Amiens Cathedral – Visiting This Great Gothic Masterpiece
It’s been an emotional last few days on Liberation Tour 2015 with the visits to the various Dieppe sites where Canadians died in such great numbers and that was preceded by the very disturbing visit to Abbeye d’Ardenne where Canadian POWs, especially Nova Scotians were murdered. While we were all very upbeat coming from the D-Day sites, especially Juno Beach we have now all seen the darker side of WWII and as if that were not enough we are now headed to the even darker sites associated with the horrors of the Western Front in WWI. I don’t know about you, but I need a little uplifting and I know just the place to get it – Amiens cathedral.
In an earlier post I described a visit to the very first gothic cathedral, St. Denis, just outside of Paris and explained a bit about what makes a gothic cathedral, a gothic cathedral. Perhaps I should have waited until this post because Amiens cathedral is the epitome of the French gothic cathedral. So what makes this cathedral so great? Have a look. This is the view that greets you as enter the place in front. Thank goodness this space has not been encroached upon and one can get a perspective of just how big it is.
This article describes the seven characteristics of a gothic cathedral and Amiens cathedral has every one. First of all it has to be tall and inspire the eye to look heavenward. I suggest that is exactly what you want to do as you approach this magnificent edifice. In fact, Amiens is the tallest complete gothic cathedral in France and the largest in volume.
Next it needs to have the classic pointed arches that are the definition of gothic. Have a look at the three arches at the entrance way and in particular the central archway which has concentric rings of gothic arches in one of the most beautiful and detailed sculpted entrances to any cathedral.
This leads to the third essential feature of gothic cathedrals and that is that the architecture gives way to decorative form and style that actually tells a story. Here it is the last judgment and the longer you look at it the more you can see and marvel at.
This is the weighing of the souls – are you going to have the scale balance to the left side and join the chosen in paradise or it is going to come down on the right and you will join those delightful fiends pulling you down to eternal damnation. The ordinary folk who attended these churches were for the most part illiterate and these type of sculptures were instrumental in teaching them the facts of life as the clergy thought they should know them. As an interesting aside, I have scene similar weighing of the dead scenes in Egyptian temples thousands of years older than Amiens cathedral so the idea has been around for a long time.
A gothic cathedral should have flying buttresses to support the outer walls and Amiens cathedral gets a passing grade on that account.
The one thing that is both totally unnecessary and yet essential at the same time for any self-respecting gothic cathedral is of course, gargoyles. These creepy gents are just over the front entrance of Amiens cathedral and I am sure gave more than one young child entering this house of God nightmares for days to come.
Entering Amiens cathedral it is easy to spot the final two essentials for a great gothic cathedral – a light and airy exterior created with the help of barrel vaulted ceilings, in this case the highest in France.
So Amiens cathedral gets a seven out of seven for classic gothic essentials, but its charms don’t stop there. The interior has a series of beautiful polychrome reliefs that are in extraordinary condition. Like the exterior sculptures these also tell biblical stories in great detail. One could easily spend hours inside the interior just trying to decipher the meaning of the dozens of different decorative works.
Most of the stories deal with the life and times of John the Baptist, and sorry for not telling you this sooner, you see they have his head here. Apparently as the story goes a guy called Willon de Sarton picked it up at a yard sale in Constantinople in 1204 – just kidding, I’m sure he didn’t get rooked. Anyway he brought it back to Amiens and gave them a great reason to build this place. There are images of John’s head everywhere inside the church including this nice sculpture.
This of course is not the real head. This is.
As if this weren’t enough to warrant a pilgrimage to Amiens, and it certainly was and still is for believers, there is more to see in the interior of Amiens cathedral including this interesting sarcophagus. Note the two dragons entwined at the feet instead of the usual two lions or two dogs. I wasn’t able to find out why there was this departure from the norm.
Lastly, I came across a reminder of what we are about to witness over the next few days, the mayhem of WWI.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief time exploring Amiens cathedral. We’ll start our tour of WWI sites at Lochnagar Crater, scene of the second largest man made non-nuclear explosion in history. The first just happens to have taken place in my home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia.