I missed the 800th anniversary of the commencement of the cathedral’s construction last year. For the occasion, the great art historian Willibald Sauerländer gave a very moving speech about the cathedral and its legacy. As he points out, Reims may well be the most joyous as well as the most beautiful of cathedrals, a huge vision of the Celestial Jerusalem in stone inhabited by smiling angels and happy saints. Reims was the coronation cathedral of French kings. Every French king received the crown in coronation rites in this cathedral going back to the days of King Clovis.
The coronation of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castille in Reims Cathedral, 1223
The coronation of the ill-fated King Louis XVI, June 11, 1775
Reims was the center of one of the largest and richest archdioceses in France, a huge territory that stretched all the way to the German border. The diocese of Laon with its great cathedral was a subsidiary of Reims.
The current cathedral replaced a much older and smaller cathedral begun in the reign of Charlemagne and enlarged in the 12th century. Fire destroyed the earlier cathedral in 1210. Reims is a magnificent combination of architecture and sculpture. Far from being the creation of anonymous designers, we know the names of all of the cathedral’s architects and have some idea which part each one was responsible for. Jean d’Orbais, Gaucher de Reims, and Bernard de Soissons are among the names once very proudly inscribed in the labyrinth that was inlaid into the floor of the nave. We get an idea of what they might have looked like from the tombstone of Hugh Libergier, architect of the now destroyed church of Saint Nicaise in Reims. He hardly looks like the humble self-effacing craftsman of 19th century imagination. His dress is conspicuously bourgeois as he poses for eternity with a model of the church.
Considering how many architects worked on this building over so long a period of time, it is remarkable how consistent and coherent the whole design is. Even the floor plan is beautiful.
The choir or chevet around the altar in the east was the first part of the cathedral to be built. The chevet of Reims is built around the apse and ambulatory with five chapels radiating off of the choir. It is a beautiful assembly of harmonious parts that rises in setback stages to a spire right above the altar.
The magnificent double flying buttresses not only do the structural work of holding up the stone ceiling vaults, but break up the mass of the building and emphasize its verticality. Critics once compared the splendid structural candor of Gothic architecture to the steel frame of modern architecture. The Gothic flying buttress expressed the idea of the building as a great stone cage as beautifully as Louis Sullivan or Mies Van Der Rohe designed buildings to express the steel frame holding them up. Sullivan said, “form follows function.” The reverse is probably true for Gothic architecture, “function follows form.”
The choir and apse of Reims Cathedral
The desire for soaring stone vaults on open linear supports came first. The flying buttress came second. The buttress and compound pier construction minimized the need for structural walls, opening the space between for enormous spreads of stained glass.
Stained glass windows in the apse;
I have no idea if the glass in these windows is original or a restoration
The high altar; I don't know, but this looks to my eye like an 18th century rebuild.
Apsidal chapel with windows designed by Marc Chagall, 1974
Apsidal chapel with windows designed by Imi Knoebel, 2011
The vaults of the nave rise 125 feet from the cathedral floor.
Interior of the nave looking east
Interior of the nave looking west
The vast soaring interior makes us feel small, as was intended. Every part of this building, large and small, reminds us of Whose presence we are in when we cross the threshold. The building itself conveys something of the awe, mystery, and exhilaration of standing in God’s presence.
Great carved angels stand guard on each of the support buttresses of the nave, perhaps inspired by the angels guarding the twelve gates of the Celestial Jerusalem described in Revelations.
The west front was the last part to be built and is a wonder. It looks like a huge openwork stone trellis with sculpture entwined about it like climbing roses. Sculpture and architecture almost merge in this part of the building.
The west front of Reims Cathedral; the tall spires intended to finish the twin towers remain unbuilt
The sculptural program of this part of the cathedral makes explicit reference to the cathedral’s role as a coronation church. It was here on the cathedral’s threshold that the Abbot of Saint Remi, walking barefoot from the Abbey, presented the Holy Ampulla believed to have been used to anoint King Clovis to the Archbishop of Reims during the coronation rite. The French coronation ritual focused on the anointing of the king rather than on his crown. Instead of the Last Judgment or Second Coming that usually forms the central tympanum sculpture of a medieval cathedral, the architects of Reims replaced the traditional tympanum with a small rose window.
Above the small rose window is the great west rose of the cathedral. Together, the double roses form a blazing wall of colored glass on the inside flanked by rows of sculpted figures.
Among them are the very fine and strikingly realistic figures of Abraham meeting Melchizedek.
On the exterior in the center between the rose windows is the sculpture group of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary in Heaven, certainly a royal metaphor for the coronation rite, but also a glimpse of the promise of salvation awaiting all the faithful in the next life.
Mary in her role as the First Christian enjoys the coronation at Christ’s right hand promised to all faithful Christians.
At the top of the façade at the center of the Gallery of Kings, Saint Remi, Bishop of Reims, baptizes and crowns Clovis.
They are flanked by later successors to the first Christian king of France.
Probably the most remarkable statues on the façade are the jamb statues flanking the portals.
These are statues clearly made by several different sculptors at different times. Many of them were carved for other parts of the cathedral and moved here when the west façade was built. It’s hard to know if there was a thematic or narrative program in mind, or if they were moved around subsequently and re-assembled into new narrative groups.
The range of styles is very striking. Two very grand figures with traces of the original coloring form a Visitation group.
The Virgin Mary pregnant with the Christ Child visits St. Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. At this meeting, Mary recites her most famous speech, The Magnificat.
The Virgin Mary from the Visitation Group
St. Elizabeth from the Visitation Group
Both of these figures have a kind of Roman grandeur and seriousness of purpose. They may well have been inspired by ancient Roman sculpture, but just as likely, they reflect the influence of smaller contemporary sculptures with their faux-contrapposto S curve poses and very busy drapery folds.
Next to them is the Annunciation group made of two sculptures by two completely different hands that were probably never originally together.
The Virgin Annunciate is a mute inexpressive figure with V shaped drapery. The angel is a smiling marvel carved by a sculptor designated as the Joseph Master after a smiling figure of St. Joseph also on the west front of Reims.
He was probably originally one of a pair that flanked another figure on another part of the cathedral, and was moved here during the construction of the West Front.
His smiling inverted twin stands on another part of the west front.
The angel re-assigned to annunciation duty smiles broadly at the unresponsive figure of Mary next to him.
His pose and his proportions are not naturalistic, but in that gracefully elegant artificial manner of later Gothic sculpture from toward the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries. He is very friendly, a blissfully happy spiritual being greeting us to this stone and glass facsimile of the Jerusalem to Come. His smile captures the joy of the entire design of the cathedral.
The joy of the cathedral is indeed otherworldly for very worldly cares wore its stones even as the cathedral was built. The cathedral chapter levied onerous taxes and dealt with the city’s guilds and citizens in a very high-handed manner brushing aside legal constraints. The city of Reims rose up in armed revolt in 1233 killing several clergy and driving the cathedral chapter out of the city. The chapter put the city under interdict, closing the churches and forbidding all sacraments. Work stopped on the cathedral for three years. The King and the Pope intervened to lift the interdict and resolve the conflict.
Reims Cathedral suffered very badly in the French Revolution because of its association with the French crown. All of the original furnishings of the cathedral were removed and destroyed. Among them were the shrines of three saints once housed behind the high altar in the apse. As Willibald Sauerländer points out in his speech, those shrines were the heart of the cathedral. Revolutionary officials publicly smashed the Holy Ampulla and other relics with sledgehammers in 1793.
In 1914 at the start of World War I, the German army laid siege to Reims and shelled the cathedral. The roof-beams caught fire and melted the lead roof. Shelling very badly damaged much of the cathedral’s sculpture and windows.
Reims Cathedral struck by German shellfire, September, 1914
Reims Cathedral on fire after German shelling, 1914
The cathedral was the most important building in the city because it housed the city’s most important inhabitants, God and all the saints. A cathedral was more than just a large church building for the local bishop to accommodate big crowds of people. The cathedral was a version of Solomon’s Temple, of the Tabernacle of Moses. It was God’s house upon earth. It was a vision in stone of the Celestial Jerusalem descended out of Heaven described in Revelations.
It was also a model of the cosmos. In this encyclopedic age, all study was considered to be a branch of theology since all things were believed to point to their Creator. The stars and planets, the labors of months, the Seven Virtues, the Seven Liberal Arts, the useful arts, all found their place on the cathedral, all those things created by God and reflecting back upon Him his glory.
The cathedral was more than a religious structure. The cathedral expressed the renewal of urban life in Western Europe, and the revival of civic pride. Competition among cities and towns for the biggest and best cathedral could be fierce, and Reims was no exception.
Until recently, there were two opposed but common assumptions about the Gothic cathedrals. The first began in 19th century Romanticism, that the Gothic cathedrals were the creation of an Age of Faith, the creation of a happy consensus in which the designers chose anonymity over personal glory, and peasants and lords together hauled the carts of stone to the construction sites while singing Non Nobis Domine. The second is from the 18th century Enlightenment. The philosophes gave these cathedrals and their style of architecture the name “Gothic” because they thought these monuments were the creation of a barbaric time of superstition dominated by an all powerful Church. They imagined this era as a time of terrified conformism enforced by the terrors of the Inquisition.
Both of these preconceptions are wrong for the same reason. These over-simplified visions assume some kind of unanimous consensus, voluntary or forced. There was no such thing. The High Middle Ages from the 11th century to the 14th century were filled with conflict and competition. The cathedrals, far from being the creations of consensus, are the creations of conflict; political conflict, religious conflict, and class conflict. The Gothic style began in conflict.
Gazing at elaborate and inventively sculpted column capitals in a cloister like that of Moissac, St. Bernard of Clairvaux complained:
But in the cloister, under the eyes of the Brethren who read there, what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in that marvelous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity? To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters blowing their horns? Many bodies are there seen under one head, or again, many heads to a single body. Here is a four footed beast with a serpent’s tail; there a fish with a beast’s head. Here again the forepart of a horse trails half a goat behind it, or a horned beast bears the hinder quarters of a horse. In short, so many and so marvelous are the varieties of diverse shapes on every hand, that we are tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and to spend the day wondering at these things than in meditating on the law of God. For God’s sake, if men are not ashamed of these follies, why at least do they not shrink from the expense.I think St. Bernard protests too much. Beneath his scorn, he clearly enjoys those Romanesque inventions as much as any daydreaming novice. Nonetheless he sees them as a distraction and a shameful waste of money and labor. His scorn is aimed at what he sees behind these sculptures, at the worldliness of the Cluniac Order that indulged in these things (to our everlasting delight).
The Abbot Suger, head of the Abbey of Saint Denis, and a very different character from St. Bernard, took Bernard’s complaint about art as wasteful distraction very seriously. The Abbot was in many ways a very worldly man. He was head, not only of the Abbey of Saint Denis, but the king’s government. In his capacity as prime minister, he began that long project of French history to concentrate power in the monarchy at the expense of the regional nobility. Suger was also a very religious man who took aesthetic experience very seriously. Suger believed that our experience of the beautiful could be used to turn our minds to things spiritual. While meditating on the jeweled ornaments in the Abbey of Saint Denis, Suger said,
Thus, when –out of my delight in the beauty of the House of God – the loveliness of the many colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of sacred virtues; then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and by the Grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.Suger wanted to transform his own abbey church from a house of worship into that very “strange region of the universe” that is not quite Heaven, but then not of this world either. In so doing, the Gothic style began at the Abbey of Saint Denis in the middle of the 12th century. The Gothic style invented there reflected the new hopeful more humane concentration on God the Creator after the millennial fears of the 11th century passed. The Pythagorean idea that God thinks in mathematics found its way into the Christian imagination by way of Islam. The Gothic style would proclaim the goodness of God the Creator though mathematical and geometric harmony, and above all through light. Light always played a major role in Christian mysticism. It was the first thing God created, and the closest thing in the material world to the spirit, so people believed. The optical science of the day noted that light travels in straight lines with reliably geometric order.
The Gothic style invented at Saint Denis spread rapidly with the active encouragement of the Royal House, eager to align itself with the Church and with the emerging cities and a new bourgeois class to challenge the power of the regional nobles. In France, the Gothic style was closely associated with the monarchy that eagerly financed church and cathedral construction around the kingdom.
The Gothic church in all its parts proclaimed God’s mystery and glory. The church interior was supposed to be a kind of glimpse into Heaven, a kind of anteroom between this world and the next. Nowhere was this idea realized more forcefully and magnificently than in the great cathedrals such as Reims.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice proclaiming from the throne: "Now at last God has his dwelling among men! He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain; for the old order has passed away!"--Revelation 21: 1-6
Then he who sat on the throne said, "Behold! I am making all things new! ... I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."