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As is sometimes our custom, we shall commence a serialization of views, as we walk towards the Cathedral.

Difficult if not impossible to know if such a view was planned. As in so many monuments we never get a full glimpse of the building until we are literally face to face. It is sort of like a visual tease, this glimpsing of a fragment, which only heightens our approach.

The Cathedral (Notre Dame) is the largest in France, containing 7,700 square meters (82,882 square feet). It was the model for the Cathedral of Cologne, which will be discussed when we get to Germany (see Chapter Ten below). The Cathedral was begun in 1220 to replace an earlier church destroyed by fire two years earlier. The architects were Robert de Luzarches, Thomas de Cormont, and Regnault de Cormont, son of Thomas. The structure was just about completed within fifty years. The façade, however, was not completed until the 15th century.

The plan, with accompanying time line of present-day renovation began with the purple area, the north side of the entrance nave area. This was completed in 2003-2004, and work will progress through the green area, the chevet, to be accomplished bewteen 2011 and 2015.

Statistically, the external length is 145 meters (476'). The width of the nave is approximately 47 meters (155'), and at the transept area is about 70 meters (230') wide..

Stepping back to our hotel, to get a higher perspective, we see that the two western towers, quite dissimilar, barely rise above the nave roofing; their heights: the south tower (on the right) dating from 1366, measures 65 meters (213') in height, while the north tower (on the left) completed in the beginning of the 15th century, measures 66 meters (217') high.

As seen from the southeast, the spire over the crossing (the flèche) soars to 112.7 meters (370'), and dates from 1529.

The main churches built in this period in France have with minimal, if any, exception oriented their site design so that the entrance is on the west, and congregants face the altar and the Holy Land. The Parisian Notre Dame was the influence for the western façade. The portals have a profusion of sculptures, mostly representing both Old and New Testaments.

The dividing central door jamb, known in historical circles as a “trumeau,” shows a resurrected figure of Christ holding a book in his left hand, while his right hand is raised in blessing. The positioning of the figure is such that it towers over those entering the cathedral, while the figure itself stares impassively into space. The figure has, apparently, triumphed over evil, as shown by a lion and snake under his feet. Done in 1240, the figure is in the act of blessing, and is venerated by the townspeople, who depict the statue as “Beau Dieu d’Amiens.” The side jambs contain figures of apostles and prophets. Additionally, the composition rests on a crowned figure within an arch setting, identified as either King David or King Solomon, from whom it is purported Christ was descended.

The right hand portal (temporarily under scaffolding) is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while the left portal (above) shows St. Fermin.

An open arcade above the three portals is surmounted by a gallery containing twenty-two statues of French Kings, and above all of this is a rose window known as the “rose of the sea.” Sources indicate its size as between 11 meters (36') and 13 meters (43') in diameter.

The southern transept entrance.

The center portal post of the southern transept is famous for what was a gilded statue of the Virgin (“Vierge Dorée). The gilding might be gone, but the image remains. One of the finest sculptures on the church is this Madonna, known as the 'Golden Virgin;' it was used as the model for many later Madonna statues throughout Europe. Surrounding sculptures depict the life of St. Honoré (Honoratus), a bishop of Amiens.

The flying buttresses pinpoint the necessary support location on the upper walls, taking those forces down to a vertical pier. The flying buttress is actually broken into two segments – upper and lower, very much as we do with modern trusses; witness the intricate arches connecting the upper and lower segments. Compare this with Louis I. Kahn's Medical Services Building for the American Federation of Labor in Philadelphia, built in 1954, but since demolished (1974) to make way for an expanded expressway. In that structure Kahn split his beams into their horizontal compressive / tensile segments, possibly for the first time in modern architectural history. Also see works by Romaldo Giurgola, fellow Professor of Kahn's and quiet disciple of Kahn. I was fortunate to have been a pupil of each. But the precedent is here in France and elsewhere in Europe.

The delicate lace-like appearance belies the nature of the stone construction. Not only were the Gothic builders masters of construction techniques, they crafted their works in an ethereal manner. Additionally they used the least amount of material necessary. This not only gives us the actual structural skeleton, which is what we see, but saves quarrying, transporting, lifting and placing unnecessary material. The reality is that the structural skeleton developed into something aesthetically beautiful in its own right.

The chevet, or eastern end, showing how Gothic masons created structural identity in the external piers and buttresses, which can be seen to grow in dimension as they descend from the roof-line. In other words, Gothic architecture reveals the magnitude of prevalent forces and follows that buildup with greater structure as required, but only as much as is required! And you will notice that the structure has been turned at right angles to the actual building, a hallmark of Gothic design, providing so much more space for story-telling stained-glass.

Before we go any further, let us look at the menace above, under which we must pass to enter the “sanctuary” of the church. A lone gargoyle leers ominously at us. It's open mouth reveals it's true nature, however, that of a water spout.

Regardless of their actual intention, this is a truly frightful sight. A seemingly organized pack of creatures from hell on the lookout for unsuspecting passersby.

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