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21.10.03 Murray, Notre-Dame of Amiens

21.10.03 Murray, Notre-Dame of Amiens

In 1220, Évrard, bishop of Amiens, laid the first stone for his city’s new cathedral. Eight centuries later, Stephen Murray has written a sweeping history which tells of that act and of the many others after it which were needed to construct the famous cathedral of Notre-Dame of Amiens. Murray writes with both great knowledge about and deep affection for the building, and Notre-Dame of Amiens: Life of the Gothic Cathedral is sure to be an absorbing read for anyone with an interest in the history of Gothic architecture or of Picardy during the Middle Ages.

Murray adopts what he describes as “three avenues of approach” to his study of the cathedral: a stress on conceptual, physical, and visual engagement with the structure; an attempt to recover the experiences of the clergy, artisans, and lay users who were present in the cathedral during the Middle Ages; and an understanding of the cathedral’s “life” as stretching well past the traditional completion date of about 1270. This three-pronged approach sets up an interplay between the cathedral of Amiens as a teaching tool both in the past and in the present.

In the first chapter, “Visiting the Cathedral,” Murray provides a historical sketch that establishes why such an important building rose where it did. He demonstrates the legacy of Gallo-Roman Samarobriva in shaping both later Amiens’ “topography of power” (19)--with ecclesiastical authorities concentrated in the city’s east and secular authorities in its west--and the Amiénois’ lingering reverence for early Christian saints like Firmin. The great growth of Amiens’ textile industries drew people from across the Picard plains to settle there during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the resulting prosperity and a general lack of political discord both fueled the city’s emerging civic identity and filled the coffers needed to undertake such a great building endeavor.

With the stage thus set, Murray slowly draws the reader through the city to Notre-Dame, circling inwards from the outskirts of Amiens via the summit of the twentieth-century Tour Perret and through the cathedral’s precincts and before arriving into the building itself. The reader therefore gets to see the structure from many angles and perspectives, not through Murray’s prose alone but also through the numerous black-and-white photos which illustrate this chapter. Of a quality not often found in books at this price point, these illustrations--many of which are also reproduced later as color plates--make Murray’s tour an unusually easy one to follow for the armchair visitor.

The next chapter, “The Portals: Unscrambling the Plot,” brings us around to the front of the cathedral and encourages us to linger in front of its famous west façade. While, as Murray points out, there is no set sequence for “reading” the cathedral’s portals, the doorways’ program of figurative sculpture still has a tale to tell. Murray is a careful and thorough explicator of the various meanings that these sculptures, originally painted and gilded in gold or tin, would have held for an audience of medieval Christians: the joys of heaven, the horrors of hell, and the Church’s promise of salvation made tangible in the very stones in front of them.

In “Clergy, Artisans and Laypeople: Makers and Users,” Murray turns to consider those people whose works and words first brought the cathedral of Amiens to life. The building’s interior today is in many respects quite altered from the one that the medieval Amiénois would have known--many of its tombs and its choir screen have been removed; much of its stained glass has been destroyed--but enough remains, when combined with archival sources such as fabric accounts, for Murray to reconstruct many of the ways that the Amiénois used and shaped their city’s most prominent building. The sheer variety of people whom Murray discusses in this chapter--from bishops interred beneath carefully wrought effigies to the prosperous lay members of the Confraternity of Notre-Dame du Puy, from itinerant glaziers to the pilgrims whose passage repeatedly wore out the steps leading to the relics of John the Baptist--impresses on the reader the religious, social, and civic importance of the cathedral to the life of the city.

A pair of chapters, “Telling the Story of the Great Enterprise,” cover the period from 1220-ca. 1300 and from ca. 1300-1530 respectively. Here Murray leads the reader through the process by which the cathedral was constructed, altered, damaged, and repaired over a period of three centuries, showing both the social and architectural implications of that process. Perhaps the most dramatic moment recounted in these chapters is the near collapse of the cathedral in the fifteenth century, when inherent structural weaknesses in the construction of building’s crossing caused gaping cracks in the walls. Lengthy quotations in translation from contemporary accounts of the meetings of dean, canons, and master artisans that took place to decide on a plan of action to save the building underscore the fact that it not only took a city to raise the cathedral but also to keep it standing. Throughout these chapters, Murray makes overarching connections between major moments in the history of the cathedral, the Church, and the kingdom of France. For example, he frames the reconstruction of Notre-Dame of Amiens’ gilded steeple in the early sixteenth century as a defiant assertion of Catholicism’s dominance in Picardy: “the last trumpet blast of the Gothic made at the threshold of the new world of the Reformation” (331).

A final brief chapter, “Liturgical Performance: Angels in the Architecture,” reconstructs the liturgical practices which were a feature of life in the medieval cathedral, operating on cycles from the daily to the annual. Murray draws extensively on two sources in this chapter: a late thirteenth-century ordinary, and an eighteenth-century account written by a cathedral canon which documented Amiens’ centuries-old liturgical theories and practices a generation before the French Revolution would sweep it all away. This allows for a wealth of eyewitness detail which might otherwise be lost to us, such as the fact that on the great annual Ascension Day parade, the relics of St Firmin were accompanied out of the cathedral and through the city not only by clergy and townsfolk but also by papoires, model dragons or snakes which “were carried at the end of a pole through which it was possible to make the teeth clack against each other through the manipulation of a cord making a loud noise to scare the children” (341).

Notre-Dame of Amiens is clearly written with an eye to classroom use, and students will be sure to appreciate the generous use of black-and-white photography, color plates, and plans, together with a very comprehensive glossary of architectural terms. Students who have never been to Amiens will surely still be able to envision themselves there in their mind’s eye thanks to Murray’s assiduous work as a guide. However, this may be a book better suited to use in the upper-level undergraduate classroom, with some scaffolding from the instructor, rather than in an introductory one. Untranslated terms such as docteur en décret (175) or filles de joie (327) could prove stumbling blocks for students who do not read French, while those who are new to the study of art history may find passing, unglossed references to demotic art (193) or fictive architecture (304) difficult to parse.

In the epilogue, Murray reminds the reader of the book’s companion website (, a marvelous resource which like the cathedral itself was the work of many hands. The panoramic, high-resolution photos, architectural models, and detailed interactive plans which it provides are sure to be boons to teachers. Of particular note, however, are the website features which could not be recreated in print format, such as the “Amiens Cathedral Choral Experience.” This allows the user to listen to recordings of five choral pieces which could perhaps have been heard in the cathedral of Amiens during the Middle Ages. The modern singers performed these works in the cathedral’s choir, but their performances were simultaneously recorded from three different locations: the choir itself, the crossing, and the west end of the nave. The user can move virtually between these spaces as a piece plays, hearing how the acoustic quality varies accordingly. Listening to the singers on a summer’s evening in western New York, it was easy to close my eyes and imagine myself in Amiens where there are “angels in the architecture, animated by light and sound...” (344).