[4] MODERN ERA – The Uses of Amiens – in the Nineteenth Century and in the Scholarship

The cathedral of Amiens, relatively undamaged during the French Revolution, remained within its confined precinct. Most of the damage that occurred to the building in the eighteenth century and before was due to insufficient maintenance and repair work. Early nineteenth-century efforts disfigured the building, taking up the original floor and using repairs in multiple period styles. Viollet-le-Duc, the third of four nineteenth-century restoration work directors (1849-72), tried to better understand the construction history but he, too, succumbed in large part to remaking Amiens his imagined ideal. Viollet also finally created the broad parvis that had been interdicted in 1304 (see Section II, pt. 5). This time (1863-65), with government permission, adjacent properties were confiscated and razed to create the spacious plaza that now fronts the west façade of Amiens, a project only completed during twentieth century after bombardments during World War II destroyed some adjacent buildings.

Like Reims, Amiens Cathedral was used as a hospital and damaged during the world wars of the twentieth century but not to the same degree. At both sites, sandbags protected both interior and exterior elements of the building and windows were removed for safety. However, during World War I, a fire in the storage depot destroyed a large number of those windows. Although hit by shells nine times during the First World War, including one in 1918 that fell through the roof next to a crossing pier but did not explode, Amiens sustained no major damage. During World War II, the building was again shelled during heavy air raids over the city but survived. Major repairs were completed during the 1950s. 

    Amiens is a key example of the French Gothic cathedrals in modern art-historical study that exemplifies the High Gothic phase of development. Prominent scholars, such as Paul Frankl, held that Reims Cathedral was the model for the Amiens design, although more recent studies have emphasized the impact of Laon, Soissons, and Longpont. As in the literature on Reims, much attention focused on the construction chronology of Amiens, the work of its three named master masons, and its stylistic innovations.

Abou-El-Haj believed that a mythology similar to that cultivated around Reims Cathedral pervades the art-historical literature about the cathedral of Amiens. For her, Amiens Cathedral also stands within interpretive models rooted in Romantic traditions that assume passive local audiences or seamless communities of the faithful, a paradigm set most notably by Otto von Simson. Indeed one could lament that, although Henry Kraus, in his book Gold was the Mortar, focused attention on the importance of the patronage of wealthy Amiens burghers at the cathedral and in the city, Kraus’s insights did not shape many mainstream analyses of the cathedral in recent decades. That said, there is much for Abou-El-Haj to have admired in the work of Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, since they extend the consideration of social context to embrace a broad set of issues from the building workshop to architectural design, space and function to institutional character and liturgy, the division between observances reserved to parish churches and to the cathedral, the application of color to architecture and figures, and the different stones and their sources and the building workshop (see Section II, pt. 5). However, Kimpel and Suckale ultimately fall back on what Abou-El-Haj terms a “consensus narrative,” when they state that the cathedral of Amiens resulted from decisions made cooperatively by the clergy and people of Amiens, who helped finance the work. 

Abou-El-Haj considered another essay by Kimpel (“Le développement de la taille …”) to be particularly compelling, in that it explores the cathedral workshop’s systematic use of stones cut in series, an innovative and efficient process of prefabrication that reduced the number of pier stones by half as building reached the choir. Abou-El-Haj found this discovery to be suggestive for a cathedral long recognized for its light, elegant and refined architecture. Moreover, studies by Robert Mark (“Quintessential High Gothic” and Light, Wind, and Structure) emphasized the ingenuity of the Amiens builders, who placed pinnacles to pre-stress the outer edge of the buttress upright thus fusing structure and ornament. Consideration of such research can fill out some of the arguments Abou-El-Haj proposed in relation to production at Amiens. Finally, Abou-El-Haj was especially inspired by the work of Robert Fossier, in his analyses of the conditions of existence for average people of the Picardy region, where Amiens resides, during the high Middle Ages. Fossier’s calculation that for every ten peasants, one was in misery, three were poor, four lived on modest means, and only two knew abundance (Fossier I, 647), was, for Abou-El-Haj, relevant to consideration of the conditions of production and existence at the time of the construction of Amiens.

Abou-El-Haj understood her work to be in debate with the scholarship of Stephen Murray. She celebrates Murray’s meticulous architectural analyses in his monograph on Amiens (see Section II, pt. 5). But where Murray considers the dynamics of change from a variety of vantage points -- social and political, as well as architectural -- over the course of the construction of Amiens Cathedral, Abou-El-Haj urges readers to focus on evidence of conflicts among the various communities of the town and the cathedral. She suggests that such conflicts could have affected the quality of the sculptural imagery. Abou-El-Haj was not, however, able to grapple with Murray’s most recent book, Plotting Gothic (2014), though this study does follow an intellectual path along lines that she valued. For in Plotting Gothic, Murray reviews the various myths that have grown up around Gothic “masterpieces” through the stories of Villard de Honnecourt, Gervase of Canterbury, and Suger of St.-Denis. He considers the trajectory of secondary literature’s role in explaining Gothic buildings and wonders how much medieval and postmedieval rhetorical narratives affected formulations of Gothic as a style and as a period. Within this interrogation, Murray includes “the material and social contexts of the original production of the monument” (5) -- the very issues that drove Abou-El-Haj's inquiries.

Bibliography on the Uses of Amiens

Frankl, Paul, Gothic Architecture, revised by Paul Crossley (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).

Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain, “La facade de la cathédrale d”Amiens,” Bulletin monumental 135 (1977), 252-293.

Fossier, Robert, La Terre et les Hommes en Picardie (Louvain, 1968).

Kimpel, Dieter and Robert Suckale, Die gotische Architektur in Frankreich, 1130-1270 (Munich, 1985).

Kimpel, Dieter, “Le développement de la taille en série dans l’architecture médiévale et son rôle dans l’histoire économique,” Bulletin monumentale 135 (1977): 195-222.

Kraus, Henry, Gold Was the Mortar: The Economics of Cathedral Building (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 39-59.

Mark, Robert, “Quintessential High Gothic: Amiens Cathedral and Medieval Engineering,” in Experiments in Gothic Structure (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), 50-57.

Mark, Robert, Light, Wind, and Structure: The Mystery of the Master Buildings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), esp. 123-128.

Murray, Stephen, “Looking for Robert de Luzarches: The Early Work at Amiens Cathedral,” Gesta 29 (1990): 111-131.

Murray, Stephen, Notre-Dame, Cathedral of Amiens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Murray, Stephen, A Gothic Sermon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Murray, Stephen, Plotting Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Sandron, Dany, Amiens. La cathédrale, (Paris: Zodiaque, 2004).


  1. In the modern era, Amiens Cathedral can stand as an exemplar of “classic” early Gothic structure, and is has been examined for its aesthetic harmonies, most successfully by Stephen Murray. How do analyses of the physical coherence of Amiens Cathedral align with or contribute to stories of social harmony, advanced in Romantic conceptions of the Middle Ages? How does Murray’s recent work, in Plotting Gothic, complicate the story? What elements of that work are in tune with Abou-El-Haj’s project? Can one reconcile the two scholarly approaches?