Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 13, 2004
Arrow crowns jewel of Picardy
A UNESCO site and monumental Gothic cathedral, Notre Dame's carved stone scenes inform
St. Firmin -- September 25
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Agreat French house of God, monumental Notre Dame d'Amiens is one of the world's largest Gothic cathedrals and a classified UNESCO site. The jewel of Picardy, it is extravagantly adorned with biblical scenes, permanently cut into living stone.
In their time, these provided pictorial scriptural lessons, often very realistically, as a prime teaching method for the people of the 13th century. The remarkable church is topped by a delicate lead-sheathed wooden arrow (steeple), the oldest in France.
Mother of God
It's not surprising that an edifice of the colossal size of the cathedral should claim more than one patron. Obviously under the protection of Notre Dame, the Mother of God figures prominently in the decoration of the church and is identified with one of the three great doors in the buildings fa‡ade.
Other saints honoured specifically in the cathedral are John the Baptist and fourth century Bishop Firmin of Amiens.
Not too well known outside of France, St. Firmin is featured in an extraordinary series of 16th century high-relief carvings on the south wall of the cathedral choir.
One panel features the life of the saint from his arrival in Amiens as a missionary to his conversion of and preaching to the people of the city, his arrest and his martyrdom by decapitation. The other panel illustrates the finding, disinterment and veneration of the saint's remains.
Begun in 1220, Notre Dame took a mere 49 years to build, a record for the times. It has the form of a Latin cross and replaces a series of cathedrals that identified the grave of St. Firmin. In bishop's attire, the sculpted saint dominates the north portal of the building's west front where he's shown impaling one of his persecutors with his sharpened crozier.
The central entrance honours le Beau Dieu. Around the three doorways a bewildering array of sculpted scriptural figures and scenes are arranged so as to lead the faithful into the church via the characters and events of first the Old, then the New Testament.
Take time to visit
There is too much for a visitor to absorb in a day or week or more! This enormous ongoing sermon in stone depicts for example, the prophets, Apostles, saints of Picardy, the Last Judgment.
Then, there are similarly decorated portals on the north and south sides of the cathedral.
Unfortunately, with the passage of time and introduction of universal literacy, there's been a steady erosion of the oral traditions of Notre Dame, so that identification of many of the church's personalities and events have been lost to the past.
The vast interior of Amiens Cathedral is as overwhelming as the great west fa‡ade.
In addition to the story of St. Firmin, the choir walls also depict in high relief the life and death of St. John the Baptist and enclose wooden choir stalls, each individually carved with opposing depictions of good and evil. Spectacular windows, chapels and more sculptures take more time to absorb in a seemingly endless procession of biblical events and people.
Tours of both the exterior and interior of the church are offered. Impressive summer evening light shows, during which the fa‡ade is illuminated so as to reproduce the colours that originally covered the sculptures are a popular novelty. Notre Dame d'Amiens is easily reached from the railroad station, just a few blocks away in this busy college city.
A well-stocked book/gift shop is attached to the church and it's handy to a variety of in and outdoor restaurants that are designed to cater to the thousands that converge each year on this gem of medieval Picardy.