There are many places, sights, buildings and experiences where superlatives are never enough, where we have to rely on sensory impact to get the message across. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens is such a place, and not without good cause is it listed as a World Heritage Site. It’s a classic case of ‘Don’t take my word for it; come and see for yourself’.
Construction work started in 1220, but it was not unitl 1528 that the spire was erected. It has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981. © ATOUT FRANCE/CRT Picardie/Sam Bellet
Louis XI described the cathedral as ‘Une des plus belles de tout notre royaume’, one of the best of his reign, its construction virtually coincidental with his time as king (1226-1270). It is certainly the largest Gothic building in France, begun in 1220 and completed in 49 years, a feat that explains its great harmony of style; thankfully, it somehow escaped damage during the Second World War, and remains today a monumental testimony to hugely skilful and largely unacknowledged masons and builders. As you stand before the great western face you know, to paraphrase Marcel Proust, that you are seeing something that is truly great.
Notre Dame is not the first cathedral in Amiens: that was built outside the city walls, on the tomb of St Firmin. But soon the cathedral and the saint’s relics were moved into the city, experiencing almost centennial misadventure by fire, being largely destroyed in 1019, 1137 and 1218, until the present building was begun. A few years earlier, in 1206, a time of pilgrimages, crusades and unimaginable religious fervour, the then bishop of Amiens, Richard de Gerberoy, received canon Walon de Sarton from Picquigny, who had just returned from the Fourth Crusade bringing with him a lock of hair belonging to John the Baptist. This priceless relic, still on view in the cathedral, turned Amiens into a shrine and a place of endless pilgrimage.
At a more secular
level, the cathedral is bright and spacious, light and welcoming, majestic
without being overpowering. The sculptures and carvings, both within and
without, are sumptuous, many still retaining some of their original
colouration. The ‘Gloire’ above the high altar now houses the relics of St
Firmin, and glows brilliantly as sunlight reflects from the white columns and
walls of the choir. But for a truly moving experience, witness the nightly son
et lumiere (April to end of September) that contrives to illuminate
the western façade in colours that would match the originals.
As a cathedral song-writer once remarked, neither atheists nor believers can remain unmoved by so amazing a monument.
‘You don’t have to be much of an adventurer to surrender to the majesty of the cathedral at Amiens.’
Gargoyles on Notre Dame cathedral, Amiens.
© ATOUT FRANCE/Hervé Le Gac
The cathedral is open daily Apr-Sep 0830-1830; Oct-Mar 0830-1730. Guided tours (€5.50) are available.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens, 80000 AMIENS
Tel: 03 22 71 60 50