Monday, October 19, 2015

An Afternoon in Amiens

Méindeg, 19 Oktouber.

To conclude our weekend in Normandy (and to break up the drive back to Belgium), we made one last stop in the city of Amiens. Amiens, the capital of the Picardy region, is a small but historic city in northwestern France. We spent a few hours eating and exploring the city center.


Our stop in Amiens was, first and foremost, a lunch break. And unlike Arromanches, when we'd attempted (and, I should add, totally succeeded) to squeeze in a sit-down meal, we had PLENTY of time to eat in Amiens. After exploring the city and peeking into every crêperie we passed, we settled on a cute (if rather touristy) restaurant called Tante Jeanne.

I opted for a galette complète -- a savoury, buckwheat crêpe filled with cheese, ham, and egg. Yum. Yum. Yummmm.

After lunch, we had a blast walking around the city of Amiens. We didn't have time to truly explore the city, but what we did see was absolutely adorable! Below is the charming Quartier Saint-Leu, located in the center of the city along the Somme River. The area is crisscrossed by canals and all held together by lots of small pedestrian bridges ... so sweet!


Of course, the biggest attraction in Amiens is the cathedral. The Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens is one of the biggest churches in the world (currently clocking in at the 19th largest) and must be one of the most beautiful.

The cathedral was built in the thirteenth century and was actually completed before another famous gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris. Although historians have difficulty pinpointing specific dates, the architectural unity of the cathedral's façade point to one unified building campaign (as opposed to several disjointed phases of construction). The front of the cathedral is breathtaking, with detailed carvings and hundreds of perfectly preserved statues.

The front of the church features three portals, each decorated with dozens of detailed sculptures. The two portals on the right and left are dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to St. Fimian (the legendary first bishop of Amiens), respectively. However, it is the central portal, which depicts the Last Judgment, that is the most famous. 

In the middle of the central portal, smack dab in between the two doors, is the so-called Beau-Dieu, or resurrected Christ. On either side of the door are depictions of the Apostles. The eight layers of smaller sculpture that line the top of the doorway are called voussoirs. (You learn something knew every day, huh?) The voussoirs of the central portal depict a variety of different figures, but you might be able to make out the praying angels in the innermost bands of sculpture. The main attraction of the central portal is the triangular sculpture above the doorway, which is known to people smarter than myself as the tympanum. (Fancy!) It depicts the Last Judgment, with Jesus, accompanied by the Virgin Mary, sitting in judgment. The lowest level of the tympanum depicts the weighing of souls -- see the scales? The middle level shows the souls of the damned descending into the hell, while St. Peter welcomes other souls -- including St. Francis of Assisi, who had been canonized right before the Amiens Cathedral was built and was apparently quite the popular guy -- into heaven.

And if that doesn't sound intense enough, imagine it all IN TECHNICOLOR. That's right: recent restorations have revealed that the statues on the front of the cathedral used to be painted! In light of this realization (pun intended), the city of Amiens hosts spectacles called "Amiens, la cathédrale en couleurs" in which the cathedral is illuminated in bright colors.

(PS. Do you think that this description of the cathedral is too detailed? If so, I encourage you to check out Mapping Gothic, which begins its description of the Amiens Cathedral like this: "This is a basilica where a five aisled choir and a three aisled nave is intersected by an aisled transept of shallow projection. The seven segment hemicycle is encircled by a single aisled ambulatory with seven radiating chapels, the axial chapel projecting more deeply than the others" ... in italics because, wait, wasn't that a foreign language?!)

There's even more to look at inside the church, from artwork to statues (including one of a weeping angel that became famous during WWI) to elaborate tombs. Amiens also possesses a particularly important relic: the (reputed) head of St. John the Baptist. This relic was brought back -- or, according to legend, stolen in the middle of the night -- from Constantinople during the crusades. Its popularity among pilgrims brought in enough money to fund the creation of the cathedral.

To learn more about the Amiens Cathedral, check out this video from UNESCO (which named the church a World Heritage site in 1981). And if you're wondering, "So Elisabeth, did you know all of this information when you visited the cathedral?" ... no. No, I did not know any of it! And I seriously regret not having done a little more research in order to have better appreciated what I was looking at. :/


Although I made a point to photograph several beautiful stained glass windows, most of the cathedral's original stained glass has been destroyed, much of it during the world wars. According to this article from Sacred Destinations, the city of Amiens took precautions to protect the ancient church during World War I, including surrounding the structure with sandbags and carefully removing the panes of stained glass. Although the cathedral itself was unharmed, the building where the glass was being stored was not so lucky and many of the panes were destroyed.

The missing glass has been replaced over the years by clear glass. This substitute is admittedly much less dramatic, but the clear glass allows sunlight to stream in and illuminate the massive church.

One of the most interesting things about this cathedral is that I've actually studied it before! When I took an introductory art history class in college, we talked about the perils of ambitious cathedrals: when architects designed buildings that were too tall or not well-enough supported, they had the potential to collapse. We watched a PBS documentary called "Building the Great Cathedrals" and learned how medieval architects avoid such a disaster at the Amiens Cathedral. (Although you can't stream the video on the PBS website, you can read the transcript of the program to learn how this fate was avoided. To watch the nearly-hour long video in its entirety, check it out on YouTube.)

Ironically, I referenced this idea of collapsing cathedrals to friends on the trip ... but I didn't realize until after getting back to Luxembourg and researching the church that it was the exact cathedral I had studied in class!

Adieu, Amiens! Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. So amazing! I am so proud of you for going and then researching. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful info!