Introduction to Amiens Cathedral
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, Amiens Cathedral – along with Chartres and Reims - is one of three 13th Century High Gothic churches in France. The largest cathedral in the country, Amiens was built to house the head of St. John the Baptist, retrieved from Constantinople during the Crusades. It is St. John’s head and the attention it attracted that provided most of the funds to build Amiens, also the tallest cathedral in France. Today, visitors head to Amiens to admire the pristine architecture and amazing artworks, and to get a good look at the city of Amiens from the cathedral’s west towers.
Visitors to Amiens Cathedral will note that its design is not unlike that of the other notable French cathedrals of the same era. It boasts a west façade with two towers, a nave with three aisles, a three-aisled transept (giving the cathedral its cruciform shape), a five-aisled choir, an ambulatory around the apse, and a host of radiating chapels around the ambulatory. The lower tier of the west façade includes three deep porches over which sits a gallery of life-sized kings – 22 in all – as well as a magnificent rose window. The western portals include statues of well-known local saints as well as eschatological scenes that depict the ultimate destiny of humanity.
When the cathedral’s exterior was laser cleaned around the turn of the millennium, it was discovered that it was most likely painted a variety of colors when it was first constructed in the 13th century. Though those colors couldn’t be restored, Electricity of France devised a way to project the colors onto the façade, duplicating the original polychromatic color scheme. During the summer and certain holidays, a special light show, accompanied by string music, is presented each evening.
On the inside of Amiens Cathedral, polychromatic sculpture decorates the choir and other artwork adorns the chapels and other sections of the sanctuary. As a matter of fact, the choir area contains more than 3,500 figures. The Flamboyant Gothic-style choir screen is also of note. The pulpit is also a work of art in and of itself, made of wood and marble and depicting the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity.
An ornate reliquary marks the place where the head of John the Baptist is kept and the floor that leads visitors to all the sites is a classic black and white geometric pattern. A similar floor appears in the labyrinth, which was originally designed by Renaud de Cormont and installed in 1288. The current labyrinth, however, is a reproduction from the 19th century. Visitors should also take time to browse the half-dozen or so radiating chapels at the front of the cathedral, all of which are extremely ornate and a joy to view.
It is believed that the first Christian church in Amiens was organized as early as the 3rd Century though the first known Bishop of Amiens was not believed to have been appointed until the early 6th century. Information about early structures is sketchy, but it is clear that the predecessor to the current Amiens Cathedral was a Romanesque church that was consecrated in 1152 and hosted the wedding of King Phillip II and his bride. It was during the use of this cathedral that the head of St. John the Baptist was brought to Amiens, turning the town into a prime pilgrimage site.
When Amien’s Romanesque cathedral burnt to the ground in 1218, church officials knew they had to build a structure that was suitable for housing St. John’s head. Hence, plans were made for a grand cathedral in the High Gothic or “French Classical” form and the foundation was laid in 1220. The nave was completed in 1236 and all but the tops of the towers were finished by 1269. Architectural experts note that the quick completion is what distinguishes Amiens from many other French cathedrals, which often took centuries to complete and, therefore, included many different architectural styles. Amiens is dubbed pure High Gothic with little influence from other architectural trends that followed.
However, Amiens did indeed suffer damage during wars and other skirmishes as well as natural disasters like hurricanes, leading to some rebuilding. Architect Viollee-le-Duc did some notable restoration work during the mid 19th century. The cathedral was fiercely protected during World Wars I and II, though a fire during the former destroyed the studio used to store the stained glass from the cathedral’s magnificent windows. A few were lost. In 2000, much of the cathedral’s exterior was “cleaned”, resulting in the revealing of some of the original polychrome paint.
Amiens Cathedral is open to visitors daily, usually from about 8:30 am until early evening. Hours are longer in the summertime. Tower tours have limited hours and a small fee is charged to go to the top of the west towers and enjoy the sights. Sunday mass is celebrated at 10:15 am.
Getting There: Amiens is located about 115 km (72 miles) from Paris in the far north central portion of the country. Trains leave about every 30 minutes from Paris’ Gare du Nord to Amiens. Travel time is about 1 hour and 10 minutes by train. Those traveling to Amiens from Paris by automobile should allow approximately 2 hours travel time.
- Amiens is tallest complete cathedral in France
- The cathedral was built between 1220 and 1270
- Amiens has the largest interior volume of all French cathedrals
- Works of art from every period since the building of the church
- The cathedral contains the alleged head of St. John the Baptist
- Amiens is well-known for its collection of Renaissance sculpture