The Other Notre Dame

No, not the football one either!

Notre Dame d’Amiens, 1895

The horrible fire in Paris made me wonder about the other great cathedrals. There are hundreds of churches named “Our Lady” of something or other in many different languages. In the French form, “Notre Dame,” I found over twelve of them. I’m fairly sure there are more. The “other” one I mean today is Notre Dame d’Amiens.

Two years ago I wrote a piece on historical travel associated with The Great War. In it I mentioned the memorial plaques inside the great cathedral in Amiens, France. As luck would have it I saw both the one in Paris and the one in Amiens the same week.

Construction on Our Lady of Amiens began sixty years after the one in Paris, during the great age of the Gothic cathedrals. It was completed much faster, however; it has been suggested that its relatively quick building time gave it a harmony of style sometimes lacking in other structures of the period. The great cathedral at Chartres and the “new” cathedral at Reims (among others) were being built during the same stretch of time. Wikipedia lists over 190 French cathedrals. The number master builders and stone carvers employed in France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries astonishes me.

Interior, David Roberts, 1827

With an interior area of 7700 square meters, Notre Dame d’Amiens is 2200 meters larger than its sister in Paris. At the time it was built, it was large enough to shelter 20,000 people,  the entire population of Amiens. More impressive, however is its height. The nave, or main body, of the cathedral in Amiens soars twenty-four feet higher than that of the one in Paris. In France, only the transept of the never completed cathedral at Beauvais, parts of which collapsed during construction, is higher.

Fire is nothing new. At least three earlier Amiens cathedrals burned down, but the thirteenth century masterpiece, having survived its share of disasters, has persisted. It sustained damage during two hurricanes, a powder mill explosion, and the religious wars of the Reformation, and most of the medieval glass is gone. It almost collapsed in the sixteenth century, but an alert master builder caught the danger, strengthened the buttresses, and added the iron wall-tie that still holds it together.

The author by a carving of a winemaker on the cathedral

Just as happened to Notre Dame de Paris, authorities of the French Revolution converted the sanctuary of Notre Dame d’Amiens to a Temple of Reason, but with significantly less destruction. Damage was limited to some fleur-de-lis (symbol of the monarchy). The portals were left intact. The statue of Saint Genevieve was renamed the Goddess of Reason, but the interior was not pillaged as it was in Paris.

Interior sandbagged during the war

The greatest threat to the cathedral at Amiens, however, occurred during the world wars of the twentieth century, both of which saw fighting practically on its doorstep. The staff removed windows and other vulnerable artifacts for safekeeping and the building was heavily sandbagged both inside and out during both wars. By a combination of these precautions and some good luck, the cathedral survived into the twenty-first relatively unscathed for us to enjoy.

The structure itself is the treasure, both the overall architecture, and the incredible stone carvings, particularly on the portal where Christ reigns, Saint Francis leads the way into heaven, and a series of interesting (and often funny) carvings of the people of Amiens decorate the edges. However, there are other surviving gems inside, notably a thirteenth century labyrinth, sixteenth century choir stalls, and a sixteenth century choir screen covered with polychrome reliefs of the lives of Saint Firman and Saint John the Baptist with original paint.

Alas, I found no recent information about fire prevention measures at Amiens. We can only hope.

Detail from the Saint Firmin Choir Screen (Photo by © Guillaume Piolle)

For more see:

Amiens Cathedral construction:

Building the Great Cathedrals:

Caroline Warfield is a writer of family-centered historical romance. She is currently expanding her novellas “Roses in Picardy” and “The Last Post,” which take place in and around Amiens in 1916 and 1919, into a full length novel.

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