The ever impressive Cathedral of Notre Dame d’Amiens is in most English minds the beau ideal of a French cathedral. It is contemporary with Salisbury in period, at least, but it has little to remind one of the actual features of this edifice. Often associated therewith, as a similar type, it has little in reality in common, except that each is representative of a supreme style. Beyond this it is hard to see how any expert, archeologist, antiquary, or what not, would seek to discover relationship between two such distinct types. Salisbury is the ideal English cathedral as to situation, surroundings, and general charm and grace. This no one would attempt to deny; but, in another environment, how different might it not appear, – as for instance placed beside Amiens, where in one particular alone, the mere height of nave and choir, it immedi ately dwindles into insignificance. Under such conditions its graceful spire becomes dwarfed and attenuated. Need more be said? – The writer thinks not, since the present work does not deal with the comparative merits of any two cathedrals or of national types; but the suggestion should serve to demonstrate how impossible it is for any writer, however erudite he may be, to attempt to assign precedence, or even rank, among the really great architectural works of an era. This observation is true of many other examples of art expression.
The cathedral at Amiens is dedicated to the Virgin, and is built in the general form of a Latin cross. Over the principal doorway of the south portal, on one of the upper plinths, may be seen the inscription which places the date of the present edifice.
The work was undertaken by one Robert de Luzarche, in the episcopate of Evrard de Fouilloy, the forty-fifth Bishop of Amiens, whose tomb may be seen just within the western doorway, and occupies the site of other structures which had been variously devastated by fire or invasion in 850, 1019, 1137, and 1218. For fifty years the work went on expeditiously under various bishops and their architects. ” Saint ” Louis, Blanche of Castille, Philippe the Hardy, and the city fathers all aided the work substantially, and the fabric speedily took on its finished form. Through the later centuries it still preserved its entity, and even during the Revolution its walls escaped destruction and defilement through the devotion of its adherents.
In later days important work and restoration has been carried out under the paternal care and at the expense of the state; and the city itself only recently contributed 45,000 francs for the clearing away of obstructing buildings.
A French writer has said, ” It is only with the aid of a Bible and a history of theology that it is possible to elucidate the vast iconographic display of the marvellous west front of the cathedral at Amiens.” Like Reims, its three portals of great size are peopled with a throng of statues. The central portal, known as the Porche du Souvenir, contains the statue of the Good God of Amiens; that on the right is called after the Mere de Dieu, and that on the left for St. Fermin the Martyr. Above the gables is the ” Gallery of Kings,” just below the enormous rose windows. Above rise the two towers of unequal loftiness, and lacking, be it said, thickness in its due proportion. The carven figures in general are not considered the equal in workmanship of those at Reims, though the effect and arrangement is similar. For a complete list of them, numbering some hundreds on this facade alone, the reader must refer to some local guide-book, of which several are issued in the city.
The south portal, the Portal de la Vierge doree or Portal de Saint Konore, shares company with the west facade in its richness of sculpture and its rose window and its gable. Here also are to be seen the supporting buttresses which spring laterally from the wall of the transept and cross with those which come from the choir.
The north portal, on the side of the Bishop’s Palace, does not show the same richness as the others, though perhaps more than ordinarily ornate.
The spire above the transept crossing is a work of the sixteenth century, and is perhaps more remarkable than its rather diminutive appearance, in contrast with the huge bulk of the edifice, would indicate.
The extreme height of nave and choir (147 feet), adds immeasurably to the grand effect produced by the interior, a height in proportion to breadth nearly double that usual in the English cathedrals. The vaulting is borne aloft by over one hundred columns. The natural attribute of such great dimension is a superb series of windows, a promise more than fulfilled by the three great rose windows and the lofty clerestory of nave and choir. The sixteenth century glass is exceedingly profuse and brilliant.
The lateral chapels of the nave were added subsequent to the work of the early builders, all being of the sixteenth century, while the eleven choir chapels are of the thirteenth century, all with very ornate iron grilles, which are a feature only second to a remarkable series of ” choir stalls,” numbering over one hundred, showing a wonderful variety of delicate carved figures of the sixteenth century, the work of one Jean Turpin, the subjects being mainly Biblical.
A stone screen with elaborate sculptures in high relief surrounds the choir, that on the south representing the legend of St. Firmin, the patron of Picardy, and that on the north, scenes connected with the life of John the Baptist. In a side chapel dedicated to St. John reposes the alleged head of John the Baptist. Others have appeared elsewhere from time to time, but as they are not now recognized as being genuine, and the said apostle not being hydra-headed, it is possible that there will be those who will choose to throw the weight of their opinions in favour of the claim of Amiens.
The flying buttresses at Amiens are not of the singular lightness associated with this notably French characteristic; they are in the main, however, none the less effective for that, and assuredly, so far as the work which they have to perform is concerned, it was doubtless necessary that they should be of more than ordinary strength.
The view of the ensemble from the river shows the massiveness and general proportions in a unique and superb manner. Amiens is not otherwise an attractive city, a bustle of grand and cheap hotels, decidedly a place to be taken en route, not like Beauvais, where one may well remain as long as fancy wills and not feel the too strong hand of progress intruding upon his ruminations.