The iconic cathedral of Notre-Dame in central Paris has welcomed pilgrims and visitors through its ornate portals for hundreds of years, drawn here by its dazzling rose windows, elegant flying buttresses and menacing gargoyles, as well as by its deep religious sigificance. But, not far to the north of the capital, towering over a city at the heart of the Somme in Picardy, lies another strong contender for the title of most outstanding Gothic church: the cathedral of Notre-Dame d’Amiens.
France’s largest and tallest cathedral, Notre-Dame d’Amiens dominates the skyline of the city, and has been hailed as a Gothic masterpiece by UNESCO, who awarded it World Heritage status in 1981. It was built between 1220 and 1270, to house the alleged skull of St John the Baptist, brought back from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade by Wallon de Sarton, Canon of nearby Picquigny.
Boasting a 138-ft- (42-m-) high ceiling, an enormous nave, four aisles, and many radiating chapels, the cathedral is intensely luminous inside, making its counterpart in Paris look rather sombre. As a result, the array of statuary contained within its walls, such as the Stone Encyclopedia of the Bible and the much-loved Angel of Sorrow, as well as the 16th-century carved choir stalls and Flamboyant Gothic screen, are bathed in light. A sacred labyrinth of 1288, in effect, an intricate black-and-white marble road to God, is laid into the floor of the cathedral. The idea of it is that, as in life, believers negotiate their way, straying from and returning to the true path, until they reach the righteous center.
While the interior of Amiens is strikingly simple, the exterior is embellishment gone into overdrive, with three portals celebrating biblical figures – saints, apostles, magi, and angels. Christ (le Beau Dieu) reigns in the center, while St Firmin, the first bishop of Amiens, occupies the left portal, and the Virgin Mary (la Vierge Dorée) is in residence in the right. Above them are 22 stony, life-size kings, stretching across the entire facade beneath the 16th-century rose window. Every element of the carving is of the highest craftsmanship.
A laser cleaning of the facade in the 1990s revealed traces of the polychromatic paint that had once enlivened its 13th-century statues, helping them act as a visual bible to illiterate pilgrims. Today, in the summer and at Christmas, laser illuminations replicate the breathtaking effect on France’s Gothic cathedral par excellence.
Getting There and Around: The cathedral is in the heart of Amiens, which is just over an hour by car from Paris via the A16, A29 and A1. Regular trains run from Paris (1 hr 30 mins), or the TGV Haute-Picardie station is 45 mins by bus from Amiens. Use buses or the self-service bike network, Vélam, to get around.
When to Go: The illuminations are after dark, mid-Jun–Sep and in Dec, when there is also a superb Christmas market. Gregorian chanting takes place each Sun at 10:15am.