral wasn't about originality: just as Versailles was to other palaces, just as the Great Pyramid was to other pyramids, it was about doing it bigger and better. Which is why the similarity to Paris's Notre-Dame is no coincidence.

The medieval pilgrim, or simple local peasant, looking upon the cathedral wouldn't have seen quite what we see, however. They'd have seen very different stained-glass windows for one. If you can imagine keeping a greenhouse in a rough part of town, that's been Amiens Cathedral's trouble with its windows over the last 750 years or so. The north of France has not been a peaceful place. Aside from the occasional violent storm, the windows have seen deliberate destruction during periods of upheaval, notably during the 16th Century with the Reformation. Two world wars didn't help either. During World War 1, the windows were carefully removed for safekeeping: the cathedral ended up untouched but a fire in the storage studio destroyed the majority of them. Most perished earlier, in the 18th Century when the decision was made that it would be nicer if the cathedral was a bit lighter. Loads of windows were simply removed and binned and swapped with straightforward grey-tinted glass. So, we see a patchwork of windows from over the centuries, some of the most recent being from the 1930s at the back of the cathedral - in the ambulatory - in the Art Deco style. The photo below is massive, so click if you want some details.

Our medieval friend also wouldn't have seen the two towers, not before the mid-14th Century. The south one, that is the one to the right-hand side as you face it, was built in 1366, and the north in 1402, the slightly later period accounting for the slightly more flamboyant style. At select times, you can climb up these today, beginning at the foot of the south tower, climbing to the level of the rose window then crossing over to the north tower. The rose window is often one of the most admired features of a cathedral, built some time in the early 15th Century, and this is the first time I've been able to walk right by one. It's pretty big. The experience reminded me a little of standing inside Big Ben's clock face.

The area at the top of Amiens Cathedral's north tower is just a small one, and with the tiled gables in the middle it feels just a little like being on a rooftop. The height of the tower is 66 metres - tall, but unlike Chartres Cathedral's 133-metre north tower, I didn't feel my legs weaken from under me. Danielle wasn't too comfortable though. The views across the city, as you'd imagine, are terrific, as are the views over the cathedral itself, including the 112-metre-high oak spire, lead-clad, built in 1533 and the oldest in France.

But it's the main facade which is Amiens Cathedral's selling point. It really is superb. As said, the similarity to the Notre-Dame is no coincidence, but Amiens was built to be bigger, richer, more fantastic. It sounds strange to say this of a building or a facade, but Amiens Cathedral's facade seems more three-dimensional than any other I've seen. It's not just a flat wall with some carvings, it's as though the sculptures have escaped the facade and are on the loose; as though the facade was literally bursting with detail. The three portals are spectacular, lined with saints and kings and enough meaning to fill textbooks. In the middle, we have Christ and Judgement Day, on the right is the Virgin Mary's portal, and on the left is St Firmin's and a couple of his headless friends.

The three portals divide the cathedral into three, vertically. Horizontally, it's divided into five, with rows of windows, sculpted kings, the grand rose window, and the towers. The detail, and subtlety of detail is extraordinary, even by Gothic standards. An expert, or perhaps just an educated person from the Middle Ages, might be abe to fill you in with the meaning of it all, but for the majority of us these days it's enough to just gaze and appreciate the quality of it all, which is some of the finest I've seen.

We're lucky today to see a very cleaned-up and restored cathedral. Centuries of weather took their toil on the limestone exterior, and though local citzens saved it from serious damage during the French Revolution, it fell into neglect in the decades after. Parts of the roof came off; water started to get inside. It was a mess. Enter restoration super-maestro Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. Not content with saving pretty much everything else in France, from 1846 to 1869 he devoted a lot of his time to fully restoring Amiens Cathedral to health, albeit to his own tastes some of the time. The sculpture was redone by two local brothers, Aime and Louis Duthois, at his behest. Aside from the windows, the cathedral remarkably suffered little damage during the World Wars, but it was filthy from dirt and pollution. Since the 1990s, the cathedral has been carefully laser-cleaned, with the facade finished by 2000. There's still some to do, but there's no doubt the results are stunning, especially when compared with as-yet uncleaned areas.

Physically, the cathedral may be enjoying its finest moments today, but spiritually no doubt it peaked in the Middle Ages. Even before completion, it would have been the hub of the community. The Middle Age pilgrim might notice the different windows, the two facade towers, the spire, and a slightly reshuffled Viollet-le-Duc-style facade, but he'd also notice how quiet the cathedral is now. But that's not Amiens Cathedral's fault, that's just changing times. Why have 80 people shivering in a vast nave when you can heat them comfortably in a cosy Winter Chapel?

Amiens Cathedral is a gorgeous cathedral, but it's not perfect. The interior is wonderful (although the 18th Century grey-tinted windows nothing special) and the facade is truly world class. But the rest of the exterior is a little more humdrum. Part of the north side is even fenced off, so it's not possible to walk all the way around. And the square that the cathedral faces is very boring. Small, empty, and concrete, the only reason you'd possibly want to hang around is to sit on a bench and look at the cathedral. Some of the modern buildings - including the tourist information - add little to the appeal. Knock them down and put in some grass, I say.

The appeal of Amiens Cathedral is obvious: it's very pretty and the facade is a feast for the eyes. The restoration and cleaning are immaculate. Does it matter that it's not as original and untouched as Chartres? Probably not. Is it as good as Chartres Cathedral? In my opinion, probably not. Amiens suffers from being just one of the many Gothic cathedrals in the area, and one of the even larger number of overall cathedrals in the world. It's not original, and wasn't even built to be original. It might have the largest interior in France, but that's more of a statistic than anything else - it isn't that much bigger. And it isn't the tallest from the outside. It's a great cathedral and absolutely anybody could stand in front of it and think, "Wow, that sculpture is beautiful." But to paraphrase my Chartres Cathedral review, just because a pyramid is great doesn't mean it's the Great Pyramid. Amiens is a great cathedral, it's a great building, but I don't think it's unique enough in the world to be considered a World Wonder.

Some criteria then.

Size: It's pretty big. 145 metres long, 112.7m high at the steeple, a 42.3 metres ceiling inside. The towers reach to 66 metres, although there are many taller cathedral towers out there.
Engineering: Like all medieval Gothic cathedrals, incredible achievements by humanity. That Amiens Cathedral already had precedents barely diminishes the achievement.
Artistry: One of the cathedral's strong points. The facade and interior are amazing.
Age: The foundation stone was laid 794 years ago, putting it in the era of Angkor Wat and a couple of centuries before the Aztecs started kicking about.
Fame/Iconicity: Not terribly famous. It's usually lumped in with the rest of the Gothic cathedrals - unless you're interested in cathedrals, you probably wouldn't be able to identify it.
Context: It's in the heart of the small city of Amiens, visible from many parts. The square it faces is small and dull though.
Back Story: Its construction is part of the overall tale of the medieval Gothic craze of its time, although it has plenty of nice little side stories involving St Firmin and John the Baptist's head.
Originality: It was never designed to be unique, just to be bigger and better than its neighbours.
Wow Factor: If you'd never seen a cathedral before, the facade and interior would certainly elicit some gasps. Otherwise, you know what to expect - though it does it very well.

As I said in my Chartres review, to be a World Wonder takes something a little more unusual, and for a cathedral that's very hard to achieve. Cathedrals conform, to a degree, a template, and they have to be something truly astonishing to stand out. In the context of a World Wonder, Amiens does not achieve that. It's a gorgeous cathedral and definitely an unmissable part of anybody's grand tour of cathedrals, and if you want to admire some beautiful medieval sculpture, I can barely think of a better place to start. But in terms of the special conditions that are needed to be a Wonder of the World, it's more mid-table, just a little below the petite bling of the Golden Temple and a little above the pointy bling of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Sydney Opera House


Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. "These are headless by design, indeed they carry their heads in their hands"

    I like the photo, in which they are carefully clutching their heads in their arms. If I were headless but still well enough to stand up and keep hold of my head, I would hold it up where it used to be (yes, it would look as if I were blocking my ears and not wanting to listen, perhaps not the best attitude for a saint who is supposed to listen to peoples' prayers and intercede with God on their behalf).

    "Most perished earlier, in the 18th Century when the decision was made that it would be nicer if the cathedral was a bit lighter. Loads of windows were simply removed and binned and swapped with straightforward grey-tinted glass."

    I can't help myself but wonder why people, not that long ago really, didn't value the art and work of their predecessors in the same way that we do today. It's strange from a 21st century perspective to think that somebody in the 18th century said "This place needs more sunlight, chuck out that 500 year old stuff and get something else in".

    As we are on the subject of gothic cathedrals, I notice that you have several northern European ones, but no Milan cathedral? Especially as it is quite different in the shape of its façade from the standard northern French variety. Its multitude of pinnacles is impressive, and as Silvio Berlusconi could attest, quite painful if walloped in the face with a little model of it.

    1. I suppose you'd get lazy after a while, trying to hold or balance your head upon your shoulders. Much easier to just hold it in your arms, and it would make a good ice-breaker at parties.

      I get the impression that it's only in the last couple of centuries, and gradually, that we've began to appreciate old stuff. Before, it was just, well, old stuff. In fact, I think even the name Gothic was one coined much later, to imply the style was old fashioned and ugly. Somehow, people looked at it and thought "crap". Or, at least, people in positions of influence, whether power or taste.

      I've ummed and erred about Milan Cathedral a fair bit, and it's probably victim of only being known about long after my list was formed, and I felt reluctant to add yet another cathedral on it. I'm almost certain I'll be visiting Milan on this trip, and so I'll check out the cathedral. If it makes a suitable impression, I'll revisit it "officially".

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You might be overpowered, disillusioned, or confounded, and still softened in light of the fact that you got included up system advertising, and don't comprehend what happened. You may feel absolutely alone, and feel as if you have been deceived. Cathedral seating

  4. Hi! I am doing a project on Amiens and am wondering if you know why Notre Dame and Amiens are so similar in design...


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.