Saturday, 21 June 2014

Relic of St. John the Baptist, Amiens Cathedral, Picardy, Northern France

Metropolitan France is divided into twenty two regions (provinces), with départments (counties), communautés de communes (local areas), and communes (boroughs) . Each region has a local administration headed by a regional president. The local government is responsible for public service - in the fields of transport, infrastructure, education, and economy. From these, each section is able to develop its own regional identity. Of these regions, I have visited about fifteen, going by train, by car or by plane. From time to time, I join group tours to remote places. 
When I heard about a church group going to Amiens in the Picardy region, I signed up. This time, I was going by bus, chartered by the church group. This was going to be my first visit to this region.
 
Picardy is about seventy five miles (one hundred twenty kilometers), north of Paris, and sixty two miles (one hundred kilometers)  southwest from Lille (a border town between France and Brussels).  Amiens, a commune, is the capital  of the Picardy region. 

It is situated on the basin of the Somme River, where the old town is settled in the swampy area of the valley. It has an oceanic climate which is typical in northern France, with frequent rainfall, with moderate temperatures and weather conditions in the summer and winter. 


Amiens' Floating Gardens - Les Hortillonnages

For our first stop, we went on a boat ride around Amien's floating gardens, in typical Amienoise weather - wet and cold.


Amiens' "floating gardens" is a patchwork of gardens and occasional markets in the man-made canals of Amiens. It is about three hundred hectares (about 1.2 square miles) in size. It is surrounded by the Avre and the Somme rivers, and its origins date back to the middle ages when the locals started to cultivate the pieces of land that were recovered from the marshes.
To go around, we rode on special boats called barques à cornets. There was a boatman who stirred our boats as we sailed through the canals. He also acted as our tour guide.
We had to buy and use plastic raincoats to protect us from the intermittent showers on this gloomy day.
Fruit-bearing trees and plants, and flowers are planted on these floating gardens. The produce from here had been feeding the population until the last century. To this day, there are three harvests made per year.
There is a Saturday market set up for the seasonal fruits and vegetables. Locally grown vegetables, ranging from radishes, cauliflowers, turnips, lettuce, leeks and artichokes, along with some fruits - blackcurrants, redcurrants, melons, freshly harvested from the Hortillonnages are made available to the residents of Amiens.
During the month of June, each year, there is a market fair where the gardeners dress up in traditional costumes and travel up the Somme in their special boats, just like the ones we rode - barques à cornet - a reenactment of a practice from the years gone by. They sell their products on the dock at Saint Leu.

The Commune of Amiens

Amiens was first settled by one of the principal tribes of Gaul, Ambiani, and this first settlement came to be known as Samarobriva (Somme bridge), which was later baptized by the Romans as Ambianum. Much of its history is about how it was fought over and how it changed hands  from the barbarians; to the Normans; to the king of France in 1113; then, held briefly by the Spaniards in the six-month siege  of Amien in 1597, after which it was taken back by Henry IV.


But more occupations took place - by the Prussian forces in the Battle of Amiens in 1870, then, during both WWI and WWII, suffering much damage. The 1918 Battle of Amiens started the Hundred Days Offensive, which ended the first world war, with the armistice with Germany. 

During WWII, the British forces had bombed the city and caused it heavy damage. Amiens was rebuilt as designed by Pierre Dufau, with special attention to the needs of a growing city - widened streets for better vehicular circulation and to ease traffic congestion.

Amiens came to be known in the fashion world, during the 18th and 19th centuries, for its traditional fabric - velour -  a plush, knitted fabric made from cotton. This fabric is still in use today, mostly, for fall and winter wear.

Among the most visited places in Amiens is the Amiens Cathedral  (Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens), a Roman Catholic cathedral built in the 13th century. It is the seat of the Bishop of Amiens - presently, Jean-Luc Bouilleret, and it  houses the relic of St. John the Baptist.
 
It is the tallest and largest Gothic church structure in France, built between 1220 and 1270. The facade itself was built from 1220 to 1236. Above the rose window is an open gallery - galerie des sonneurs (gallery ringers). Beneath the rose window is a royal gallery of twenty-two, life-size kings.

The two towers were built asymmetrically, without much regard to the former design - the south tower was completed in 1366, while the north one which ended up higher was finished in 1406.

West Porch Portals
The figures on this portals are renowned for their "quality and quantity of early 13th century Gothic Sculptures," forming a gallery of local saints, including Saints Victoricus and Gentian (martyrs of the early church); Saint Domitius (thought to be a deacon in Amiens and spiritual guide of St. Ulphia in the 8th century); Saint Ulphia (lived as a hermit, and towards the end of her life she started a community of religious women in Amiens); and Saint Fermin ( a Spanish saint who was martyred in Amiens in the 3rd century).
Left Portal:  de St. Firmin (St. Fermin)
  Center Portal: du Beau Dieu (The Handsome God)
On the tympanum is Christ in Majesty, seated on a throne, presiding over Judgement Day. He is flanked by saintly figures.
  Right Portal: Portail de la Vierge Dorée 
 (Door of the Golden Virgin)
The scene on the tympanum is dedicated to a 6th century bishop, St. Honore. The Virgin - a copy, was originally gilded and was sculpted in "hip" style ( with a slight sway from her hip). 
The original Virgin has been restored and is situated by the arm of the north transept.

In the 1990s, when the facade was being cleaned, it was discovered that the western facade was painted at one time, as multiple colors were found beneath the layers of grime and soot. During the summer months, Christmas, and new year, there is an evening light and music show that brings about the full color of the facade, recreating the polychromatic colors it once had, just like it was in the 13th century.  
The Nave

At the time this was being built, the intent was to come up with dimensions that would appear like it was reaching up to the heavens, and also to bring in more light into the interior of the church - to symbolize "God is light." 

The stone-vaulted nave measures 138.8 feet (42.30 meters), with an interior volume of approximately 260,000 yards (200,000 cubic meters). To give you an idea as to the size of this church, two of the Notre Dame de Paris will fit here, on top of each other. 
The Labyrinth - a path that goes 
on a circuitous route to the center, then out.

At the center of the labyrinth  is an octagon made of copper - a replica of the one made in 1288, fully inscribed with all the names of the founder of the cathedral - Evrard de Fouilloy, and the architects - Robert de Luzarches, Thomas and Renaud de Cormont. The cross represents the four corners of the world and the figures represent the Gospel writers.
In the Catholic tradition, people came and walked or knelt down tracing the route of the labyrinth to the center to pray, meditate or facilitate spiritual conversion . This was seen as an alternative to going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or to Santiago de Compostela (Saint-Jacques-de Compostelle).

 East window - choir and altar
The tall windows in the nave measure 40 feet (12 meters) high,  above the main altar. The stain-glass windows are but a few of what remains today.
The Chancel - the part in the altar area 
reserved for the clergy and the choir, separated from the nave by a set of steps or by a screen.

The choir was designed and decorated by a sculptor - J.B. Dupuis, with an 18th century aureole (a circle of light or corona). In keeping with liturgical tradition, the Holy Eucharist is kept in the bronze Eucharistic Dove, suspended above the altar (take note of the black dove design).

Choir Railings
This is an 18th century metalworks presented by cannon Cornet de Coupel to the cathedral, designed by Vivaris. Vivaris included the donor's monogram in his design, which can be found set in the round design above and the side railing.

16th century rose window above the organ loft
14th century rose window on the north transept
Chapelle Saint Jacques le Majeur (1337) or 
Chapel of the Sacred Heart (1886)


This chapel is significant to the people of Amiens. Bishop of Amiens, Bishop Boudinet, had dedicated the city and the diocese to the Sacred Heart in prayerful supplication, to avert the outbreak of cholera. Thus, the chapel of St. John Major (one of the apostles) was renamed and redecorated with painted murals by Nicole, Jersey, and Steinheil. The paintings of sixteen saints were made to illustrate the devotion to the Sacred Heart. On the central part of the pavement, a tombstone can be found covering the tomb of Bishop Boudinet.

The gilt-bronze altar was designed by Viollet-le-Duc and executed by Poussielgue Rusand, a Parisian goldsmith. In the bas-relief on the altar are two subjects: the Last Supper and the apparition of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Alacoque. 

The 18th century gate has been replaced with what is installed now, in the style of the 13th century.

Fire and deterioration over time have caused damage in parts of this chapel, as well as in other parts of the church. The restoration of this chapel - a delicate and tedious process of filling the cracks, repainting, and refinishing the walls - was started  in 2009 and is expected to be completed soon.

The Relic of St. John the Baptist

If ever there was an impetus for the construction of this church, it was to provide a home for the relic of a saint - which was the reputed skull of St. John the Baptist.

St. John the Baptist was the son of Zachary - a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, who was a kinswoman of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He lived as a hermit in the Judean desert until around A.D. 27. At thirty, he began to preach against the evils of the time by the banks of the Jordan River, calling all to penance and baptism. This was his ministry - Isaiah 40:3 " A voice of one calling: In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

He had attracted large crowds. When Jesus came to him, he recognized Him as the Messiah and baptized him saying "It is I who need baptism from You." Even after Jesus left to preach in Galilee, John continued his work of spreading the word about the Messiah - "the Lamb of God."

Soon he attracted the authorities. They became fearful of his popularity and power. John was arrested under the orders of Herod Antipas - Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, and he was imprisoned at Machaerus Fortress, by the Dead Sea. While there, John was outspoken and he denounced the adulterous and incestuous marriage of Herod to Herodias, who was the wife of his half-brother, Philip. Upon the instigation of Herodias upon her daughter, Salome, who ask for John's head as a present,  John was beheaded.

John is identified as the last of the Old Testament prophets and precursor of the Messiah in the New Testament. His feast day is on June 24th, and the feast of his beheading is on August 24th.
The relic was installed in the cathedral on December 17, 1206.
Reliquary for the head of St. John the Baptist
a focus for prayer and meditation. 
The relic remains on display at certain times of the year, for veneration by the pilgrims.

The relic is said to have been part of the loot from the Fourth Crusade which sacked the great city of Constantinople. The original reliquary was made to hold the skull of the saint, though this was lost later. In the 19th century, a replica was made and this is what can be seen in the North Aisle of the church, opposite the polychrome stone depicting his life (below). 

Life of St. John (1531)
R-L: St. John preaches; baptism of Jesus; mission of St. John is revealed; St. John showing the ring
The final four scenes from R-L: St. John is before Herod; Herod's feast; beheading of St. John; the revenge of Herodias

Tomb of Bishop Arnould de la Pierre (died in 1247)
Above the tomb are the statues of the Virgin, an angel, and Canon Jean de la Grange (died in 1402). Both the bishop and the canon  had served in this cathedral. 
The Weeping Angel, by Nicolas Blasset 
(sculptor from Amiens, 1600-1659)
The weeping angel - positioned between the Virgin and the figure of the canon, sits in the mausoleum-type altar encasing the tomb. This angelic figure, resting one arm on a skull, brought solace to many allied soldiers who fought in the first world war, who made it famous by sending postcards of this image to their families, all over the world.
A plaque commemorating the U.S. soldiers/engineers who lost their lives defending Amiens during the first world war.
The rectory, located across the church.

The Amiens Cathedral received its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

Among her notable citizens was Jules Verne (8 February 1828 - 24 March 1905). He was a French novelist, a poet, and a playwright. He is best known for his adventure novels and science fiction. Among his many works, he authored Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. Although he was born in Nantes, he lived in Amiens for some years - from 1871 until his death, and served in the local government.

Christmas in Amiens

Amiens is one of the places to visit during the month of December. This town claims to host the biggest Christmas market in northern France. The market carries local food - local, artisanal products such as macaron d'Amiens (almond paste biscuits), tuiles amienoises (chocolate and orange curved cookies), paté de canard d'Amiens (duck paté in pastry), la ficelle Picarde ( Baked crepe topped with cheese), and flamiche aux poireaux (a tart of puff pastry, made with leeks and cream).

A bit different from the other Christmas markets in the neighboring towns, the Amiens Christmas market also carries luxury goods such as Picardy's Le Creusel kitchenware, fine crystal, hand-made glass, sweaters made from Angora wool sourced from the local farms, as well as imported goods. And for food lovers, there is a good number of stalls selling a variety of seafood, duck, and chocolates. For your convenience, when  shopping for the holiday season, many items are already packed and wrapped in gift bags, boxes and baskets.

Get ready to walk around 150 stalls, or meander through the streets in the town center all decked in the alpine festive scene of the season, complete with entertainment - shows, Christmas carolers, the light show at the cathedral, and a variety of activities for the the children.
A view of the town, right before we boarded our bus.

You must be enthused to visit Amiens by now! There is no direct route to Amiens from Paris. Be sure to get GPS instructions before you go. It takes about an hour and a half by car/bus, to get there. If you go by train, depending on the day you travel and schedule you choose, it can take anywhere from 1 hour and 6 minutes to 2 hours and 39 minutes, each way.

Amiens was worth a visit! My visit there gave me a chance to look back at the roots of my faith, a bit of church history, world history, and a look at the arts, architecture and culture of this commune. 

God willing, I hope to go back there during the Christmas season.

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