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The Cathedral Of Amiens

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



It is the admitted privilege of a custode who loves his cathedral to depreciate, in its comparison, all the other cathedrals of his country that resemble, and all the edifices on the globe that differ from it. But I love too many cathedrals -though I have never had the happiness of becoming the custode of even one - to permit myself the easy and faithful exercise of the privilege in question; and I must vindicate my candour and my judgment in the outset, by confessing that the Cathedral of AMIENS has nothing to boast of in the way of towers, -that its central fleche is merely the pretty caprice of a village carpenter, -that the total structure is in dignity inferior to Chartres, in sublimity to Beauvais, and in decorative splendour to Rheims, and in loveliness of figure sculpture to Bourges. It has nothing like the artful pointing and moulding of the arcades of Salisbury - nothing of the might of Durham; no Daedalian inlaying like Florence, no glow of mythic fantasy like Verona. And yet, in all, and more than these, ways, outshone or overpowered, the Cathedral of Amiens deserves the name given it by M. Viollet le Duc

"The Parthenon of Gothic Architecture." Whatever you wish to see, or are forced to leave unseen at Amiens, if the overwhelming responsibilities of your existence, and the inevitable necessities of precipitate locomotion in their fulfilment, have left you so much as one quarter of an hour, not out of breath - for the contemplation of the capital of Picardy, give it wholly to the cathedral choir. Aisles and porches, lancet windows and roses, you can see elsewhere as well as here - but such carpenter's work you cannot. It is late, - fully developed flamboyant just past the Fifteenth Century - and has some Flemish stolidity mixed with the playing French fire of it; but woodcarving was the Picard's joy from his youth up, and, so far as I know, there is nothing else so beautiful cut out of the goodly trees of the world.

Sweet and young-grained wood it is: oak, trained and chosen for such work, sound now as four hundred years since. Under the carver's hand it seems to cut like clay, to fold like silk, to grow like living branches, to leap like living flame. Canopy crowning canopy, pinnacle piercing pinnacle - it shoots and wreathes itself into an enchanted glade, inextricable, imperishable, fuller of leafage than any forest, and fuller of story than any book.

I have never been able to make up my mind which was really the best way of approaching the cathedral for the first time...

I think the best is to walk from the Hotel de France or the Place de Perigord, up the street of Three Pebbles, towards the railway station - stopping a little as you go, so as to get into a cheerful temper, and buying some bon-bons or tarts for the children in one of those charming patissier's shops on the left. Just past them, ask for the theatre; and just past that, you will find, also on the left, three open arches, through which you can turn passing the Palais de justice, and go straight up to the south transept, which has really something about it to please everybody. It is simple and severe at the bottom, and daintily traceried and pinnacled at the top, and yet seems all of a piece-though it isn't - and everybody must like the taper and transparent fret-work of the fleche above, which seems to bend in the west wind, - though it does n't - at least, the bending is a long habit, gradually yielded into, with gaining grace and submissiveness, during the last three hundred years.

And coming quite up to the porch, everybody must like the pretty French Madonna in the middle of it, with her head a little aside, and her nimbus switched a little aside too, like a becoming bonnet. A Madonna in decadence she is, though, for all, or rather by reason of all, her prettiness and her gay soubrette's smile; and she has no business there, neither, for this is Saint Honore's porch, not her's; and grim and grey Saint Honore used to stand there to receive you,he is banished now to the north porch where nobody ever goes in. This was done long ago in the Fourteenth Century days when the people first began to find Christianity too serious, and devised a merrier faith for France, and would have bright glancing soubrette Madonnas everywhere, letting their own dark-eyed Joan of Arc be burnt for a witch. And thenceforward things went their merry way, straight on, ca allait, ca ira to the merriest days of the guillotine.

But they could still carve in the Fourteenth Century and the Madonna and her hawthorn-blossom lintel are worth your looking at, - much more the field above, of sculpture as delicate and more calm, which tells you Saint Honore's own story, little talked of now in his Parisian faubourg...

A Gothic cathedral has, almost always, these five great entrances; which may be easily, if at first attentively, recognized under the titles of the Central door (or porch), the Northern door, the Southern door, the North door, and the South door. But when we use the terms right and left, we ought always to use them as in going out of the cathedral, or walking down the nave, - the entire north side and aisles of the building being its right side, and the south its left, - these terms being only used well and authoritatively, when they have reference either to the image of Christ on the apse or on the rood, or else to the central statue, whether of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint in the west front. At Amiens, this central statue, on the "trumeau " or supporting and dividing pillar of the central porch, is of Christ Immanuel,-God with us. On His right hand and His left, occupying the entire walls of the central porch, are the apostles and the four greater prophets. The twelve minor prophets stand side by side on the front, three on each of its great piers.

The northern porch is dedicated to St. Firman, the first Christian missionary to Amiens.

The southern porch to the Virgin.

But these are both treated as withdrawn behind the great foundation of Christ and the Prophets; and their narrow recesses partly conceal their sculpture until you enter them. What you have first to think of, and read, is the scripture of the great central porch and the facade itself.

You have then in the centre of the front, the image of Christ Himself, receiving you: " I am the Way, the truth and the life." And the order of the attendant powers may be best understood by thinking of them as placed on Christ's right and left hand: this being also the order which the builder adopts in his Scripture history on the facade-so that it is to be read from left to right - i. e. from Christ's left to Christ's right, as He sees it. Thus, therefore, following the order of the great statues: first in the central porch, there are six apostles on Christ's right hand, and six on His left. On His left hand, next Him, Peter; then in receding order, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Simon; an His right hand, next Him, Paul; and in receding order, James the Bishop, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, and Jude. These opposite ranks of the Apostles occupy what may be called the apse or curved bay of the porch, and form a nearly semicircular group, clearly visible as we approach.

But on the sides of the porch, outside the lines of apostles, and not clearly seen till we enter the porch are the four greater prophets. On Christ's left, Isaiah and Jeremiah, on His right, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Then in front, along the whole facade -read in order from Christ's left to His right-come the series of the twelve minor prophets, three to each of the four piers of the temple, beginning at the south angle with Hosea, and ending with Malachi.

As you look full at the facade in front, the statues which fill the minor porches are either obscured in their narrower recesses or withdrawn behind each other so as to be unseen. And the entire mass of the front is seen, literally, as built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone. Literally that; for the receding Porch is a deep "angulus" and its mid-pillar is the "Head of the Corner."

Built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, that is to say of the Prophets who foretold Christ, and the Apostles who declared Him. Though Moses was an Apostle of God, he is not here-though Elijah was a Prophet of God, he is not here. The voice of the entire building is that of the Heaven at the Transfiguration. " This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him."

There is yet another and a greater prophet still, who, as it seems at first, is not here. Shall the people enter the gates of the temple, singing " Hosanna to the Son of David; " and see no image of his father, then? -Christ Himself declare, "I am the root and offspring of David; "and yet the Root have no sign near it of its Earth ?

Not so. David and his Son are together. David is the pedestal of the Christ.

We will begin our examination of the Temple front, therefore with this goodly pedestal stone. The statue of David is only two-thirds life-size, occupying the niche in front of the pedestal. He holds his sceptre in his right hand, the scroll in his left. King and Prophet, type of all Divinely right doing, and right claiming, and right proclaiming, kinghood forever.

The pedestal of which this statue forms the fronting or western sculpture, is square, and on the two sides of it are two flowers in vases, on its north side the lily, and on its south the rose. And the entire monolith is one of the noblest pieces of Christian sculpture in the world.

Above this pedestal comes a minor one, bearing in front of it a tendril of vine, which completes the floral symbolism of the whole. The plant which I have called a lily is not the Fleur de Lys, nor the Madonna's, but an ideal one with bells like the crown Imperial (Shakespeare's type of " lilies of all kinds "), representing the mode of growth of the lily of the valley, which could not be sculptured so large in its literal form without appearing monstrous, and is exactly expressed in this tablet - as it fulfils, together with the ' rose and vine, its companions, the triple saying of Christ, "I am the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily of the Valley." " I am the true Vine."

On the side of the upper stone are supporters of a different character. Supporters, - not captives nor victims; the Cockatrice and Adder. Representing the most active evil principles of the earth, as in their utmost malignity; still Pedestals of Christ, and even in their deadly life, accomplishing His final will.

Both creatures are represented accurately in the mediaeval traditional form, the cockatrice half dragon, half cock; the deaf adder laying one ear against the ground and stopping the other with her tail.

The first represents the infidelity of Pride. The cockatrice - king serpent or highest serpent - saying that he is God, and will be God.

The second, the infidelity of Death. The adder (nieder or nether snake) saying that he is mud and will be mud. Lastly, and above all, set under the feet of the statue of Christ Himself, are the lion and dragon; the images of Carnal sin, or Human sin, as distinguished from the Spiritual and Intellectual sin of Pride, by which the angels also fell.

The Bible of Amiens (Our Fathers Have Told Us), (Sunnyside, Orpington, Kent, 1884).



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