The Puys of Amiens, masterpieces of the collection of Amiens paintings, are the remnants of the extraordinary artistic production from the Notre-Dame du Puy at the end of the Middle Ages and during the modern age. This pious institution would gather dignitaries from Amiens, both clerics and laypersons,. to glorify the Virgin Mary through poetic lyricism. It would organise Marian feasts during which there would be poetry contests. The word “Puy” comes from the fact that these poems were recited on a platform or podium called “puy” in medieval French; the fraternity adopted this word as a metonymy, along with the art pieces it commissioned.
To mark the main celebration of the brotherhood, on the 2nd February each year, the day of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mayor elected for that year would share their adage which would then inspire the painter commissioned for the work of art. The artist would then translate into image the complex allegories imagined to honour the Mother of God. The painting was then exposed in the cathedral on Christmas Day and there it would remain throughout the year, to be replaced by the painting of the following year.
From the 15th century, the paintings of all previous years were simply moved and hung a little further away in the cathedral, so that by the start of the 18th century, several dozens of such paintings of devotion to the Virgin adorned the pilars of Amiens Cathedral. In 1723, the canons decided to remove the Puys from the cathedral as they felt that there were too many of them and that the congregation’s taste had evolved. Most of the art pieces were destroyed or dispersed across the diocese, and only the ones deemed to be of sufficient quality were preserved in a nearby chapel. Because of this dispersion, many came to be missing and the Puys we have managed to recover only represent a fraction of all the artworks commissioned by the fraternity. However, they still illustrate the artistic, political, cultural and religious history of Amiens. They are the reflection of Amiens’ artistic relationships with cities such as Anvers, Bruges, Brussels and Paris. The Puys are also pictorial arts with immediate relevancy as they were destined to be exposed during the year of their creation. Religious wars, the siege of Amiens and the recapture of the city by Henry IV are some of the events that can be related through the pictorial choices made by the fraternity masters and their painters. These works of art paint a vivid picture of Amiens society over a period of close to three centuries.