On the road to Amiens
by Anja Weinberger
I love to look – more precisely, I love to sit in a church and let the space affect me. And even more precisely: my favorite thing to do before “looking at the church” is to read everything that anyone has already written about this church, so that I can then see a lot while looking.
Of course, this is not only about the building “church”. No, it also includes everything that is inside and around it. The whole design of the square, how the town or city has developed around the church, the location itself – on a hill, perhaps, or by the river – and also what you can see if you look down from a tower or the roof of the church.
I’m captivated by the portals and their stories. I look for the same images over and over again and am happy when I find them.
My favorite are the couple depictions: the Annunciation, the Visitation, Anna and Joachim, Mary and John under the Cross, or Anna and Mary. The double portrait of these two can be found here in the center of Europe very, very rarely, but quite often in e.g. Breton churches; it is shown how Anna instructs Mary in reading.
But also Adam and Eve are usually not missing or Abraham and Sarah, although I am much less familiar with the Old Testament than with the New.
In the northeast of Germany one also likes to find Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon or Luther and Katharina von Bora. It’s beautiful, like a book. And that’s what it’s all about, everyone should be able to share in the stories; even those who couldn’t read.
Although all the churches in the country suffered greatly during the French Revolution, France has an overabundance of such stories to offer us.
Why is it that our heart pulls us in a certain direction? And I really mean the geographical direction. I would prefer a trip to France or Italy to any luxury vacation on a Caribbean island or a flight to Asia. Of course, I know that there would be a lot to see there, too. But I want to go to Italy – or to Spain – or to England … or to France.
Even the journey is wonderful, because there is a lot of beautiful stuff on the way.
If you want to go to Reims, for example, to see the smiling angel, you can spend a night in Limburg an der Lahn or in Heidelberg or in Saarbrücken.
And then the trip across the border! Nowadays, you don’t really notice the country border unless you pay close attention to all the signs. But I could bet that it smells of fresh baguette from St. Avold at the latest.
And of course we always go to the nearest shop for groceries – just butter and bread, or maybe a little cheese. We always have a board, knife and glasses with us so we can picnic anywhere.
Did I actually mention that there are wonderful little glories for dessert here in France? Profiteroles, eclairs, tartes, macarons, kouign-amann and cannellés. You can easily get them right next to the bakery in the pȃtisserie, which is very close to paradise. So now we are more than ready for the first French break.
After all, these French know how life can be even more beautiful. At every pretty corner of the country there is a bench, often even with a table. In this way we have seen many rivers flowing, many dogs chasing a stick and many cyclists passing by in greeting. Possibly we know every picnic possibility between Sankt Ingbert, Metz and Reims.
Finally, we arrive at the hotel. We always choose it in advance, if possible it should be in the center of the village, preferably directly at the church. Of course, this dream does not always come true, but we have already found one or the other nice domicile this way and are then excited like children when searching for the destination by car in the mostly confusing maze of alleys.
Our “first” cathedral was Amiens. Perhaps it should be mentioned that I have been looking forward to this moment for almost 25 years. I can’t say exactly why it didn’t happen sooner. But a few explanations are on offer.
At the beginning of our marriage we didn’t have a car of our own, so we liked to “share” the family vacation, which often took place in Lombardy. Later, with a child, stained glass windows and gothic rosettes were not really the thing, although our growing daughter could certainly be bribed with an ice cream per church. And – I’m the only one in our little family who speaks French, the other two are more “Anglo- and Italianophiles”.
Well, long story short. Finally the time had come. We had had two interesting days in Trier and arrived in Amiens rather late on a gray, cool, foggy and rainy evening. Our hotel was called “Le Prieuré”, which suggests that the rooms were once used for church purposes. And indeed we slept under Gothic cross ribs, the keystone directly above us, very suggestive.
The next morning the bells rang, close it sounded. Of course, I knew that our accommodation was only a few steps away from Notre Dame. Before breakfast, I slipped out of the hotel and had only to turn left to immediately see a beautiful Gothic bell tower at the end of the street, the southern of the two towers of the west facade.
The sky was still rather overcast, but a little light could already contribute the sun. The high tower walls glowed yellow-gray and a few steps later I could see that the oxblood-red doors of Notre-Dame were a wonderful contrast to the stone.
A good friend had advised me to look first at the doorway of the south transept, that is, to approach from the side, so as not to “have to” admire all the violence of the Gothic facade first thing. So I kept to the right, and there she was – the Vierge dorée.
The Golden Maiden also belongs to the group of couples, because of course she is holding her little son in her arms. Here in Amiens at the Honoratus Portal, the southern side entrance, she used to be lavishly gilded, which is where her present name comes from. Very pretty she is, the little word “delightful” comes to mind, though one would not otherwise use it.
Historians date her to 1240 and she is hardly missing from any work on medieval sculpture. Very elegantly, her weight rests on her left leg and a sway of her hips is implied. The boy on her left arm looks up at his mother in amusement and she in turn smiles at him. We may witness the beginning of a new phase in sculpture, suddenly naturalness and humanity appear. Not only in Paris and France, no, everywhere from this time on the style turns in this direction.
But now it is really time for the main facade. Also because somewhere there – so to speak for comparison – there must be a Madonna in the old, sacral-solemn so-called hieratic style. However, I completely forgot to look for it. Because the three-part gothic facade makes one become speechless – and thoughtless.
It was still very early in the day, I had the forecourt all to myself and could look in peace.
Here in Amiens it is possible to go back quite far and thus admire all the beauty at once, because the square in front of the west facade of the cathedral is deep enough.
There are three portals, the central one higher than the other two. Four mighty buttresses take up the thrust of the ship’s vaults. Only in the depths of the portals one sees how mighty the pillars actually are. The central portal depicts scenes of the Last Judgment, as is often found in this place, the left one tells of the local evangelist Saint Firmin, and the right portal is dedicated to Our Lady, just like the whole church. Countless sculptures populate the facade – apostles, prophets, kings, angels, one can look for a long time.
If you go closer again and stop right in front of the center of the facade, you have the Beau Dieu right in front of your eyes. The “Beautiful God”, a blessing Christ with the Book of Life in his hands, dates from the same period as our delightful golden Mary and Child at the Honoratus Portal. He stands in front of or at the central trumeau of the middle portal, that stone pillar that supports the tympanum above and is a popular opportunity for placing another figure. Usually at this place, that is, at the main entrance of the church, one finds the respective patron saint, or a Madonna or, as here in Amiens, a figure of Christ.
Reference is often made to the good shepherd from the Gospel of John: “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and will find pasture”. (John 10:9)
The two towers of the cathedral are only similar, not the same, taking the beautiful, large rose window at their center. The left tower is a little higher and thus gives the overall picture its uniqueness. What is unusual here in Amiens is that the so-called royal gallery is located below and not above the rose window, and thus it has no connection to the portal below.
In the surprisingly bright interior we find the famous Amiens labyrinth. It is much larger than I had imagined and extends on the floor across the entire width of the nave.
The choir of the cathedral was not built first, as is generally the case, because where it stands now was still the city wall when construction began. Thus, the church grew in all directions from the nave and eventually became the largest French church building of the Middle Ages.
The city of Amiens also has a river to offer, from whose far bank the view of the cathedral is magnificent. Unfortunately, the city center was badly destroyed during World War 2, so many buildings date from the reconstruction work of the 1950s.
And Amiens can boast the first skyscraper built in France, the Tour Perret, to be found near the train station in the new city center of our days. Auguste Perret, the master of reinforced concrete construction and visionary of the new urban development after the Second World War, built it here in Amiens.
There is also a centuries-old fruit and vegetable growing area here, crisscrossed by canals, which tourists can also navigate in small boats. Very idyllic and enchanted is this French “allotment garden association”.
It is beautiful here – we hope to come again.
machine-translated from German
Schäfke, Werner: Frankreichs gotische Kathedralen, Köln 1979
Kimpel, Suckale, Hirmer: Die gotische Architektur in Frankreich 1130 – 1270, Darmstadt, München 1985