Free Trial Issue                                                                         Subscribe                                                                                         Back Issue

 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

The Cathedral at Amiens

          Cathedral Construction (1218-1269): The cathedral at Amiens provides a largely intact example of a High Gothic cathedral. Besides its impressive dimensions and the quality of its sculptures, Amiens cathedral is also known for an exceptional degree of stylistic unity.

          After the Romanesque basilica had burned down in 1218, work on the Gothic cathedral started in 1220, when Bishop Evrard de Fouilly laid its foundation stone. Fortunately, the main relic of the church, said to belong to John the Baptist, had survived the devastating fire, so that Amiens could continue with its role as a center of pilgrimage.

          In contrast to most other Gothic cathedrals, the construction at Amiens did not begin with the choir, but with the west façade (fig.1) and the nave. By 1240, the façade was finished up to the rose window, and the nave nearly completed. Completion of the choir, however, took until 1259, with financial problems causing a brief interruption of construction between 1240 and 1258. The main parts of the cathedral, built relatively quickly in only fifty years, were finished by 1269. The uppermost stories of the south and west towers were added in 1366 and 1402. The furnishing of the choir was completed in 1519, and the final elements (including the tower above the crossing) were finished in ca. 1533.

   [Fig.1: Detailed view of the portal zone of the west façade at Amiens (photo: Athena Review)].

          The first architect or master mason of the church was Robert de Luzarches, who came from the Île de France, and was responsible for the master plan of the cathedral. He was followed by Thomas de Cormont (d. 1228), and later by his son, Renaud de Cormont (d. 1280).

          Cathedral Exterior: The layout of the west façade (fig.1) followed, in part, the example of Notre-Dame of Paris . The addition of deep porches, along with the arrangement and decoration of the open arcades, and the gallery of kings in the upper levels, are distinct. An abundance of sculptures and decorations on the abutments lend it a higher degree of three-dimensionality and depth, which is more reminiscent of Laon.

          The High Gothic style of the sculptures and reliefs of the west façade at Amiens indicates that the sculptors probably worked in or around Paris before coming to Amiens. These were probably executed between 1225-1240, after which some of the sculptors might have moved to Reims, where many sculptures are comparable to those at Amiens (Williamson 1995). Although the iconography of the portal sculptures shows a close link to the west façade of both Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and the Chartres transepts, the scheme of the Amiens' façade has been expanded and is more unified. The central portal is dedicated to Christ and the Last Judgment (fig.2)., the north (left) portal to the local saint, St. Firmin (fig.3), located on the trumeau, and the south (right) portal to the Virgin.

          The central portal's tympanum relief depicts a detailed and lively description of the Last Judgment (fig.2). In the center is the enthroned Christ flanked by Mary and John, whereas the two-part lintel below shows the resurrection of the dead and their judgment by Archangel Michael, who weighs their sins and piety on a pair of scales. On the left side of the upper lintel, St. Peter, who has opened the door to heaven with his key, lets the Blessed into heaven, while on the right a devilish creature and angels with flaming swords drive the Damned into the mouth of hell, depicted as the gaping jaws of a monster. The archivolts show scenes of the Blessed and Damned, and this iconographic scheme is further expanded by other sculptures, including martyrs, saints, confessors, and the Tree of Jesse. On the trumeau, a statue of Christ symbolically blesses the faithful.  

[Fig.2: Tympanum showing the Last Judgment (photo: Athena Review)].

          Another motif alluding to the Last Judgment is the parable of the ten Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew XXV), which decorate the left and right doorposts, just as at Notre-Dame of Paris. Whereas the five Wise Virgins awaited the groom well prepared with oil-filled lamps, the five Foolish Virgins forgot to fill their lamps in time, and thus missed the arrival of the groom in the night, thereby missing their own wedding - a symbol reminding one to always be prepared for the day that the Lord will come.          

          Following the example of the Virgin's Portal on the west façade of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, the tympanum of Amiens' south portal shows the Death, Assumption, and Coronation of the Virgin, surrounded by angels and ancestors of Mary in the archivolts. The lintel portrays Aaron, Moses, and four Jewish priests sitting beside the Ark of the Covenant, while the trumeau holds a statue of the Virgin and Child.

          The jamb figures, notable for their innovative arrangement, show scenes of the Annunciation, Visitation, and the Presentation of Christ at the Temple on the right side, balanced by the Three Magi, King Herod, King Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba on the left jamb. The subject of the Annunciation and Visitation was previously executed at Chartres in the form of monumental jamb sculptures, but the large-scale depiction of the Three Magi and the Presentation at the Temple at Amiens introduces a more narrative presentation to the jambs.

       The north portal, dedicated to St. Firmin, contains a statue of him on the trumeau (fig.3). Scenes depicting the recovery of the saint's body and its transfer to Amiens adorn the tympanum, while the lintel shows six enthroned bishops. The jambs are decorated with sculptures of martyrs, local saints, and angels.

[Fig.3: North portal of the west façade: Detail of St. Firmin on the trumeau (photo: Athena Review)].

      The three portals of the west façade are not only connected by the statues of prophets attached along the edges of the porches, but also by the quatrefoil-shaped reliefs on the socles under the jamb sculptures. These finely carved reliefs are among the most accomplished sculptures of Amiens. Just as in an open picture book or a bible, the scenes of the relief bands illustrate the Virtues winning over the Vices on the central portal, the signs of the Zodiac,and symbols of the calendar on the north portal, and scenes from the Infancy of Christ, and the story of King Solomon on the south portal (Williamson 1995).

          South Transept: Figures such as the Virgin on the trumeau reveal a more animated, and individualized design (fig.4). This statue, known as the Vierge Dorée (Gilded Virgin), probably replaced a sculpture of the bishop-saint around 1250, when new flanking angels were also added to the jambs. Her animated smiling face and vivid gestures, as well as the softer and more individualized treatment of the drapery folds indicates the influence of the elegantly stylized Parisian court technique.

  The tympanum of the south transept, dedicated to St. Honoratus, shows scenes from this local bishop's life and death. The archivolts are filled with prophets and figures from the Old and New Testament, while the lintel is decorated with figures of the twelve apostles.

        Cathedral Interior: The cathedral, whose impressive dimensions are 145 m long x 75 m wide, was designed as a three-aisled basilica with transept, and a five-aisled choir with seven ambulatory chapels. The length of the nave, 133.5 m, is the longest in France (fig.4).

          The elevated design of the walls was generally modeled after Chartres cathedral, completed about the same time that work commenced in Amiens. Parts of Amiens' cathedral also belonged to the evolving Rayonnant and the later Flamboyant styles, as basic architectural forms became more ornate.

          The walls of the narrow nave (1230-1236) reach a height of 42.3 m, reflecting the general upward thrust of High Gothic architecture (fig.4) The verticality of the nave is further accentuated by the extreme height of the arcades, which measure half of the nave's total elevation (Bony 1983). The arcades with 126 pillars are crowned by a foliated frieze running around the entire church below the blind triforium. The latter contains two tri-partite openings per bay instead of the simpler arrangement at Chartres, with four openings per bay.

[Fig.4: The Vierge Dorée from the south transept at Amiens cathedral (photo: Athena Review)].

        The walls of Gothic churches were often painted in order to draw attention to the architectural elements. At Amiens, the vaulting of the nave as well as the capitals were painted red and ochre, and the walls gray. In the third bay of the triforium lie 13th century recumbent bronze effigies of the cathedral's two founding bishops, Bishops Evrard de Fouilloy and Geoffrey d'Eu. Also located within the nave is a labyrinth patterned on the floor, originally from 1288. As at Chartres, believers in the Middle Ages would follow the lines of these linear mazes on their knees in a symbolic journey of salvation. The names of the cathedral's three architects (Robert de Luzarches, Thomas and Renaud de Cormont) were written on the central stone of this octagonal labyrinth. Although the labyrinth was destroyed in 1825, the stone containing the names fortunately survived (Jantzen 1987).

 [Fig.5: The walls and vaultings of the nave, showing the arcades and cross-ribbed vaulting (photo: Athena Review)].

       The pierced triforium of the five-aisled choir (1236-1269) is designed as a window area flooded with light. The seven chapels, furthermore, are the same height as the aisles. The choir contains 110 Flamboyant oak stalls created between 1508 and 1519 by the cabinet-makers Arnould Boulin, Antoine Avernier, and Alexandre Huet. The stalls are arranged in two rows topped by typical Flamboyant wooden tracery. The wooden tracery depicts 3650 figures in 400 scenes from the Old Testament and the life of the Virgin Mary. Various trades and crafts were also portrayed, including a worker who carved a self-portrait holding a hammer. Detailed stone carvings and gilt paintings are on the choir screen of the ambulatory dating to 1488. It contains richly decorated panels on the martyrdom of St. Firmin, and his exhumation by Saint Saulve three centuries later (fig. 6).

          The unusually high clerestory, located above the triforium, has the same general structure as that at Chartres, but its design is more complex due to an additional division of the windows into smaller lancets surmounted by a smaller rose window. The thin mullions created by the division of the windows is characteristic of the Rayonnant style. The clerestory also belongs to the tradition of lightness seen at Soissons cathedral. Whereas at Chartres or Reims, the head of the window is surrounded by deep, heavy arches, a lighter, more elevated design was used at Amiens (Bony 1983).

       Gothic features of the north and south transept as well as the nave include cross-ribbed vaulting (ca. 1270). In the High Gothic era, architects became more skilled and the ribbed vaulting became increasingly complex. In particular, the addition of an extra transverse rib across the center of the bay allowed the interior of the cathedral to reach greater heights (Bony 1983). The elevated design of Amiens, contrasting with the increased width of earlier cathedrals such as at Chartres, made Amiens a model for a series of other Gothic cathedrals in France and Germany, including Cologne Cathedral (1248).

[Fig.6: Painted sacrophagus of St. Firmin in Amiens cathedral, from the 15th century (photo: Athena Review)].

          Other features reflect the Flamboyant phase in Gothic architecture, such as the north transept's 14th century rose window with star-shaped tracery. There are also four relief scenes depicting the conversion of the magician Hermogene by St. James the Great (1511) in the south transept, and a painted sculpture of Christ and the moneylenders in the Temple (1520) in the north transept.


Binding, G. 2002. High Gothic The Age of the Great Cathedrals. Cologne, Taschen.

Bony, J. 1983. French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London. University of California Press.

Jantzen, H. 197. Kunst der Gotik. Klasische Kathedralen Frankreichs. Chartres, Reims, Amiens. Berlin, Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

Williamson, P. 1995. Gothic Sculpture. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

The above text appears on pages 56-59 of Amiens of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

For original, comprehensive illustrations of ancients sites and monuments, visit Athena Review Image Archive®

Copyright 1996-2006 Athena Publications, Inc (All Rights Reserved)