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Introduction to Amiens Cathedral by Stephen Murray

Situated in our syllabus between the Parthenon and Raphael, Amiens Cathedral represents the artistic production of Christian Western Europe over the thousand-year period of "the Middle Ages".  We need an appropriately large vision.  Life of a Gothic Cathedral provides a new tool allowing you to present the cathedral in a compelling way--you can teach directly from the website where students will find a rich study resource.

The story of the cathedral's "life," told diachronically, is an exciting one beginning in 1220 with the start of work on a new cathedral after a disastrous fire.  A visionary master mason, Robert de Luzarches, laid out the plan with an innovative scheme where spatial regularity in the nave (square and double square bays) is transformed with dynamic geometry, producing dramatically expanded spaces in the center.  Master Robert worked with Thomas de Cormont who completed the upper nave and started the choir.  Thomas's son Renaud then built the upper choir introducing many innovations (some of them structurally unsound), and installing the pavement with its decorative labyrinth in 1288.  The main roof was not finished until c.1310.  Our story ends three centuries later with the agency of the last building dean, Adrien de Hénencourt (d.1530).  In this dramatic last episode in the life of the Gothic cathedral the enlarged central bays began to fail; the main crossing piers, burdened with weight of a great central steeple buckled inward at arcade level and outward in their upper parts, threatening collapse.  This deformation was arrested through the installation (1497-1500) of an iron chain, but then the choir flyers began to fail and in 1528 a lightning strike brought the old steeple over the crossing down in flames.  The new grand clocher doré, carrying relics of the Passion and the saints high above the Picard plain, was completed as the preaching of Martin Luther began to make its impact.  

Considered in broad historical terms, the three-hundred year Life begins with the triumph of Catholicism (1215 Fourth Lateral Council; suppression of heresy in the Albigensian Crusades) and the definitive formation of France (1214 Battle of Bouvines, fought close to Amiens).  It ends with challenges to the status of the clergy, the validity of the sacraments and the cult of saints; in other words, the Protestant Reformation. 

However, the cathedral is not just a thing of the past: it manifestly exists in our own time and space, leading us to explore its synchronic life.  Modern visitors, in approaching the cathedral, entering, and moving though it, mimic the movements of medieval layfolk.  Whereas we may be drawn forward by our visual curiosity and craving for aesthetic experience, our medieval predecessors might pursue the cult of saints, invoke the intervention of the Virgin Mary, attend offices in one of the chapels, or participate in the great feasts of the Christian year.  The presence of layfolk is ephemeral--we come and we go--but the forty members of the regular clergy (the canons of the chapter) spent their daily life in the choir in the performance of the Divine Office (chanting the Psalms) and the sacraments.  The cathedral belonged to the chapter; it also provided a magnificent location for the bishop's throne (cathedra).  We have to make a conscious effort to reconstruct the daily presence of the clergy--on feast days more than one hundred, filling the choir with their chanting and processional movements.  The third group of people engaged in the Life of the cathedral were the artisans: the masons who built it, the carpenters who facilitated the work of the masons and who erected the magnificent roof and steeple, the sculptors (tailleurs d'images) who created the portals; the glaziers who installed the stained-glass windows and the painters.  Thus, three groups--distinct, yet interacting--come together in the cathedral.