Amiens: A City of History, Art, and Culture

We spent a week in Amiens during our cathedral pilgrimage. Since our trip focused on cathedrals, religious sites, and French history, Amiens gave us a lot of bang for the buck. Of course, the Cathedral drew us here, but it was marvelous exploring the city, too.

Our narrow purpose necessarily kept us from experiencing many of Amiens’ virtues, including its culinary offerings. We wanted to grocery shop like the locals and save money, so we didn’t eat out. Also, we didn’t visit any military battlefields or cemeteries, even though arguably that is a central feature of this region. Perhaps on another visit, we can give the attention those sites deserve, which would undoubtedly humble and inspire us.

One of the reasons we took this particular trip was because we realized how little we knew about the Christian heritage in France. I don’t remember learning about the great Gothic cathedrals in school. Even today, one can get the idea that France was and always has been a secular nation known only as the birthplace of the Enlightenment. Perhaps this says more about my public school education than anything else; however, despite the controversy, France’s Christian history is profound, and Gothic churches densely populate the country, for which I am grateful.

Peter the Hermit, a Roman Catholic priest of Amiens in the 12th century.

Like most of the principal cities of France, Amiens has a Christian heritage going back to antiquity. We stayed in the Saint-Leu quarter, which, along with the eponymous 15th-century church located there, was named after a 7th-century bishop. As the “Venice of the North,” the district is full of canals, quaint half-timbered houses, boutique shops, and inviting restaurants. And the Cathedral is always looming just over the rooftops.

15th-century Church of Saint-Leu. “It has three naves. A flamboyant portal adorns the base of the steeple. The latter, struck by lightning, had to be rebuilt at the beginning of the 16th century. The ends of beams are carved. Stone and wood statues date from the 17th-century.” Wikipedia

We spent a whole day roaming the city’s center, visiting the Picardie Museum, Jules Verne’s house, and monuments. That’s when we met several residents who helped us navigate the city. Their hospitality and kindness left a significant impression on us.

Francis Tattegrain: The Mourners of Etaples
The “House with the Tower” – 19th century mansion where Jules Verne lived from 1882 to 1900.
Jules Verne monument

We loved exploring Amiens, but naturally, the Cathedral was the highlight of our stay.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Enchanted Chanting

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens is the third of the great cathedrals built in northern France during the thirteenth century (the others being the cathedrals in Reims and Chartres). Besides being the largest Gothic cathedral in France, it has an impressive set of medieval sculptures on its facade and many old polychrome sculptures inside. But the 16th-century choir stalls are one of its great treasures.

The choir stalls are located behind locked gates and are only available to visitors accompanied by a tour guide. Fortunately, we were admiring the stalls through the bars when one such guide approached to inform us of an upcoming tour. We had a personalized tour of these magnificent wood carvings a few minutes later.

The guide only spoke French, which did not diminish our experience. I tried to get him to use the Google Translate app on my phone in conversation mode, translating on the fly. He couldn’t grasp the concept but tried to speak English phrases during his turn in the conversation. We abandoned that effort and allowed him to explain things in French with English words sprinkled in.

He systematically took us through each side of the choir, explaining the stories engraved in wood on the stalls’ panels. It was relatively easy for us to interpret each vignette or scene because of our familiarity with the Bible and the year and a half of learning French with Duolingo. After a while, a French couple came to the gate, and the tour guide began a personalized tour for them with seemingly great relief while Lisa and I roamed around on our own.

More than four thousand carvings decorate the choir stalls. Like the sculpture inside and outside of the Cathedral, one could spend a significant amount of time studying these images. I photographed the ones that interested us, but I assume they are well-documented online. Regardless, the choir stalls of Amiens Cathedral are a must-see.

Traditionally choir members stood during mass, but these little seats – called “misericords” – allowed them to mercifully prop themselves up without violating church decorum.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Soaring Vaults and Great Treasures

We planned to make the city and cathedral of Amiens a particular focus for our cathedral pilgrimage. Besides Rouen, we spent the most time exploring here than any other church or place in France. I initially considered spending our whole time exploring Chartres Cathedral, arguably the best-preserved Gothic cathedral in the country. That would have been glorious but limited. We wanted a broad experience of cathedrals and France rather than a focused one.

Amiens and its Cathedral was a good choice for a week-long stay. The 140 feet high vaults of Notre-Dame d’Amiens are the highest of any completed cathedral. Its history, features, and treasures are fascinating and exceptional. And as I shared in a previous post, the city has many historical places and monuments (and we found the residents to be exceedingly friendly – some of the nicest people we met on the trip).

If climbing the towers of Amiens Cathedral raises you closer to the heavens, walking through its portals grants you entrance to them. The rock roof floats high above the ground while Rococo ornamentation dances around you.

With a pilgrimage maze under your feet, the glazed triforium of the apse allows the light to dazzle your eyes.

Like the parade of statues on the exterior of the building, the inside narrative displays of sculpture and quatrefoils are equally full of meaning. Again, Lisa was lost in her study of them while I became a frantic shutterbug attempting to capture digitally what our eyes could barely absorb.

The choir sits behind the bars of a locked gate. What I could make out peering between them was the most ornately carved choir stalls I’ve ever seen. A gentleman saw us looking through the bars dumbstruck and approached us to say a tour was available in 15 minutes. The wait was handsomely rewarded, but more of that next time.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Amiens Cathedral: Almost Heaven

The scale of Notre-Dame d’Amiens is hard to comprehend, a familiar experience when visiting Gothic cathedrals. Church architecture for medieval people served a didactic function; in other words, the building was a sermon. Approaching and entering such a structure is like accessing Heaven. It is simply impossible not to become transfixed at some level. Even repeat visits can’t quench the transcendent spirit of the church.

The sculpture and reliefs on the facade and interior of Amiens Cathedral were the most intriguing to us (besides those of Chartres Cathedral). They are rich in narrative and symbolism and “may well be the greatest single sculptural display in all of Gothic architecture.”* Like medieval pilgrims, we were caught up in biblical and church history while admiring them. We watched Professor Cook’s lecture and Smarthistory’s video on Amiens Cathedral several times beforehand (Smarthistory also has a companion article about the Cathedral).

We scheduled a week in Amiens so we could repeatedly visit the Cathedral. Each time we returned, something new and marvelous grabbed our attention. Lisa inspected and sketched the quatrefoils and statuary while I took Professor Cook’s advice to study the Cathedral’s features from various perspectives.

Near the beginning of our week-long stay, we chose to climb the towers. It was a little windy, so the woman at the Cathedral’s tourist office had to send a staff member up to ensure it was safe for visitors. Thankfully it was and cost just under €20 for both of us – worth every euro cent.

You enter the south tower through a door just inside the south portal on the western facade. There you climb up a narrow spiral staircase (similar to those in castles) until you reach a passage that takes you outside behind the Gallery of Kings and in front of the rose window. Just wow. I never imagined I would ever be so close to a rose window. We only saw one other couple exploring the towers. We asked them if they would take our photo by the rose window. The man was too scared to return to take the picture, but the woman boldly agreed.

From the rose window, you walk straight toward the north tower and enter a door leading to another spiral staircase up to the highest part of the Cathedral, the pinnacle of the north tower. The scout from the office awaited us at the top. After a mandatory “Bonjour,” we implemented Professor Cook’s recommendation and examined spires, buttresses, and panoramas from every angle possible, ignoring the wind and cold.

The outside of Amiens Cathedral is breathtaking, but the inside is stunning, which I will share in my next post.

*Footnote: The Cathedral Course Guidebook by William R. Cook, Ph.D.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Third Stop – Amiens

Continuing our circumnavigation around the Île-de-France, our next pilgrimage stop was the city of Amiens. France’s excellent highway system makes the drive from Laon to Amiens a pleasant hour-and-a-half cruise. When driving from Reims to Laon, we took the back country roads to visit Vauclair Abbey, but on this leg of our trip, we had no scheduled detour, so taking the highway seemed the best choice. If I had done a little research, I could have found a beautiful church to explore on the way, and I did briefly consider visiting Basilique de Saint-Quentin. However, I was still not confident enough to navigate narrow old city streets to take the plunge.

The main highways of France have tolls. You can have Google Maps or other mapping software create routes to avoid the tolls, but there are several advantages to using the paid highways, not the least of which are rest stops. We were starting to get a handle on the French road signs and the numerous roundabouts, but the toll booths were still a concern. I did not need to worry about them because they are similar to the ones in the States, and France, like the UK, uses contactless terminals everywhere, including at toll booths.

Since studying in Britain, I prefer making purchases with Apple Pay. Contactless shopping is ubiquitous in the UK and France. Using an Apple Watch with Apple Pay makes it more convenient. All I needed to do was roll down my window and plant my wrist against the contactless terminal, and voila, nous étions en route.

Amiens Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in France, is a central landmark of the city, but Amiens is also known for other things. It is the capital of the Somme department (an administrative region similar to a county in the US) and was fought over and occupied by both sides during the World Wars. If the word “Somme” sounds familiar, it’s because it is the name of the river that flows through the city and region where some of the bloodiest battles in World War I were fought. Consequently, this region is home to several military cemeteries and monuments. Amiens is also the birthplace of President Macron. And the beloved author Jules Verne lived his last 35 years here, serving on the city council for 15 years.

Jules Verne House

Amiens is full of history, with over 1,600 historical places and monuments. We stayed in the medieval Saint-Leu quarter of the city (the oldest district of Amiens). It is called “The Little Venice of the North” and is packed with half-timbered houses and cafe terraces. The Cathedral is just around the corner from where we made our home base in the district (we could see it out the window of our bedroom). The region’s art museum, Musée de Picardie, is also a historic place initially founded as the Musée Napoléon in 1802 (the year of the Treaty of Amiens).

Saint-Leu quarter
Amiens Cathedral outside our bedroom window
Musée de Picardie

Despite all there was to see in Amiens, our priority was the Cathedral. After meeting our hosts and unpacking, we ventured out into the evening to get a look at this Gothic marvel. Unlike Reims, the Cathedral was not lit up and was closed. In the summers, they conduct a laser light show that colors the facade as it would have appeared in medieval times. But for now, we had to gaze at the imposing structure in the atmospheric light of the lampposts.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon

A church has existed in Laon since the beginning of the fifth century. However, the Gothic structure we have today dates back to the 1150s, owing to a parish uprising that destroyed several buildings, including the Romanesque church. Completed in a mere 80 years, the Cathedral is a stylistically unified example of Early Gothic architecture.

As usual, because our pilgrimage was during the off-season, we could enjoy exploring the Cathedral with hardly anyone else around. Laon is a small town, and the late winter/early spring does not attract large crowds. The tourist office is right next to the Cathedral, so we did see a trickle of tourists during our three-day stay, but for the most part, we wandered reverently in and around the church by ourselves.

A large section of the west end of the nave was free of chairs, which enhanced the feeling of grandeur that most Gothic churches give, but the light stone and lantern tower of Laon Cathedral gave it such a warm atmosphere. A recording of liturgical chants permeated the entire building creating a respectful atmosphere.

Laon Cathedral is unique in having a flat apse, but it puts that space to good use by filling the wall with a rose window and three lancet windows underneath fitted with original medieval stained glass. The side chapels along the aisles are closed off with Renaissance screens. We also saw painted sections on the wall of the chevet that appeared to be medieval.

A couple of intriguing pieces of art we encountered were the “Holy Face of Laon,” which is believed to be a likeness of Christ, and a 15th-century wood carving of Saint Martin of Tours.

The Cathedral has five towers of seven that were planned. The north Thomas-a-Becket tower is named after the English Archbishop of Canterbury, who stopped at Laon while fleeing England in 1163. An unusual feature of the Cathedral’s towers is the stone oxen that adorn them. They are a homage to the oxen for helping to build the church by pulling enormous beams up to the roof.

The Laon Cathedral is a beautiful medieval legacy set in an equally lovely medieval town on a hilltop surrounded by fairytale ramparts. This stop had all the features one could imagine reading in a medieval pilgrimage tale.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Second Stop – Laon

The second stop on our Cathedral pilgrimage was in the hilltop city of Laon. Retaining a great deal of the charm of its history, Laon looks like a storybook town out of a medieval tale. High up on a hill above the Picardy plain, its ramparts and fortifications successfully checked the invasions of the Franks, Burgundians, Vandals, Alans, and Huns. We were privileged to stay in a beautiful apartment built along the medieval ramparts giving us a spectacular view of the plateau beneath the city stretching for miles.

After the baptism of Clovis by Saint Remi (who was from the surrounding district), Laon became one of the main towns of the kingdom of the Franks and eventually became the principal city of the late Carolingian kings. Early in the twelfth century, Laon was an important center for learning, hosting the famous Anselm of Laon‘s school for theology and exegesis. Since the French Revolution, Laon has lost its prominence, but its architectural beauty, medieval legacy, and magnificent cathedral make it a magical tourist destination.

Laon can trace its history back to the ancient Roman Empire. Today it has an art and archeological museum in the former Templar hotel preserving ancient artifacts and historical works from the city and elsewhere. We spent an enjoyable afternoon combing through its collection.

Of course, our primary purpose in coming to Laon was to visit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon. It is one of France’s best-preserved early Gothic cathedrals and is notable for its unity of style and bright interior. I will dedicate my next post to the cathedral.

At the far end of the city, away from the cathedral, are the abbey and church of Saint Martin, which were unfortunately closed when we visited. They are now part of a complex of buildings that include the local hospital and a library.

Laon has a lot to offer, including an old Templer chapel and a citadel, not to mention a plethora of lovely shops and restaurants. As much as we would have loved to frequent these places, we had only limited time in this magical city, and the Cathedral awaited us.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Christian Time Traveling

The original 1963 set of Doctor Who (2014 reproduction) - Wikimedia Commons
The original 1963 set of Doctor Who (2014 reproduction) – Wikimedia Commons

Our cathedral pilgrimage was essentially a journey back through time. Although there are cathedrals built in contemporary architectural styles, our interest generally does not point in that direction. We’re interested in the Romanesque and Gothic styles mainly due to their beauty and because they reflect the medieval attitude. That “God-centric” culture produced buildings and works of art that astonish even today. So, after saying goodbye to Reims we hopped into our Tardis, I mean Peugeot, and set the controls for the medieval city of Laon.

Ardon Gate – Laon, France

Laon is less than an hour’s drive from Reims so we had time (ahem) before checking into our apartment to visit the ruins of Vauclair Abbey, a medieval Cistercian monastery founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134. Winding our way through the beautiful Laonnois countryside (a small natural region centered around Laon) we found the extinct monastery standing in shattered beauty nestled in the palm of a verdant valley. Exploring these ruins one could imagine themselves actually traveling back in time.

Once established the Abbey received several estates and farms and quickly prospered, even sending out monks to found another monastery near Épernay. Between the 100 Years’ War and the 16th-century French Wars of Religion, Vauclair Abbey suffered heavy damage, but it wasn’t until the French Revolution in 1789 that it met its final demise.

Wandering amidst the remnants of Gothic vaults, pointed archways, and decorative pillars you can almost see the ghosts of the monastic inhabitants going about their daily duties.

While doing research for our trip I learned of a small town near Vauclair where Merovingian tombs had been discovered containing the first Christian burials in the region. We headed to the town of Vorges to see for ourselves. Unfortunately, the medieval church was closed, but it was still a delight to visit the town.

Finally, heading to the old city of Laon we traversed several narrow country roads until we came within view of the cathedral standing prominently on the city’s hilltop. Pulling over to the side of the road, we stared at our next destination and prepared for another journey back in time.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Saint Remi and His Basilica

The Baptism of Clovis by Master of Saint Giles - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
The Baptism of Clovis by Master of Saint Giles – National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The baptism of Clovis I, King of the Franks, by the Bishop of Reims, Saint Remi, was a pivotal event in the Christianization of the Franks. A few blocks from the Reims Cathedral is a basilica dedicated to the Saint. Our Cathedral Pilgrimage didn’t restrict us to visiting only “cathedrals,” a church as beautiful and old as the Basilique Saint-Remi is a must-see. A twenty-minute walk from our home base to visit the basilica was both worth it and enjoyable since Reims is such a lovely city.

The Basilica dates from the 11th century (with additions and modifications in the 12th, 13th, 15th, 17th, and 19th centuries) and is the largest Romanesque church in northern France. Because of the additions and modifications, it has a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Basilica of Saint-Remi

As often happened, because our pilgrimage was during the off-season, the church was almost exclusively ours to explore with very few people around. In fact, outside the church, an American woman mistook me for a French person when I let her know in French how to enter the building (hey, I guess my language studies weren’t a total failure). I love that these churches are generally open to the public throughout the day. The opportunity to explore and reverently wander through medieval places of worship is sublime. The thick Romanesque walls and Gothic vaults of Saint Remi Basilica transport you back to a different world. Accent lighting periodically snapped on making the experience even more dramatic.

The tomb of Saint Remi is situated in the apse of the church while a monument commemorating the famous baptism stands in the courtyard outside.

Next to the Basilica is the former Saint Remi Abbey, now an archeology and art museum, complete with a cloister. The refectory is converted into a gallery displaying sculptures and mosaics.

Musée Saint-Remi – old refectory
Ancient Roman mosaic at the Musée Saint-Remi

Reims also has an Art-Deco library built with money from Andrew Carnegie who also financed the restoration of the Cathedral. Our short three-day visit to the unofficial capital of the Champagne region bubbled with experiences, and that’s without even sampling a drop of the patron beverage.

Carnegie Library of Reims – Art Deco goodness

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Reims – City of Kings

During my first encounter with Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims I stumbled upon the spot where Clovis, King of the Franks, was baptized a Christian. His baptism made Reims the birthplace of Christianity in France and the place where future kings would be crowned. That precedent led Joan of Arc to fight for the coronation of Charles VII to be performed at Reims in the cathedral.

Jeanne d’Arc’s legacy is still felt here through the equestrian statue outside the cathedral and the chapel dedicated to her inside. Her effigy, with eyes closed, makes her presence seem to almost haunt the church. While this young woman’s story of remarkable faith and obedience is embedded in the psyche of France, she deserves a place in the hearts of all Christians regardless of nationality.

Reims Cathedral has between 2,000 and 3,000 statues. The most famous of them is the Smiling Angel. After the cathedral was bombarded during World War I the damaged statue became a symbol of “French culture destroyed by German barbarity.” Preserved by the abbot Thinot, it later was restored and placed back on the cathedral and remains a beloved figure of Reims today.

Because of the wars most of the original glass in the cathedral was destroyed. 20th century artist Marc Chagall designed the glass of the central chapel of the ambulatory. It is quite beautiful. My sister-in-law, an accomplished artist, recognized his style instantly when she saw our photos. Much of the original glass on the west façade does remain, but the windows in the portals are more modern. Below the rose window is a gallery of kings in glass, fitting for the cathedral of coronations.

Windows designed by Marc Chagall.

Just walking in and around the cathedral was captivating. If this was the only stop on our pilgrimage we could have easily busied ourselves learning about the statuary and architecture and been quite happy. But, amazingly, we were only scratching the surface.

Notice the bottom right sculptures: Melchizedek and Abraham
“The hell-bound figures from the Last Judgment sculpture here are unusually calm; interestingly, among the damned, we find a king and a bishop, a reminder that authority on earth is not a free pass into heaven.” Professor William R. Cook

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage