Barbara Abou-El-Haj left this portion of her analysis in inchoate form – an undeveloped series of notes, questions, and observations. We offer her overview of the building’s chronology and architectural profile and a summary review of iconographic elements of the cathedral’s west façade, which include indications of her understanding of the interplay of structure, iconography, and style with the power dynamics in the city. We hope that the summary remarks offered here – considered in relation to images of the cathedral – will inspire further investigation of Abou-El-Haj’s propositions regarding Amiens.
The Gothic cathedral of Amiens stood at the site of several previous buildings, built successively larger, as was typical. A 1019 fire had destroyed an earlier building and there was a reconstruction campaign. Then in 1137 once again the church was burned and repaired. This is the cathedral that suffered in a fire of 1218, which necessitated the rebuilding and expansion of Amiens Cathedral in the Gothic style. Reconstruction commenced in 1220. A short delay of two years between destruction and rebuilding may be a sign of how rapidly funds could be secured for the initial stage of building. Woods and quarry resources are recorded in 1233 and 1234 charters offering a sense of the logistics of the building campaign, though labor is not mentioned. Vaults were closed in the 1260s, and the cathedral was virtually complete by 1288, when the labyrinth was set, identifying architects, and when key reliquaries may have been placed on the main altar. Dendrochronology suggests that the nave roof was installed between 1298 and 1310.
Three episcopal charters pertaining to the transfer of the parish church of St.-Firmin-the-Confessor and the Hôtel-Dieu are fundamental to the disputes over dating the façade and the relocation of the parish church. But they are also are the foundation upon which the virtually universal scholarly view of consensus between the town and chapter rests, not only in building the new cathedral but also signaling a general and enduring state of amicable relations. According to Abou-El-Haj, such a long-held view is put into doubt by the documentary record of repeated and lengthy jurisdictional disputes between commune and chapter (introduced in Section II, pts. 3 and 4), and particularly by the mid-century violence and the charter of 1304 discussed below. The first episcopal charter addressed here mentions, and the second two repeat, that the parish church of Firmin the Confessor was to be transferred to the west to the site of the Hôtel-Dieu, and that the Hôtel-Dieu would be transferred to the Grand Pont built jointly by the town and chapter, recorded in the charter of 1121, (see Section II, pt. 2).
These charters figure among the documents assembled by Georges Durand at the beginning of the twentieth century (see Durand, Monographie and idem, Ville d’Amiens) and are reproduced and translated in Stephen Murray’s very useful appendices (Murray, Amiens). Each states that the people of Amiens had consented to building the new church. The assertions attesting to the commune’s consent appear, however, for the first time sixteen years after building probably began, that is only in retrospective accounts of repeated efforts to clear space within the confined episcopal enclosure to erect the much larger, new cathedral (see Viollet-le-Duc, “La cathédrale d’Amiens,” 502). The town is otherwise absent from the building record (with the exception of the 1244 violence and its aftermath and the 1304 prohibition of a parvis, addressed below). Dany Sandron suggests that the clergy had to use all means to impose an enterprise emblematic of its diminished power, yet he too goes on to suggest a more general consensus (Sandron, 28-9).
For Abou-El-Haj, the archival record reveals growing tensions over space near the cathedral beginning in the 1230s. A 1232 charter of Bishop Geoffroy d'Eu (1222-1236) records the transfer of land occupied by wardens’ houses north of the cathedral to the canons “for building your chapter hall and cloister” (Cartulaire du Chapitre, no. 229, I:279; and Murray, Amiens, 133-4). There are further charters dating 1236 (Bishop Geoffroy d'Eu), 1238, and 1241 (Bishop Arnoul de la Pierre, 1236-1247). The charters of 1236, 1238, and 1241 each call for the transfer of two subordinate institutions, a parish church dedicated to Saint Firmin the Confessor and a hospital. While there is no precise date for demolishing the church of St.-Firmin, scholars concur that the hospital occupied space to which St.-Firmin the Confessor was to be transferred. The wording of the 1236 charter is exemplary:
It was decided by Bishop Evrard, of bright memory, with the consent of the clergy and people of Amiens, as the Lord inspired them, to enlarge the foundations of the church... it was necessary for the church of the blessed Firmin the Confessor to yield to the foundations of its mother [church], and since this church (St.-Firmin) was out of the way and hidden to its parishioners, and since the hospital house was situated to the danger of the whole city, it was added that the church of the Blessed Firmin would be transferred to the hospital house [site], and the hospital to the large bridge, to a place purchased by Jean de Croi, [once] a praiseworthy citizen of Amiens (1151)... We and the citizens of Amiens, having first requested and obtained the consent of our lord the king, are united in the wish that the transfer of the said places should be accomplished and that in future no obstacle shall stand in the way... (Charter of Saint Firmin the Confessor, dated Easter Monday 1236, signed by Bishop Geoffroy; Murray, 1996, 128-46. See Durand, Monographie, 15, nn. 1 and 2; 19 nn. 2 and 4; 21 n. 3; 29 n. 4, citing Bibl. Amiens MS 520, fol. 30v; and Gallia Christiana. It is also reproduced in Mortet and Deschamps, Recueil, 259-61, no. 123). [Emphasis by Abou-El-Haj]
The same pressing need to transfer the hospital and the parish church of St.-Firmin was repeated in virtually the same words, though rhetorically enlarged, by Bishop Arnoul twice – two years later in 1238 and again in 1241. The bishop added payments in each charter to St.-Martin-aux-Jumeaux to compensate for potentially diminished donations: in 1238, 100 pounds paris each year for five years, and in 1241 an additional 100 sous paris to Saint-Martin each year forever.
Unlike Geoffroy’s charter, addressed to the dean and chapter, in the 1238 charter, Arnoul addresses “the preceptors and brothers of the hospital of the blessed John of Amiens.” This may mean that the church is no longer a problem. As Abou-El-Haj sees it, the hospital certainly still was obliging the bishop to hand over what she terms a "bribe" after a great deal of effort at persuasion and also to compensation perpetuity St.-Martin-aux-Jumeaux for potential lost revenues:
With the consent of the chapter and 'citizens' of Amiens, who also obtained the favorable consent of the lord king ... it was long ago decided to transfer your house and the parish church of the blessed Firmin .... [Again] the chapter was united with the counsel of citizens, inflamed by the consensus of the clergy and people of Amiens, … [Because of] the pressure of the moment [which] presses us to have the parish church of the blessed Firmin placed where it should be...with the consent of the abbot and convent of Saint-Martin-aux-Jumeaux… Besides all the land from your [hospital] hall to the bank of the river shall remain yours to do as you like. And beyond this, one hundred pounds in money of Paris will be paid to you from the fabric fund of our church each year at All Saints for five years, for your losses and for setting your buildings for your benefit” (Durand, Monographie, I:17 n. 5, and 21, 32 n. 6; and Murray, 137-8). [Emphasis by Abou-El-Haj]
Two years later, beginning in 1240 and continuing through the decade, resource shortfalls for the chapter and resource pressures on the commune are recorded. The chapter processed the relics of Saint Honoré (whose history had just been carved on the south portal tympanum) around the diocese to raise funds for the fabric. Such a quest had not been attempted since 1137, after fire damaged part of the exterior of the Romanesque cathedral of Amiens, recorded in a thirteenth century breviary. If the breviary can be credited, when the grieving clergy and population decided to bring out the body of Saint Firmin, the corpse became immobile, and was returned joyfully to the cathedral and gifts of gold and silver vases and precious stones were donated (For the 1137 quest, see Durand, Monographie, I:11, n. 1, 10; and for the 1240 quest, Durand, I:34). The 1240 relic journey was undertaken in the midst of funding shortfalls and perhaps in anticipation of the costly design of the upper level, choir and flyers, as observed by Murray.
Once again in 1241, in a charter which fixes rent for the house of the priest of Firmin the Confessor, Bishop Arnoul repeated his requests, with the same reasons: “It was ordained by the same Bishop Evrard, with the consent of the clergy and people of Amiens” to transfer the hospital and parish church. In addition, he set aside episcopal land with houses adjacent to the new site for the church of St.-Firmin, to the north of the cathedral, on land previously used for the hospital (Cartulaire du Chapitre, p. 362-4, no. 316; Murray, Amiens, 139-40) and designated for the chapter house and canons' cloister by Bishop Geoffroy nine years earlier (1232 charter). Not until 1247 were the transfers completed and the new church of St.-Firmin under construction, twenty-seven years after originally projected (see Durand, 236-7).
At Amiens, then, as Murray showed for Beauvais and Branner showed for Reims and conjectured for other churches, funds assembled in the first few (three to ten) years failed in the second decade of building. Reims’s archbishop was in a position to extract revenues through his seigneurial monopolies. The chapter of Amiens, without political authority in the town, had to rely upon limited urban and agrarian jurisdictions and a series of relic quests.
Between the 1240 relic journey and the final disposition of the canons’ cloister and of the church of St.-Firmin, the town of Amiens appears in the documents once again, but not so happily. For, if the commune’s power disadvantaged the chapter, recorded in disputes settled in favor of the commune and documenting poor relations, this pattern came to a head in 1244. The Thursday after Saint-Martin, seventeen clerks were arrested, for an unknown reason, by the royal provost, violently assaulted and imprisoned in the Belfry. One of the prisoners died during the night from his wounds. The following day, five others were taken by the provost, on the order of the bailiff of Amiens, Geoffroy de Milly, to the gallows and hanged after being beaten. Bishop Arnoul (1236-47), in defense of his right to justice over his clerks, excommunicated the royal officers and the anathema remained until they submitted to such a punishment that it pleased the bishop to inflict. Abou-El-Haj suggests that perhaps this indicates the bishop’s response to the pattern of diminished episcopal authority throughout the thirteenth century.
And the story continues. The Saturday after Saint-André, Geoffroy de Milly, in a chemise, barefoot, with a noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, as if he were a thief, was taken to the place of execution. He was then brought back to a chapel dedicated to Saint Montan, and from there he carried the body of one of the clerks, wrapped in a silk mantle purchased at his own expense. He is said to have carried this package on his shoulders, piously and solemnly to the cathedral and then to the cemetery of St.-Denis. The four following days, he carried in the same fashion and by the same road the four other bodies. He had to then present himself, his hands tied, barefoot, cord at his throat, like the first time, at the metropolitan church of Reims, and in all the cathedrals of the suffragan diocese and in those of Rouen, Sens, Paris and Orléans. In each of those he renewed the oath to never exercise the office of judge in any territory where he might be (Thierry, 208-212; and Murray, Amiens, 76).
The commune, in response, was charged with participating in the abuse of power committed by the royal officers, by allowing the clerks to be imprisoned in their belfry. The bishop ordered the mayor to pay a considerable fine, though the sentence is not extant in the municipal cartularies. A document drafted by seven arbitrators recalled the principal facts: the mayor declared in his name and in the name of the city that he was innocent of the death of the clerks, and ignorant of the crime of the royal officers, but he consented to an act of expiation to appease the anger of God, and the honor of the church outraged in the person of its ministers. Twelve notable burghers would carry guarantees: the mayor would found six chapels, donating to each an annual revenue of 20 Paris pounds (Murray, Amiens, 141). However, the commune did not pay the fine until 1262, eighteen years later, a measure of the bishop’s weak political leverage.
Four years prior, in 1258, the citizens of Amiens appear again in the documents. On August 31 a fire consumed parts of scaffolding of upper choir and parts of choir aisle roofs of the newly-rebuilt cathedral. A chest containing the church’s seals and privileges (priviligia) was carried off and the seals and privileges were removed. The clergy accused prominent burghers of having stolen the charters under cover of arson. A royal inquest focused on three suspects, leading citizens of the commune: Robert Bisaharz, “who did much damage to the church that night,” Anseau Sermontet (a sergeant of the city of Amiens suspected of having stolen and broken the chest), and Enguerrand de Croi. The three were imprisoned by the bailiff and reparations were delayed (Durand, Monographie, I:35-6; Murray, Amiens, Appendix A, item 20, 76-7). For only after the chapter’s stolen privileges were reconstituted, mandated by Pope Urban IV in 1262, was the 2,000 pound fine awarded eighteen years earlier, delivered (Durand, Inventaire, série AA, 10, fol. 155v). It seems likely that the theft of the same privileges, by leading members of the commune under cover of arson, was intended to delay payment to the bishop at a time when the city debt reached 7,800 pounds. For in the previous decade or so, the city had been compelled to contribute funds to King Louis IX’s crusade and to the collection for his ransom after he was captured and imprisoned in Acre.
We are now in a position to consider what all these documents tell us about cathedral building in the communal town of Amiens. As Abou-El-Haj understands it, in 1236, 1238, and 1241 the bishops’ purpose was to urge the transfers of the parish church of St.-Firmin and the hospital by criticizing both buildings for their unsuitable locations, finally, as she sees it by bribing the master and brothers of the hospital. They pressed their case by appealing to an agreement between their predecessors and the citizens of Amiens, fourteen, sixteen, and finally nineteen years earlier, for which no contemporary document survives. Under these circumstances, repeated and rhetorically enlarged appeals to the consent of the citizens appear to be weak levers to pry out of their establishment the reluctant and somewhat greedy master and brothers of the hospital, and perhaps the priest and clergy of the church of St.-Firmin.
Nothing in this history suggests that the commune was impacted by the cathedral enterprise. And Abou-El-Haj maintains that it was quite the opposite – in her understanding, the commune was an obstacle. Building was confined to the episcopal precinct and limited by the chapter’s largely agrarian revenues. Yet, with critical compromises, it built the tallest and most technically-refined church of its day.
Evidence from the end of the thirteenth century and beginning of the fourteenth serves as an epilogue of sorts. For, in the last phase of building, the chapter’s ambitious cathedral seems to have come against an intransigent town. A 1294 dispute is recorded in a settlement in 1304 forbidding the chapter to expand its parvis (plaza) before the west facade in these words of classic legalese:
... Let it be known that the said dean and canons cannot and will not, from now on and in the future, do or have done anything through which the streets, which are and will be between the said parvis and church on the one hand, and the house of the said school master and the other houses of the canons on the other hand, [through which that street] would be narrowed or cut off from the top or the bottom or in any way, [which they might be able to do] (Cartulaire du Chapitre, II: 67-70, item 519, see esp. p. 69; see also Erlande-Brandenburg, “La façade,” 258, n. 29).
It appears that in limiting the extension of the parvis, the town was protecting its access route to the gate of Saint Michael (behind the choir of the cathedral). The canons’ cloister, as well as the projected parvis, bordered an east-west route, today the rue Cormont, that passed through the canons’ enclosure and gave access to the Saint Michael cloister gate. When this had been rebuilt in 1177, a similar dispute was resolved only when two sets of keys were furnished, one for the chapter and one for the commune.
This legalistic language of the 1304 document provides some sense of the relationship between commune and chapter in the last phase of construction. In fact, the parvis had to wait six hundred years for Viollet-le-Duc and the Monuments Historiques, together with the state and the city of Amiens, to buy or expropriate adjoining property (see Section III, pt.4).
* * * *
The apparent tensions within the city of Amiens during the decades of the construction of its new Gothic cathedral can suggest new ways to understand the ambitious building project and its sculptural adornment.
When completed, the rebuilt cathedral of Amiens continued the pattern of ever higher and more technically advanced cathedrals in the latter twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The trajectory of ever larger, higher and technically refined buildings among Reims’s suffragans, and generally in the Paris basin, built for cathedral chapters of prestigious rank and prodigious ambition, is evident in a consideration of the relative heights of buildings. A comparison of the heights of the buildings makes this plain: Noyon (begun 1150; height approximately 74 feet), Laon (begun 1160; height 78 feet), Sens (81 ¼ feet), and Soissons (97 ½ feet) were soon outdone by Paris (begun circa 1163; height 108 feet), Chartres (begun circa 1195; height 116 feet), Bourges (118 feet), and Reims (123 feet), only 7 feet taller than Chartres but 9 feet narrower, so appearing to stretch even higher toward the heavens. Amiens, soaring to 139 feet enters the fray at a height far exceeding that of Reims, its archiepiscopal overlord. Amiens was overtaken by Beauvais (begun after 1225), whose choir vaults were raised to 157 feet, but whose nave vaults at 141 feet, collapsed in 1284, leaving Amiens the largest and the tallest building of its time.
As Abou-El-Haj saw it, in respect to urban space, these churches, usually closed to the faithful except on major feasts, when taxes were delivered, were entirely discrepant with ritual need. They served other purposes – asserting temporal and spiritual authority. It must have been satisfying to build a cathedral that loomed over town and countryside, a topographic display of authority the chapter did not entirely possess.
Before turning to specifics of the structure and ornament, it is useful to consider what we know of the economic conditions surrounding the cathedral’s construction. For evidence indicates that there sometimes were hostilities over money between the cathedral and the commune in Amiens in the first decades of the building project. The “Respite of St. Firmin,” a tax on the bishop’s clientele, was reduced by twenty-five percent in 1226. Murray discusses this reduction in relation to the initial burden of cathedral construction, work that prompted the clergy to offer significant concessions in an effort to ensure harmonious relations and continuity in building (unlike the riots in Reims). The value of the tax, Murray observes, must have decreased due to inflation and therefore, the cathedral building project forced clergy to make concessions, and in consequence was a force for liberalization. Clergy would have to work more closely with the commune to avoid confrontations (Murray, Amiens, 74; and Appendix A, item 6, p. 132).
Abou-El-Haj suggests that the "Respite of St. Firmin" reveals evidence of the bishop being coerced by the power of the Amiens commune. Building on a reference in Augustin Thierry's study (Thierry, 72), she observes that the “Respite of Saint Firmin” was not a spontaneous offering by the chapter for its own purposes, but was reached after long debates between the bishop and the commune. The “Respite,” was a seigneurial tax traced to the twelfth-century, called the tonlieu, levied on sales and purchases, among the privileges of the count and the bishop in exchange for a fixed tax (which would have been disadvantageous to the bishop in a time of prosperity and inflation). The original “Respite of Saint Firmin,” was a sum of four Paris deniers paid to the bishop or his fermiers by the married inhabitants of the commune each year on the feast of the martyr. She finds meaning in the fact that it was renegotiated, after long debates between bishop and commune, in an accord dated November 1226 in which the four deniers of Paris were reduced to three and were not exigible except for the fifteen days after the feast of Saint Firmin. A surviving member of a marriage would pay the taille in full, every member of the commune would inscribe de droigt in a book, and the bishop could in no way become an obstacle to this. Thus Abou-El-Haj sees here evidence of the bishop being coerced by the power of the commune rather than a scenario in which both sides made a benevolent gesture.
Abou-El-Haj takes note of further fiscal wrangling between the cathedral and the commune around the same time in the chapter's liberalization of its corvée (a day's unpaid labor owed by a vassal to his lord). She observes that, according to Fossier, demographic pressure drove the change from direct exploitation to waged labor, and that this evolution was fully achieved when demographic pressure culminated around 1220 (Fossier, La terre et les hommes, II: 588-90). While Murray sees that building sometimes caused oppressive taxation and violent rejection, as at the cathedral of Beauvais, he suggests that it might have lessened the burden, and that changes in tax structure from kind or labor to cash in order to pay masons, carpenters and other waged labor were an advantage to locals (Murray, Amiens, 26). On this score, Abou-El-Haj wonders how the chapter’s transformations of corvée, agrarian labor, as assessed by Fossier as putting one in three peasants in poverty, might have been linked with the town.
Abou-El-Haj, further positions herself in opposition to majority opinion in her understanding of donations to the cathedral of Amiens. For Murray observes that there were “substantial contributions made for personal, political, or religious reasons by family and friends of the clergy who dominated the upper levels of the urban bourgeoisie, who comprised the scores of seigneurs of the countryside around Amiens,” and he notes a surprising value of gifts and legacies made by thirteenth-century rural people, “solicited, above all, through quests and sermons” (Murray, Amiens, 26, n. 95). Fossier, however, suggests that donations must have been purchased through offers of salvation (Fossier, Histoire de Picardie, 158). One might see such exchanges as a form of spiritual coercion, along the lines analyzed by Jane Welch Williams in Bread, Wine, and Money, though this reading could also be complicated through consideration of Murray's A Gothic Sermon.
With this assertion, one can turn to the specifics of the building, considered comparatively. The exterior of Amiens Cathedral is shorter than that of Reims by thirteen feet. By an equal measure, Amiens was built as the tallest cathedral of its day, surpassed only by Beauvais, with choir vaults at 157 feet (noted above), before the catastrophic collapse in 1284. The similar width of Reims’s and Amiens’s naves, moreover, enhances the sensation of the latter’s increased height. It is a measure of the chapter’s ambitions that the additional thirteen feet of the length of Amiens is more than the incremental increases between Noyon and Laon, or Paris, Bourges and Reims, but leaps considerably above Reims, its metropolitan, as Paris did above Laon.
The façade of Amiens is double-towered, fronting the nave of seven bays, including the western bay of the crossings, single lateral aisles, broad, aisled transepts projecting one and two bays respectively from their naves. (One might note, however, that the original plan anticipated modest towers.) At Amiens the choir continues the outer wall of the chapels set between the nave buttresses. Before the buttresses were joined by chapels, the choir would have extended the single aisle of the nave into an inner ambulatory with seven radiating chapels with an extended axial.
Once fitted with chapels, the nave of Amiens appears to be wider than the interior dimensions signal, wider than Reims, with which it is equal in breadth. Its nave meets the transept, situated virtually at midpoint between the porch and its axial chapel. Given that the faithful would have been obliged and expected at the cathedral perhaps only on high feast days, it is striking that the cathedral was designed with such a formidable clerical space, larger than that of Reims, following a pattern of dramatically enlarged sanctuary space proportionate to secular space of shortened naves. As Abou-El-Haj sees it, thirteenth-century designs provided ever more elaborate and expansive sanctified settings in which an increasingly embattled clergy staged their spiritual and secular monopolies, backed by a centralizing and increasingly persecutorial church. At Reims, this design would have suited the broad crossing in which coronations were celebrated before elite audiences, a space from which to project the authority, twice ruptured, beneath an aggressive image of an ideal authority in the high choir glass (Section I, pt. 4). At Amiens, in an even greater clerical space, appears in inverse relation to the chapter’s severely restricted urban clout.
Turning to the issue of the site of the cathedral as referenced in the 1236 charter discussed previously, most scholars place the parish church of St.-Firmin at the site of the new cathedral’s north transept and the Hôtel-Dieu (hospital) to the northwest of the old façade, allowing for work to begin on the façade earlier than 1236. The hospital brothers, however, did not relinquish their site until 1238. St.-Firmin was demolished and rebuilt, but the new church was not completed until the fifteenth century, constructed in same style as the cathedral on a reduced scale.
Scholars have recognized the innovative features of the architecture of Amiens Cathedral. The cathedral walls are far thinner than those at its counterparts. The elegant vertical rise of the inner walls is emphasized and balanced by delicate horizontal elements – a repeated foliage design on the capitals that crown the compound columns of the nave arcade, double rows alternating with thin cantilevered columns with single rows of foliage, and the continuous garland at the triforium level, the tall and narrow lancets framed by thin, fluted columns, even more luminous in their current state, with clear glass which came to replace the original stained glass. These qualities are matched on the exterior by pierced flyers at the transept and nave, giving them an exceptionally delicate appearance.
Savings and efficiencies have been noted in materials and in the systematized use of new techniques. The cathedral workshop, employed from 1220 until the end of the century was a principal center for the Amiens and Picard economy bringing together numerous trades working on stone, wood, and metal (Sandron, 40). The stone for the cathedral came from local quarries from Croissy, Fontaine-Bonneleau and Doméliers under the lordship of the chapter (around 25-30 km south west). Use of quarries of Beaumetz in l’Acon near Tirancourt on the right bank of the Somme, roughly 12 km, given by St.-Martin-de-Picquigny in 1234, were even closer and allowed for easy transport by river. Sandstone taken from north of the town, near Villers-Bocage was used for the substructure.
For such a large project, the stone could be rough hewn in the quarry, which diminished the cost for transportation. A technique used and developed throughout the building was equally efficient and economic, progressively requiring less labor, as Kimpel has shown (Kimpel, “Le développement de la taille,” 1977). The working method at Amiens is characterized by Sandron (42) as a profound intellectual reflection on the work of the architect and designer, requiring maquettes before actually doing the work. Such a rationalization of production cannot be imagined without a solid organization of work incorporating specialized personnel who prefigure the great workshops of the end of the thirteenth century. The models or templates for the stone (gabarits) were no doubt preserved in the loge, permitting stone cutters to work either at the building site or at the quarry.
Each technical innovation at Amiens may be considered to be contingent upon the economic and spatial constraints forced upon this ambitious project. Remarkably thin walls meant less stone whose quarrying and transport were among the most costly aspects of building. That the quarries were near and owned by the chapter must have meant savings. Prefabricated architectural elements were an efficiency that might also speak creatively to economic constraints.
Turning to the adornment of the west façade, one finds three portals, deeply recessed and fully carved. These are surmounted by a double tier – one an arcade, the other a gallery of kings. This arrangement moved the late style rose window upward to the first level of the towers, set between tall, open double arcades. Against this overall armature, Amiens incorporates unusual features that provide a rich, tactile surface on its façade. Sculpture and architectural detail contrast with plain surfaces free of additional decoration. And the sculpted adornment is dense, with three standard portals, tympana surrounded by archivolts, and flanked by jamb figures who continue across the buttresses, creating a screen of figures. Sculptural density is enhanced by the series of quatrefoils set in double rows along an exceptionally high dado, beneath the jamb figures, and extending across the buttresses.
The iconographies of these quatrefoils, especially those at the central and left (north) portal sets a gloss for the tympana and jamb figures above, with Labors of the Months and the Zodiac beneath the story of Saint Firmin at the left portal, and personifications of Virtues and Vices beneath the central Last Judgment portal. At the Virgin portal, to the right (south), a double set of quatrefoils extends the narrative of the tympanum to include scenes of the childhood of the Virgin, the birth of John the Baptist, and the infancy of Christ beneath the figures of the Annunciation, Visitation, Presentation, the Magi, and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
As mentioned already, the left portal celebrates Firmin, the prestigious martyr associated with the city of Amiens, whose body had been discovered by bishop-saint Salve. The tympanum is arranged in tiers and depicts Salve’s discovery of Firmin’s body and the procession of the saint’s relics to Amiens. At the center of the lower register, Bishop Salve, holding a large staff, points to the open tomb, raised at an angle, in which is Firmin, in full episcopal regalia. The rest of the register shows the inhabitants of four episcopal towns in Picardy – Thérouanne, Cambrai, Noyon and Beauvais – drawn to Firmin’s tomb by the sweet scent that it emitted. All four of these episcopal cities were, like Amiens, suffragans of Reims. The cities’ inhabitants are shown not running to Amiens as the text states, but standing beside architectural assemblages. The buildings, highly attenuated toward the center, are composed of coherent elements – towers, multi-storied, windowed at each end, at the right with a bell. These groups link the central figures into a compact rising group as they surround Bishop Salve at Firmin’s tomb. As depicted, the inhabitants of the four towns emerge to witness the discovery, the nearest groups pointing, speaking with one another and acknowledging with open palm the miracle. They do not come to Amiens or follow the châsse, but they serve to link the discovery with the procession, and to authenticate the key events that confirmed the body as Firmin.
The upper register of the tympanum depicts the procession of Firmin’s relics. At the center, two canons, accompanied by two further clergy, carry the saint’s reliquary châsse on their shoulders. This group is led to Amiens on the heels of three clergy carrying a processional cross and a choir of five children in alb each holding liturgical instruments – a censer, a holy water basin, and a candle. They are greeted by the people of Amiens, kneeling at an open gate. The left quarter of this register makes reference to the miraculous change in weather described in Salve’s vita. A man carries a flowering branch, miraculously blossoming in mid-winter. At the apex of the tympanum, the hand of God emerges from the clouds of heaven, accompanied by four angels.
In the lintel, six bishops, each mitered, enthroned, and holding a crook or pointing to an opened book, confirm the events above. Finally, the trumeau figure is Saint Firmin the Martyr, holding a staff and offering a blessing. He is set under a canopy that occupies the center of the row of seated figures above. The saint is surrounded by figures of the other local saints of Amiens in the jambs, each standing under fanciful canopies and squashing small figures in the socles beneath their feet.
The arrangement of the Firmin tympanum is mirrored on the right (south) tympanum devoted to the Dormition, Assumption, and Coronation of the Virgin. Corresponding with the six seated bishops in the lintel of the Firmin portal, six Old Testament prophets – among them Moses and Aaron – sit enthroned in lintel of the Virgin portal, confirming the sacred narrative which they had prophesied.
The scheme of the Last Judgment in the central portal is a didactic type. It is informed by the theological understanding of grace, in which the faithful must be conscious of the gift received from God – the merit of eternal life – through the practice of virtues that permit him to vanquish the forces of evil. Judgment descends from the apocalyptic Christ with swords in mouth attended by censing angels to Christ the Judge, the saved and damned Michael in the center, and below Michael the church triumphant over the vanquished Synagoga. Below, the Saved include crowned figures, the damned seem undifferentiated except for very large money bags, an exaggerated view of avarice identified with merchants. Abou-El-Haj suggests this might be a direct attack on the commune.
Abou-El-Haj sought to draw connections between the iconographies of these portals and tensions between clergy and commune in the city of Amiens. But she also found aspects of the style of the figures to be revealing about conditions of manufacture – and by extension the social and political conditions in the city. For the faces of the figures at the west façade of Amiens are rather bland and un-individualized. Without developing the insight, Willibald Sauerländer commented that workshops unable to keep pace with expanding demands to provide sculpture for ever larger cathedrals, might turn to “simplifying the treatment of figures in order to save time” (Sauerländer, Gothic Sculpture, 57). Abou-El-Haj suggests that the same efficiencies found in the cutting of stone for the fabric of the building (discussed previously) seem to have compromised the quality and quantity of sculpture at Amiens. The simplified features of the faces at the west façade, that is, may indicate hasty work.
Abou-El-Haj observes, it was not for a dire lack of resources that the sculpture and working procedure on the building had to be made efficient. But it seems that priorities had to be set and the first among these was to find an efficient means to build a tall and elegant structure, a remarkable qualitative achievement that allowed the new cathedral to tower over the town and to compete with its contemporaries.
Bibliography for Cathedral Building and Social Dynamics
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- What difference does it make if donations to a cathedral building project are coerced or given freely by citizens? It is impossible to recover the attitudes with which any donation was made in the past (or today). But how does it change one’s understanding of the cathedral of Amiens if one knows that at least some of the funds that went toward its construction and maintenance were given by those who were hostile to the church for political or sacred reasons?
- Are there parallels to be drawn between the drive to control land in the town and the heights to which the vaults of Amiens soared?
- Abou-El-Haj picks up on Sauerländer’s observation that the facial and bodily types of the sculptures at Amiens are monotonous and that this may be the result of hasty working conditions during construction. Are there specific sculptures on the west façade of Amiens that can fill out – or challenge – that observation? Does consideration of iconography of these (as opposed to their style) lead you to new conclusions about the conditions of production at the west façade at Amiens?
- How can an art historian bridge the distance between the historical record and a monument? What are the most effective methodological devices to attempt this? Does exploring tense power dynamics of the players involved in a building and decorating campaign detract from appreciating the beauty of the structure?