On July 7th, that is 7/7/7 – one of those Dan Brown numbers – the results of the new Seven Wonders of the World competition will be announced. The short list includes The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, the Mall of America, that Gherkin…actually it doesn’t, but one day…
It takes four visits to begin to grasp the enormity of achievement that is Amiens Cathedral. The thing is a beast: like some prehistoric creature that time forgot. People started building this in 1220. In thirteen years that makes it 800 years old. Even calming down and contemplating the finished article, around 1450, say – these things evolve – its creation is an act of pure awe. If memory is remembering then, now, but with all of our conceptions since, then the first question must be: how did they do this without computers?
Visiting Tom got the travelling vapors for the first time:
The Cathedral Church of this Citie is dedicated to our Lady, being the very Queene of al the Churches in France, and the fairest that I even saw till then. This Church was built by a certaine Bishop of this Citie, about foure hundred years since, whose monument is made in brasse at the west end of the Church, with certain Latin inscriptions about it; but such is the strangeness of the character, I could not understand it.
….The principallest relique that is kept in this Church is the forepart of St. John Baptists head, which is inclosed in a peece of gold that is beset with many precious stones. Againe, the same peece of gold is put into another rich Cabinet, made of crystal; out of the which it is taken whensoever it is shewed to any strangers or any other: it is never shewed but at sixe of the clocke in the morning, in a certain little high Chappell, consecrated to that purpose…
and rightly so: this is a wonder of someone’s world.
“They go in, they click, click, click, they buy my coffee.” Patrick sounds as if this is a bad thing: it is his coffee shop that we congregate afterwards, but there is hurt pride in his voice. Amiens Cathedral demands time. I give it hours.
When we visit churches what do we seek? On my first visit there is a service, a woman priest. The hymms have a curiously modern melody that sounds like a choral version of the songs in “Les Damoiselles de Rochfort.” Liturgical Legrand, I guess. And all around the pews we scurry: the stained glass is too far away, the paintings dark. There is an audio guide but few bother. We come together – this is a church – and we remain apart. All there is really is massiveness, light and shade. The form outweighs the function so heavily Le Corbuiser might scream.
The Victorian author-critic John Ruskin loved this place, helped him to form his over-arching aesthetic of the Gothic. He was one of those few that changed the way we see things; to this day people flock to lectures on his vision: of art, literature and architecture. Ruskin will return.
On Monday morning I have the place to myself, the only sound that staple of Mondays in every major city: construction work, the clang of girders, ladders; cranes spinning like El Greco ice skaters. Here it is work on the east wing. This is my chance to imagine Tom for the first time, gazing up and thinking – surely – this is impossible. For days know I’ve wondered what must have been going through his head as he “walked” on horseback. I think today’s sight must have shaken him: for any building of this size comes with a preternatural power, for good and bad. I’ve watched the light blaze through the stained and not-stained glass at four times of day; on each occasion the mood here is different, however many of us are inside consuming the experience. This is a building of a black and white God; of absolutes. Here we are dwarfed, perhaps as Chantall was in the dessert oasis. Except that here there is language, sculpture, paintings, architecture. And its collective imperative is: have wonder.
I feel Tom must have known then that England wasn’t everything. But then he wouldn’t have been travelling if he’d thought that. However much he kept it under his hat.