The 800-year-old cathedral that inspired the Notre-Dame de Paris spire

shutterstock 1405746200 The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens in France. | Patrick Verhoef/Shutterstock.

While the spire of Notre-Dame de Paris was completely destroyed in last year's devastating fire, another Notre-Dame cathedral, the largest in France, offers the opportunity to see the spire that it was based on and to venerate a prized relic. 

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame d'Amiens, 80 miles north of Paris, is celebrating its 800th anniversary in 2020 by exposing its relic of St. John the Baptist for veneration. The relic has traditionally only been on public display on the saint's feast days on June 24 and August 29.

Amiens is the largest cathedral in France, with an inner volume twice the size of that of Notre-Dame de Paris. Construction began on the Gothic cathedral in 1220, shortly after France acquired the relic of St. John the Baptist from Constantinople. Upon its construction, it became a popular destination for 13th-century pilgrims.   

St. Louis, King Charles VI and Charles VII made pilgrimages to Amiens to venerate the relic, and a 17th-century French bishop vowed to build a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist after invoking the saint's intercession for the end to the plague epidemic of 1668. Renovation of this chapel and reliquary was finished in time for this year's anniversary.

For its rector, Fr. Édouard de Vregille, the 800th anniversary is an opportunity to evangelize through culture and beauty by partnering with secular historical and cultural organizations in France to bring more people to the cathedral for concerts, tours, and educational events that transform tourists into pilgrims.

"The idea is to go through culture and beauty to announce the Gospel to the greatest number," Vregille told CNA.

"Our missionary strategy consists in attracting the general public through a quality cultural offer in order to offer them the possibility of a spiritual experience of Christ," he said.

Since the cathedral's reopening after France's lockdown, the rector has decided to keep the cathedral open until 10 p.m. for visitors in the summer months, recruiting seminarians to give tours of the cathedral.

While the pandemic prevented visitors from visiting the cathedral for months of its jubilee year, Amiens has extended its 800th anniversary celebration beyond its scheduled end in December 2020, and is planning a festival at the year's end.

"The lockdown allowed us to offer a new way to discover the cathedral and to bring it to life every day via video and photos: we celebrated the Mass in each of the many chapels of the cathedral," Vregille said.

The Gothic cathedral has 11 side chapels that were originally built between 1290 and 1375, but were renovated over the centuries. Its nave reaches a height of 139 feet with interior open arches and large stained windows, which had to be replaced after their destruction amid 20th-century world wars.

The cathedral survived both the ferment of the French Revolution and intense fighting in the surrounding Somme River valley during both the First and Second World Wars without other serious damage.

After French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc led the restoration work on Amiens cathedral in the 19th century, he looked to the cathedral's 16th-century wooden spire as the historic model for his design for the spire of Notre-Dame de Paris.

The current oak spire of Amiens cathedral was built between 1528 and 1533. During this time, relics of the True Cross, the table from the Last Supper, and St. Thomas of Canterbury were placed within its tip. 

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After the April 2019 fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, people are once again looking to Amiens, Vregille said.

"The fire in Notre-Dame de Paris turned eyes toward Notre-Dame d'Amiens, whose frame is from the 13th century and whose spire inspired Viollet-le-Duc to make the one in Paris," he said.

The rector said that the title Notre-Dame d'Amiens, Our Lady of Amiens, is a critical part of the cathedral's identity.

"We will move the original statue of the Golden Virgin to the nave of the cathedral so that visitors can easily identify Our Lady of Amiens," Vregille said. 

The Vierge Dorée, or Golden Virgin, is a 13th-century statue of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child located on the trumeau of the cathedral's south door that was formerly gilded in gold.

"In Amiens, we are welcomed by the tenderness of Our Lady and exhorted to conversion by the humble and powerful testimony of St. John the Baptist," the rector said.

Photo credits: Courtney Mares/CNA.

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