The lack of documentation concerning the construction of the Gothic cathedral may be in part the result of fires that destroyed the chapter archives in 1218 and again in 1258—a fire that damaged the cathedral itself. Bishop Evrard de Fouilly initiated work on the cathedral in 1220. Robert de Luzarches was the architect until 1228, and was followed by Thomas de Cormont until 1258. His son, Renaud de Cormont, acted as the architect until 1288. The chronicle of Corbie gives a completion date for the cathedral of 1266. Finishing works continued, however. Its floors are covered with a number of designs, such as the swastika (to symbolize Jesus’ triumph over death). The labyrinth was installed in 1288. The cathedral contains the alleged head of John the Baptist, a relic brought from Constantinople by Wallon de Sarton as he was returning from the Fourth Crusade.
The construction of the cathedral at this period can be seen as resulting from a coming together of necessity and opportunity. The destruction of earlier buildings and attempts at rebuilding by fire forced the fairly rapid construction of a building that, consequently, has a good deal of artistic unity. The long and relatively peaceful reign of Louis IX of France brought a prosperity to the region, based on thriving agriculture and a booming cloth trade, that made the investment possible. The great cathedrals of Reims and Chartres are roughly contemporary.
The original design of the flying buttresses around the choir had them placed too high to counteract the force of the ceiling arch pushing outwards resulting in excessive lateral forces being placed on the vertical columns. The structure was only saved when, centuries later, masons placed a second row of more robust flying buttresses that connected lower down on the outer wall. This fix failed to counteract similar issues with the lower wall which began to develop large cracks around the late Middle Ages. This was solved by another patch that consisted of a wrought iron bar chain being installed around the mezzanine level to resist the forces pushing the stone columns outward. The chain was installed red hot to act as a cinch, tightening as it cooled.
The west front of the cathedral, (illustration, right) built in a single campaign, 1220–36, shows an unusual degree of artistic unity: its lower tier with three vast deep porches is capped with the gallery of twenty-two over lifesize kings, which stretches across the entire façade beneath the rose window. Above the rose window there is an open arcade, the galerie des sonneurs. Flanking the nave, the two towers were built without close regard to the former design, the south tower being finished in 1366, the north one, reaching higher, in 1406.
The Western portals of the cathedral are justly famous for their elaborate sculpture, featuring a gallery of locally-important saints and large eschatological scenes. Statues of saints in the portal of the cathedral have been identified as including the locally venerated Saints Victoricus and Gentian, Saint Domitius, Saint Ulphia, and Saint Fermin.2
In the book Mr Standfast, John Buchan has his character Richard Hannay describe the cathedral as being “the noblest church that the hand of man ever built only for God.”3
The facade in colour
During the process of laser cleaning in the 1990s, it was discovered that the western façade of the cathedral was originally painted in multiple colours. A technique was perfected to determine the exact make-up of the colours as they were applied in the 13th century. Then, in conjunction with the laboratories of EDF (Electricity of France) and the expertise of the Society Skertzo, elaborate lighting techniques were developed to project these colours directly on the façade with precision, recreating the polychromatic appearance of the 13th century. When projected on the statues around the portals, the result is a stunning display that brings the figures to life. The projected colors are faint to photograph, but a good quality DSLR will provide excellent results .
Of course, the full magical effect can best be appreciated by direct viewing, accompanied by stirring music, which can be done at the Son et lumière on Summer evenings, during the Christmas Fair, and over the New Year.
Captured with Canon 5D MKii
16-35 F2.8 1/80 iso 400
5 exposure brackets at 1 stop each (tripod)
exported to Photomatix pro