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Amiens Cathedral

Visual Media Center, Columbia University
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Reviewed by:
Jonathan Rotondo-McCord
Xavier University of Louisiana
September 2003

This site was created in 1996 to accompany a QuickTime instructional video that offers a dramatic virtual tour of Amiens cathedral, one of the most splendid Gothic structures of medieval France. The video, produced by a team led by Professor Stephen Murray of Columbia University, was a major outcome of the Amiens Cathedral Project. The site has now been incorporated into Columbia’s Visual Media Center, which also offers a more recent project (under development) dedicated to the Romanesque churches of the Bourbonnais. Unfortunately, construction of the Amiens site seems never to have been completed (perhaps reflecting the reality of many a medieval cathedral!). Lack of explanatory texts, some broken links, low-quality scans (in places), a defunct discussion board, and poor navigation all combine to make site use counterintuitive. Nevertheless, the site’s rich image collections still recommend it for classroom and research use.

After an attractive splash page, the main page allows users to view 26 captioned black-and-white animated GIF photographs that convey a sense of movement through different cathedral locations. A link to “computer graphics” calls up 14 attractive computer-designed still views of cathedral spaces. “Drawings” contains a varied assortment of 16 older diagrams, sketches, elevations, and plans of both the cathedral and town of Amiens.

One of the richer portions of the site is a collection of approximately 95 exterior and 125 interior photographs (color and black-and-white). Photographs are grouped by location on or in the building (e.g. “north transept” or “choir triforium”), but can also be navigated via individual thumbnails. Interior photograph thumbnails are accompanied by explanatory captions; exterior photographs are not. In the main frame, the location of the object displayed is clearly located on a diagram of the structure’s ground plan. Ground plan diagrams for the interior helpfully identify the angle of the viewer’s perspective, as well.

The most impressive component of the site is a collection of almost 40 QuickTime movies allowing full circular views from the user’s perspective. By clicking on dots on the cathedral ground plan, the user is able to take a virtual QuickTime tour of the entire cathedral interior. How to follow the QuickTime tour is not explained, and it can take the user awhile to get the knack of the colored dot system leading the viewer through the cathedral (red dot indicates where the viewer is, yellow indicates available spots for next step of tour, and blue spots are not available until the user has “walked” closer to them).

Another component (“Sculptural program”) leads to a programmatic breakdown of the west portal facade. The user can zoom in on individual figures, hear sound files that identify various figures and provide pertinent readings of Biblical and patristic texts, and read an essay by Stephen Murray entitled “The Portals: Access to Redemption.” A list of Biblical passages relevant to the figures sculpted on the portal is also provided. “Texts” provides access to 28 primary sources in Latin and French dealing with cathedral fires, construction, and other events from the 13th through early 16th centuries. English translations are provided for many (though not all) of these texts. Finally, “flash animation” links to a simple, clear animation illustrating the transition from early Christian through Romanesque to Gothic architectural styles.

Despite rough spots, this site offers an excellent opportunity to practice matching images in photographs to their location on an architectural ground plan. This exercise in spatial imagination will help develop a skill which should not be confined to art or architectural history classes: many a glossy architectural illustration in standard world history textbooks could be better understood by students if studied in conjunction with a ground plan. On this site, student users can study the ground plan and then navigate through the cathedral via the QuickTime full-circle videos, checking their position on the ground plan at each stop on the “tour.” The still photographs can be used for similar exercises. A companion site for this kind of work is the Amiens Animated Glossary which introduces ground plan and elevation terms in preparation for matching photographs and videos to schematic diagrams.

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