E-Text 11

Presence of the Clergy

The visitor who has entered at the west portal and walked the length of the nave to the center of the crossing-- in medio ecclesiae--has traversed exactly one half of the total length of the cathedral including the axial chapel.  The eastern arm of the cathedral is commonly called the choir, though this is something of a misnomer since the term is better reserved for the area where the clergy sat and sang.  The more appropriate word is chevet, or the church's head  (French usage). At Amiens the choir, strictly speaking, is limited to three bays of the central vessel beyond the eastern crossing piers; the pavement then rises two steps leading into a further bay and the seven-sided hemicycle--this is the sanctuary, divided from the choir by a low railIt is in the sanctuary that the complexity and multiplicity of the edifice is pulled together around a single center point from which the great half-circle of the eastern termination of the cathedral is struck.  This eastern hemicycle is encircled by a surrounding corridor or ambulatory opening on to seven polygonal radiating chapels.  This kind of chevet had been widely used in church design in the two centuries prior to Amiens Cathedral: it is associated especially with the so-called "pilgrimage church" type since it allowed pilgrims to circulate around the multiple altars in the chapels and to have access to the principal shrine or tomb which might be placed on the axis of the hemicycle.  The immediate precedents for Amiens begin with the abbey church of S-Denis (c.1140) and the cathedrals of Notre-Dame Paris, Chartres, Soissons and Reims as well as the Cistercian abbey churches of Longpont and Royaumont.  The architectural ensemble is part of the common language (koine) of Gothic.  Unlike many of its predecessors, however, Amiens has a long chevet, allowing the clergy to be accommodated entirely to the east of the crossing.   

We have already discovered in our passage down the length of the cathedral that access to the space of the choir and sanctuary is barred by a screen (jubé) pitched between the two eastern crossing piers and by lateral screens (clôtures).   Around the edge of the sanctuary a thicket of tombs and screens allowed only glimpses of the principal altar and relic gallery.  We may debate whether these encircling screens should be understood as a sign of the clergy's insecurity and desire for privileged status or whether they were actually instrumental in propagating devotional activities--the new website allows you to explore the rich imagery attached to the jubé and the clôtures--imagery which allowed the clergy to impart essential knowledge and devotional practices to the layfolk.

The visitor who gains access to the privileged space of the central choir and sanctuary will quickly perceive that while the three principal levels of the elevation remain the same, the choir is much brighter than the nave, resulting partly from the windows introduced into the reverse of the triforium, each bay of which is now surmounted by a little gable.  The triforium windows are filled with mostly uncolored glass with figures of bishops and Apostles: prototypes for the clergy seated below.  Although the bright colorless glass of the choir clerestory is almost entirely modern the axial window given by Bishop Bernard d'Abbeville in 1269 remains intact, indicating what the original clerestory windows looked like.  This soaring, light-filled space of the choir and sanctuary provides an extraordinary ambience for the daily offices of the clergy. What makes the space especially stunning is its culmination in the eastern hemicycle where the entire composition revolves around a single center point--the visitor has been aware of this culminating point all the way down the nave.  In case the beholder fails to understand what this hidden center signifies, the builders have provided an image, almost invisible from the ground, of the resurrected Christ in the central keystone: Christ is the hidden center.  This image floats directly above the principal altar where the performance of the Eucharistic sacrament each day would transform bread and wine into the very body and blood of Christ.  We know nothing about the disposition of the original (c.1260-70) sanctuary but late medieval sources describe a silver retable at the back of the principal altar with images of the Crucifixion, Mary, John and the Prophets.  The altar was flanked by six bronze columns bearing a curtain and directly behind was an elevated stone gallery or tribune carrying 10 glittering relic boxes (châsses) containing the relics of the principal saints of the diocese with Saint Firmin in the center.  The bishop's wooden throne, probably richly decorated with jagged architectural canopies and pinnacles, was located directly to the south of the principal altar.  While the liturgical equipment of the sanctuary was entirely destroyed in the 18th century to make way for the existing tawdry baroque decorations, the seating provided for the clergy in the choir remains intact.

Let us imagine this space during a great feast of the Christian year.  About one hundred robed members of the clergy (canons, vicars, choir boys, chaplains, visiting clergy) are seated on either side of the choir with the resident canons in the high stalls, the dean in his pinnacled stalle d'honneur at the south west end and the king, or his representative, in the matching seat on the north side.  In the sanctuary the bishop, flanked by his attendants, has risen from his throne to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrament.  The relic boxes and silver retable, previously covered, are now uncovered as the altar candles were lit and a blazing candelabra kindled in the central choir.  As light flashed upon the silver and gold liturgical utensils, the retable and châsses and clouds of incense rose upward, two great bells sounded in the crossing steeple above.  Truly an awesome place....!