Wednesday, May 15, 2013

the utterance of the unutterable: Amiens and Beauvais

After a wonderful breakfast at our B&B, today’s pilgrimage through the French countryside took us to two Gothic Cathedrals: Amiens and its neighbor Beauvais, rivals since the 13th century when the cities argued over who could build the biggest cathedral. 

Beauvais was by far the biggest loser!

Notre Dame d' Amiens is the tallest and largest complete cathedral in France. According to a guidebook, Notre Dame d' Paris would fit twice inside the Amiens Cathedral!

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, another local favorite!

labyrinth, on the nave floor

An unexpected find here was a relic of John the Baptist, whose cult can be found in several chapels and images around the cathedral. In a special case, we saw what since the 12th century has been venerated as John the Baptist’s head:

At our other stop, I found St. Peter's Cathedral at Beauvais quite endearing in a very unexpected way.  It's not just that the Cathedral is missing critical parts, like a nave! According to the story, this bishop wanted to build a taller and bigger structure than any other cathedral -- but the building collapsed, twice! 

I know that technically this makes it an architectural failure. Yet I think this is part of why I liked it so much. It's almost human.

Its tall walls reach up like arms extending to heaven, yet it needs continual support to safeguard the buttresses that remain. The building is not just unfinished, it will never be complete, not in this lifetime – how’s that for a great spiritual metaphor? And of course there's the obvious, pride comes before the fall.

I love being Catholic. I can walk into a new church in a different continent, 
not speak the language, 
and recognize the world-wide symbol for the Year of Faith!

our dear Thérèse of Lisieux

Not unexpectedly, both cathedrals had special shrines to St. Joan of Arc. I learned that the bishop of Beauvais headed the Inquisition case against Joan. Some say this is why “his cathedral” began to collapse…

Joan of Arc at Beauvais

One more thing -- I should note that my mother-in-law MarySue Schriber is an Edith Wharton scholar. Much to our delight, as we travel on our modern "motor-flight," MarySue has been reading pieces of one of Wharton’s books (edited by MarySue!), “A Motor-Flight Through France.”

Here’s what Edith Wharton had to say in 1908 about her encounter in  with the Beauvais Cathedral:
“Beauvais has at least none of the ungainliness of failure: it is like a great hymn interrupted, not one in which the voices have flagged; and to the desultory mind such attempts seem to deserve a place among the fragmentary glories of great art. It is, at any rate, an example of what the Gothic spirit, pushed to its logical conclusion, strove for: the utterance of the unutterable.”