Just Too Cool: Medieval Cathedral of Amiens was decorated in bright colors

Church architecture reflects the belief of the people, their ecclesiology, what they believe about the Church (or at least what their pastors believe).

Compare churches built by our forebears and the structures built these days, hardly to be distinguished from municipal airport terminals.

I saw this super cool info at ChurchPop.

When the exterior of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens in France was cleaned, it was found that it was decorated in bright colors.

Wow! Medieval Cathedrals Used to Be Full of Brilliant Colors

For being the “dark ages,” medieval Europeans were sure able to produce some of the world’s most beautiful and intricate buildings ever made.

It turns out they were even more beautiful than we knew.

First, here’s a picture of how the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens in France looks today:

Back in the 1990s, there was a cleaning program underway on the exterior. Midway through the project, scientists discovered something pretty intriguing on the western facade: traces of paint. Further tests were done, and they were able to determine how the western facade was painted back in the 13th century! Then they figured out a way to project the light of the colors very precisely onto the building.

The result? A breath-taking view of how the cathedral looked when it was first finished.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mariana2 says:

    Oh, yes, that is what things looked like in the Middle Ages! Bright colours everywhere.

    Medieval statues here in Scandinavia often have traces of colours left. Reproductions, complete with the original colourways, are sometimes made and the results can be startling.

    And, it’s the same with Greek temples, the statuary was brightly painted. Classical Greece was not white.

  2. Legisperitus says:

    Same in ancient Rome as well.

    One of many cool uses for laser beams, illuminating great art!

  3. Packrraat says:

    It was the same way with the Sistine Chapel. I was shocked when they cleaned it. No dull, muted colors. It almost looked garish. What a difference. It was bursting with color.

  4. robtbrown says:

    I have mixed feelings about such work restoring churches to the way they looked originally. They are old and, IMHO, should in some way reflect the hundreds of years of their existence.

    Chartres is being cleaned inside, which is said to be necessary to stop the effects of the layer of soot on the stones. The word is that it will look inside the way it did originally, but it’s news to me that there was electric lighting in the Middle Ages. In fact, one of my complaints about contemporary churches in the US is that there seems to be an obsession with illuminating every corner. There should be dark areas in churches just as there are in the spiritual life.

  5. robtbrown says:

    BTW, the exteriors of pagan temples were also painted. I really liked the fact that there often is only enough left to give a hint of the past, stimulating onlookers’ fantasy to fill in the blanks.

  6. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    It’s astonishing to think of mediaeval scholars and theologians at work in Northern Europe in the late autumn and winter – little lancet windows, at best, a lot of the time, to let in a couple hours daylight (grey, often enough) – how did the read and produce those voluminous manuscripts in a tiny script, and the rich (and richly referenced) content?

    A nice alternative or complement to restoration are the 19th-c. attempts to build mediaeval style richly decorated modern Churches. (St. Willibrord’s Church, Utrecht is a striking example, though its Wikipedia article photos don’t give as strong an impression as others I’ve seen online in the past.)

  7. albinus1 says:

    Compare churches built by our forebears and the structures built these days, hardly to be distinguished from municipal airport terminals.

    I remember the cultural touchstone MAD Magazine remarking as long ago as the 1970s at the inability to tell the difference between a contemporary church and a contemporary bank.

  8. Filipino Catholic says:

    Chartres apparently has undergone a bad whitewashing in the past, the decaying remnants of said job being one of the reasons for the restoration. (Centuries of candle and oil lamp soot apparently are the other reason.) That said, the current paint job was probably ill-advised — going down to the bare stonework would have been enough.

    Many of the Baroque/rococo colonial-era churches here don’t have painted exteriors, but there are a rare few where the ceilings have been painted in a Sistinesque manner and yes, the years have not been kind to them. (There’s one where the seven days of creation occupy the entire apse over the old high altar.)

    Should there perhaps be a course in Sacred Art and Architecture, for those desirous of bringing back beauty to our churches?

  9. Supertradmum says:

    Yes, the ancients and medievals used color…this example is fantastic. Also, I wish the world would be like it was in Medieval times, when artists and missionaries, businessmen and religious, could cross borders without any passports, which, by the way, were originally invented as protection when in other countries, not for getting in and out.

    Imagine a Catholic world where we could all take gifts, talents, the Word of God freely to all nations….a time about to end.

  10. JabbaPapa says:

    When the exterior of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens in France was cleaned, it was found that it was decorated in bright colors.

    Very VERY many Mediaeval churches were.

  11. Jim R says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings. Certainly I’ve known about the painting that covered all medieval churches, but it all reminds me of the temple of Pavarti and Durga in Bangalore:

    [That’s an awful comparison.]

  12. Gregg the Obscure says:

    In and around Denver the church buildings built before about 1965 look like churches – many are modest, but they’re still obviously churches. On the other hand one nearby church looks like a post office, others like psychological experiments, one like a shopping mall, one like an amusement park “tomorrowland” feature and so on. One good thing is that even those with the weirdest exteriors are slowly coming to look more like churches on the inside.

  13. James C says:

    Father, I was able to see this presentation at Amiens last December, and it was one of the most powerful, enthralling things I’ve ever seen. It looks so much better than any photo you can find online. It’s a MUST-see and only an hour from Paris.

  14. kimberley jean says:

    I live in a state where we have a lot of people who moved freely without passports and it’s not good at all.

  15. Ellen says:

    The Parthenon in Nashville, TN has a statue of Athena that is painted and gilded like they did back like the ancient Greeks did. It’s colorful, very much so.

  16. iamlucky13 says:

    The amount of labor needed to produce such marvels with only hand tools and without the modern ability to produce the widely varied, durable pigments we have to today is mind boggling. Yet instead of using our far greater resources to try to go even further in portraying the beauty of the divine, we sterilize, empty, and abstract to a degree that could bore even a goldfish.

    So disappointing.

  17. Hans says:

    In addition to cleaning the inside of Chartres Cathedral, last year (at least) Chartres en Lumière (chartresenlumieres) lit the cathedral at night from April to October.

    The west face had an animated “history” of the cathedral; it was quite fascinating and gave a very visual ~14-minute representation of the cathedral and its past. The north and south porches were also lit with still images to give an idea of what they would have looked like while the paint was still on them. It looked very much like the above version at Amiens.

    I have 2 videos (one more complete than the other and in HD) of the façade and stills of the north porch, but I’m sure you can find such online.

    We would have stayed to watch at least a third time, but we had to get up early to get to CDG.

  18. Matt Robare says:

    To go along with this UCatholic has an article about some Germans reconstructing a Mass from 1450 , for the 18th Sunday after Pentacost http://ucatholic.com/blog/like-catholic-mass-middle-ages-re-enactment-like-stepping-time-machine/

  19. jbpolhamus says:

    It looks MUCH beter this way. I think they should all be restored in similar fashion. It’s only logical.

  20. This reminds me of when they cleaned the frescos of the Sistine chapel and found the colors to be bright and only dimmed by the soot of candles. Very cool, but then again some objected.

  21. John Nolan says:

    The ‘Mass of 1450’ that Matt provides a link to has elements of an historical reconstruction in that the clerks and congregation are in 15th century costume. However, it is an actual Mass which is presumably according to the Use that prevailed in pre-Reformation Sweden – the celebrant is a Catholic priest and a Professor of Latin at Lund University. It is well worth watching for the similarities to and differences from the familiar Tridentine Rite and Solesmes chant. Interestingly, there are no genuflexions, as with the Use of Sarum , which begs the question as to why the Tridentine Rite has so many!

  22. antonb says:

    I wrote for my first art history essay on Amiens Cathedral. One day I hope to visit the cathedral with the essay in hand. I don’t have an opinion about colour/no colour; it is the beauty of the building itself, its shapes and forms, that continues to impress.

  23. Mariana2 says:

    The Mass of 1450, in Sweden, also produced astonishment among those who had thought that the rood screen was somehow divisive, leaving the laity ‘outside’. The rood screen in fact had concentrated everybody’s attention on what was happening at the altar. (It’s one of those Protestant things around here, rood screens were so baaad.)

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