To Inspire Piety

Notre Dame of Amiens: Life of the Gothic Cathedral

by Stephen Murray
2020 Columbia University Press, 422 pages, $20.00
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Stephen Murray is one of the world’s foremost experts on French Gothic architecture. Now professor emeritus at Columbia University, Murray has published multiple books and articles on some of the most significant cathedrals of late medieval France. His research combines careful attention to both texts and stones, often leveraging new media and digital technologies to better understand or elucidate his subjects. In his acknowledgements, Murray declares this to be his final book.

Notre-Dame of Amiens showcases the depth of Murray’s knowledge and his interest in digital humanities. It provides an accessible and lively history of the cathedral throughout the Middle Ages. Murray accompanies this text with an interactive website hosted by Columbia’s Media Center for Art History. The book is appropriate to a sophisticated but generalist audience.

Translation of the relics of Saint Firmin. Photo:

The Cathedral in Time

Notre-Dame of Amiens walks its readers through the life of the cathedral. The first part of the book covers the existing architecture, portal sculpture, and medieval audiences, employing Amiens almost as a case study for understanding medieval cathedrals generally. Speaking directly to his readers, Murray introduces architectural forms, iconographic themes, and ecclesiastical offices involved in the construction process. The book balances architectural description with discussion of the individuals tasked with the cathedral’s construction and maintenance.

Amiens acts as a touchstone for illustrating more widespread phenomena, such as the increasing authority of the Capetian monarchy. Similarly, Murray uses the example of Saint Firmin to illuminate the importance of local saints for establishing and justifying ecclesiastical authority. The north portal of the western façade is dedicated to this sanctified bishop. A monumental statue of Firmin, fully clad in episcopal costume, divides the entrance. The sculpted tympanum depicts the miraculous discovery of his body and the translation of his relics to the cathedral—a composition with no direct prototype.

Murray notes how this program emphasizes connections between Amiens and Jerusalem, for example the detail of youths climbing trees to view the procession echoes the standard iconography for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. As he argues, these explicit connections to the Holy Land enhanced the position of the bishop and clergy in the city. The portal’s imagery, which emphasizes a cooperative citizenry, demonstrates how the building manifests the concerns of its principle patrons in promoting episcopal authority.

History and Construction

The second half of the book focuses on the history of Amiens and the circumstances of its construction. Murray covers the cathedral’s primary volumes, and the completion of the transept façades, the addition of lateral chapels, the construction of some ancillary buildings, and extensive programs of embellishment and ornamentation. It also includes two major architectural interventions required to stabilize the building. It closes with a consideration of the liturgical and paraliturgical performance at Amiens, probing the possible connections between architectural design and religious practice.

This final chapter most clearly demonstrates how people and performance animated the cathedral. For example, Murray describes how the clergy deployed incense, sound, and movement to evoke the sacred. Many of the paralitugical performances involoved elements of theatricality.

On Ascension Day the procession included giant serpent puppets with articulated jaws. Other feasts incorporated dramatic performances in the form of tableaux vivants, in which deacons or others reenacted biblical scenes. As argued by Murray and his historical sources, such performances worked together with the architecture to inspire piety and instruct the spirit, speaking to the ultimate function of sacred architecture.

Few other individuals understand the building and the texts associated with its construction and use in such detail. Murray moves fluidly between the awesomeness of the cathedral as a totality and the particularities of individual stones. For example, he notes the ingenuity of the shape of the stone blocks that make up a spiral staircase hidden within the Chapel of the Conversion of Saint Paul.

The Cathedral’s Audiences

Murray considers several audiences who have engaged with the cathedral over time. He begins with the modern visitor, and then the medieval audiences of the clergy, artisans, and laity. That said, some voices speak much louder in this book than others, and these tend to be male, clerical voices. The power of the clerical voice derives in large part from the surviving evidence, since the clergy predominantly controlled the production and preservation of texts. The weight given to this audience obscures the many other communities who interacted with the building. Women, for example, actively participated in medieval religious life, but are largely absent from Murray’s exploration of the cathedral.

Notre-Dame of Amiens provides an exceptionally rich discussion of this major world monument. It is a fitting testament to Murray’s monumental career and his impact on the field of architectural history.