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Amiens Cathedral

Amiens Cathedral, Robert de Luzarches, Thomas de Cormont and Renaud de Cormont, Amiens, France, begun 1220. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Beth] We're standing in the square outside of the beautiful 13th century Cathedral of Amiens. This is a Gothic masterpiece both in architecture and in sculpture. - [Steven] This is such a great example of the Gothic because the front of the building is not so much a stone wall, but a kind of complex surface that's almost like lace in a way that it's opened up. - [Beth] Starting at the bottom, we have these three large doorways and that mirrors what we would find inside the church, a large, central nave and then smaller aisles on either side. But, to call these doors is such an oversimplification. These are decorated with dozens of figures and almost act like funnels that draw us into the church. - [Steven] Yes, there is a sense of movement in, but at the same time there's a sense of amplification outward. It's almost as if the messages of the figures that are carved within these portals, that their voices are amplified by the multiple arches that radiate outward. - [Beth] And, above the doorway, we see pointed arches decorated with quatrefoils and then typically for many Gothic churches, we see a row of figures standing in niches and this is called the king's gallery. - [Steven] And, then on either side, two towers which are actually later additions. - [Beth] And in between that, a rose window. - [Steven] The king's gallery functions as a Tree of Jesse. That is, the lineage of Old Testament kings that Christians believe were the ancestors of Christ. - [Beth] One way we could understand this is to think about this left portal as telling us the stories of a local saint, who would have been especially venerated by the people of Amiens as their first bishop. On the right we have Mary, the intercessor between mankind and God. And, then in the center, we see Christ presented to us in three ways. - [Steven] Let's take a close look at the portal that's devoted to the Virgin Mary. - [Beth] Here we see Mary holding the Christ child on the trumeau. - [Steven] She's stepping on a creature that has a human head but attached to a lizard-like body which represents evil that she is stamping out. The virgin is so elegantly represented. She holds the Christ child, her palm is forward as if she's presenting him to us. You can still make out the blue paint that would have originally covered her dress. - [Beth] So much of the paint is still visible. You can see reds and blues and golds. - [Steven] She's crowned because this is a representation of Mary as the Queen of Heaven. And above her we see an architectural structure that is a kind of tabernacle. And, within it is a representation of the Ark of the Covenant. And, that's the ark that would have held the 10 Commandments. - [Beth] And, on either side of that we see three patriarchs. And, above that in the tympanum, two scenes from the life of the Virgin. The Dormition, or the death of the Virgin. - [Steven] That's on the left. - [Beth] And, on the right, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Mary was understood to have been assumed bodily into Heaven and we see angels lifting her up. - [Steven] Both of those sculptures, although they tell different stories seem so similar at first. And, I love the slight distinctions that help us tell one from the other. On the right, Mary is lifted ever so slightly. - [Beth] And, if we move up to the very top of the tympanum, we see a scene that is quite common in Gothic sculpture and that's the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. Angels are placing a crown on the head of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven and she's surrounded by angels. - [Steven] Let's spend a moment looking at some of the jamb figures on either side of the doorway. We see the Annunciation. On the left is the archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will bear Christ. - [Beth] And, then next to that we see the Visitation. This is Mary being visited by her cousin Elizabeth who's pregnant with St. John the Baptist. Mary is pregnant with the Christ child. - [Steven] I love the sense of naturalism in these figures, the way in which they're interacting. This is quite different from the earlier jamb figures that we see at Chartres where the figures are very separate, very columnar. - [Beth] And, here the drapery falls quite naturally in folds that appear three-dimensional. But, there's not a lot of interest here in showing the body underneath the drapery. There is a plainness and simplicity of the figures in their drapery and in their faces that has been noted by art historians. - [Steven] Just one aside. Below the feet of the jamb figures there are these architectural canopies and below that wonderfully complex figures and in some cases they seem to relate to the figures above them. For instance, just below the Virgin Mary, you see Eve who's being offered the apple by the devil in the guise of the serpent. - [Beth] Mary is understood in Christian theology as the second Eve, who with Christ, sets right the original sin created by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. - [Steven] We've walked over to the central portal. Let's start in the very center with the trumeau. - [Beth] This figure is known as the Beau Dieu, the Beautiful God and he is beautiful. He looks peaceful, he's got his right hand raised in the gesture of blessing, in his left hand he holds a book. - [Steven] And, look how his drapery points upward towards the Bible, drawing our eye to the word of God. - [Beth] We get a sense of being blessed as we enter the church. We also note that Christ is standing on two creatures, one that looks like a lion, another that looks a dragon or a serpent. So, again that idea of good overcoming evil. - [Steven] What I find fascinating is that this is the lowest of three representations of Christ. We also find Christ as judge in the tympanum and above that an apocalyptic Christ. Let's take a look at the tympanum more closely. - [Beth] The tympanum is in a way a warning. - [Steven] Christ sits as judge, in this case on a low stool. His palms are up and if you look very closely, you can just make out drops of blood coming from his wounds from the cross. - [Beth] All of these figures who look very real to us today would have appeared so much more lifelike when they were painted. - [Steven] Christ's pupils are still painted. His eyes look out at us with wonderful intensity. - [Beth] So this is the Last Judgment. On the left we see Mary, on the right St. John, on either side of them angels holding the instruments of the passion. - [Steven] And, then kneeling angels at the far corner. In the register just below Christ, we see the blessed and the damned. The damned are on the right, they're naked, and they're being forced by devils into the mouth of Hell itself. - [Beth] Angels above them brandish fiery swords, pushing them into that mouth of Hell. - [Steven] And, if you look closely, the figures that are closest to the mouth of Hell, who seem to be trying to turn away, are being pulled in by a devil's arm. - [Beth] And, of course, escape is impossible. On the left, we see the blessed who are being escorted in an orderly way into Heaven where they're being crowned. Angels gently guide them by placing a hand on their back. And, the angels above them place crowns on their heads. - [Steven] At the bottom of the tympanum, we see four angels blowing trumpets. They are waking the dead and we can see souls rising out of their tombs, lifting the heavy stone slabs from their coffins. Some have their hands in prayer and some seem simply bewildered. Each of these souls will be judged. - [Beth] In the center we see St. Michael who's weighing souls. He's got a scale and on the left side we see a lamb, the Lamb of God, which is understood as Christ. On the right, a demon. And, it looks as though the weight of the scale is toward the side of the lamb, toward the side of the blessed. So, souls are being weighed to decide their fate whether they go to Heaven or they go to Hell. - [Steven] And, if you look very closely, you can see that there's a demon below the scales who's lifting his arm as if trying to tip the balance. He's trying to cheat. At the very top we see the third representation of Christ. But, this is the apocalyptic Christ that comes directly from the Book of Revelation. - [Beth] And in that book it says, "In his right hand he held seven stars "and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, "double-edge sword. "His face was like the sun shining "in all of its brilliance." - [Steven] And, we see two angels. The angel on the left holds the sun and the angel on the right, the moon. So, the Last Judgment is this division between the blessed and damned. Above the central portal, it's a reminder to everybody entering and leaving the church, that they can live their life in a way that is is accordance with God or not. But, we see that also in the lower registers of the portal. - [Beth] The tympanum is addressing what will happen in our afterlife based on the choices we make while we're alive. And, we're reminded of those choices in the quatrefoils just below the jamb sculptures where we see, in some cases, representations of virtues and vices. And the one I love the most is the pair of courage and cowardice. Courage shows us a knight holding a shield and a sword. - [Steven] And on the shield we see a representation of a powerful creature. I think that might be a bear. - [Beth] That sword has been dropped quickly. - [Steven] We see this figure of cowardice turning back startled by two little animals, a rabbit and a bird. And, he seems to be running away. And, it is a wonderful contrast. But, even though this is carved in a very light-hearted way, below the surface is a serious message. Those that come into the church are being reminded that they have choices that will have powerful consequences in the afterlife. - [Beth] And that the Virgin Mary is available to intercede on our behalf and we're reminded of that in the right portal. And, the first bishop of Amiens is also there for us as we're reminded in the left-hand portal. And, so we have these tools available to us to aid in our salvation as we enter the miraculous space of Amiens Cathedral. - [Steven] It's quieter but surprisingly bright. - [Beth] The stained glass windows that would have been here in the 13th century don't survive and so we're not quite seeing the interior the way it would have been seen back then. Standing in the nave, the main, wide, central space of the church, we notice that there's one aisle on either side. And, when we look down the nave, we see the holiest part of the church, the east end where the altar is. - [Steven] If we follow the great piers that do much of the work of the building, supporting the vaulting above, our eye rises up to the triforium and then to these massive walls of glass, what art historians call a clerestory. - [Beth] Amiens is a high Gothic church and so this vocabulary of Gothic architecture is being utilized here to its fullest. And, that clerestory is so important. The idea of letting light into the church, of opening up the walls and that spiritual quality of light so important to the Gothic architects. - [Steven] The clerestories themselves are much more elaborate that had been seen in earlier Gothic cathedrals. They're made up of the pair of arches, each with a pair of lancet windows. And, then above there are smaller oculi, in this case round, four-lobed windows. And, above that a larger round rose window. - [Beth] And, even the spaces between the double arches and that large rose are opened up to the light. - [Steven] Now all of this seems absolutely miraculous. There's this massive stone vault above. How is it possible that the glass holds that up? Some of the weight is held up by the piers, but if you look closely through the now clear glass, you can see the shadows of one of the great innovations of Gothic architecture, the flying buttress. This draws the weight of the vaulting outside so that the interior walls and the interior piers can be much more slender than had been possible in earlier forms of architecture. - [Beth] Those buttresses are helping from outside to support the building. - [Steven] And if you look very closely, you'll know that they're pairs of flying buttresses and that's because the lower of the two was added later when the great weight of the cathedral was creating a kind of buckling and this helped stabilize the structure. - [Beth] This is before modern engineering. This is a little bit of trial and error involved by the master builders who worked on this church, by the way whose names were mentioned in the labyrinth that once occupied the crossing of the church. So, there was a recognition of the importance of these master builders. - [Steven] And, their role in creating an architecture that was a reflection of Heaven in the earthly sphere. - [Beth] It's important to notice too, that the Gothic architects are making use of the pointed arch which allowed them much greater flexibility than the round arches used by Romanesque architects. - [Steven] The thrust of a pointed arch pushes down more directly. A rounded arch pushes out more and this allows the architects to build higher. - [Beth] And we also notice in Gothic architecture that they're making use of the ribbed groin vault, yet another technical achievement that allowed the architects to build so high and to build such vast spaces. So, we have this space that is incredibly high and open with very thin columns that support this roof that doesn't appear to weigh anything at all. - [Steven] The entire space feels miraculous even today. - [Beth] Romanesque churches in the period before the Gothic, you walked in and you were met with vast expanses of walls that were covered with paintings, with murals that told biblical stories. But, here those walls are opened up. It's the light that is communicating the divine. - [Steven] A great example of that can be seen in one of the later parts of the cathedral. Here the solid wall of the triforium is opened up and becomes an additional set of windows making the church feel even more diaphanous. - [Beth] And, as we look at the piers which are doing much of the work of carrying the weight of the vault, the way that they appear to be almost like bundled groups of smaller columns again give us that sense of lightness, of delicacy, of removing that sense of weight. - [Steven] Of masking their massiveness. - [Beth] And one of my favorite parts of the church is the lovely sculpting that we see on the stringcourse just above the nave arcade that helps to draw our eye down toward the east end. This is the time when the University of Paris is established. There's a going back to ancient philosophers especially Aristotle and a desire to unify the kind of logical thinking found in Aristotle with Christian theological ideas. We know that geometry was very important to Gothic architecture. - [Steven] The idea was that the church's proportions ought to correspond to the ideal of Heaven. And one of the ways that architects would do that is to think about dimensions that are spoken of in the Bible. And, one of the most famous is Noah's Ark which was known to be 50 cubits. Architectural historians have surmised that the central square of the church right in the middle of the crossing is the basis for the proportions of the church as a whole. And, this theory suggests that that inner square is 50 feet on each side. But, that square is then extended 30 feet on each side in accordance with the golden section making a great square which is 110 feet on each side. - [Beth] And so this unit forms a module that gets repeated through parts of the church. - [Steven] For example, in order to get the width of the transept of the great crossing that makes the outline of the church into a cruciform, into the shape of a cross, one needs to simply take 50% of the great square and add that again to either side. And, similarly, if you take the diagonal of the great square, that is the length of the nave. And, again, if you take the diagonal of the great square and you turn it 90 degrees upward, you have the height of the nave. - [Beth] What all of this suggests is a desire to unify the church, to use a system of measurement that is somewhat consistent. - [Steven] But also based on a kind of ideal that comes from the Bible because this entire enterprise, this entire cathedral is meant to represent Heaven on Earth. - [Beth] To lead the human mind toward the divine and, therefore, toward our salvation. (lively piano music)