Because we all know how obsessed I am with historic cathedrals, it should come as no surprise that my visit to Reims (pronounced Rahnce) this past weekend would produce a post focusing on its phenomenal Gothic church. Besides being known for the production of champagne, I would argue that Notre-Dame de Reims is the next most important landmark of this fine French city.
The history of the city of Reims is intrinsically tied with its cathedral. The current cathedral sits on a sight first occupied by Roman baths. The first cathedral built on this sight was circa 400 A.D. This cathedral hosted the baptism of Clovis, first king of the Franks, and uniter of all Frankish tribes. He was the first Christian ruler of Gaul, known today as France. A second cathedral was rebuilt on the same sight during the 7th century. A fire in the 13th century badly damaged that cathedral. Work on a new Gothic-style church was begun in 1211. Construction continued for centuries and although the cathedral wasn’t finished until much later, builders maintained the original Gothic styling throughout.
Reims and it’s cathedral has played host to the coronation of French kings since the 11th century. However, the first coronation at Reims was in 816 when Louis I was crowned. Specifically chosen for its history with Clovis, Reims went on to become THE city of coronations, hosting 29 in all.
The current cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic design. Following the traditional east-west orientation that was so popular in France and England at the time, visitors enter through massive doors on the west side and head east towards the rising sun. The exterior façade is a complex design of statues: creating a Gallery of Kings, Last Judgement scene, Crucifixion scene, and central scene devoted to its namesake, Mary. There are 2303 statues throughout the cathedral overall.
Once you enter the interior of the cathedral, not only will you be amazed by its grandeur, but you will be amazed by how light the interior is. There is an unfortunate reason for this. Reims was hit by German shellfire during the opening engagements of the First World War on September 20, 1914. As part of a restoration attempt, scaffolding had been erected around the north tower and immediately caught fire, spreading across the roof of the cathedral. Images of the badly damaged cathedral were used as propaganda against the Germans in World War I. Thanks in part to a large financial contribution from the Rockefeller family, restoration was begun in 1919 and continued until 1938 when it was fully reopened. Enter World War II and more years of destruction. Many of the original biblical stained-glass windows were ruined. The rose windows were actually removed during war in order to preserve them for future generations. Of the damaged windows, most were replaced with light, geometric patterns. Recently, artists have been commissioned to create modern interpretations of stained-glass for Notre-Dame de Reims. Marc Chagall completed a section of stained-glass in 1974. More recent installations have been completed by a German artist, Imi Knoebel.
Since the end of the Second World War, Reims has been a uniting force between France and Germany. The act of military surrender was performed on May 7, 1945 in Reims, although it was not officially documented in Berlin until May 8th and Moscow on May 9th. Read more about Victory in Europe Day. The commissioning of a German artist to complete windows in Notre-Dame for its 800th anniversary is just one example in a list of many French-German good will endeavors over the years. French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer hosted a reconciliation mass in Reims in July 1962. Most recently, officials from both countries met for a 50th anniversary mass and dinner to celebrate the July 1962 event.
I previously made a promise to compare Notre-Dame de Paris to any other famous Gothic cathedrals that I happen to come across in France. I would argue that the exterior façade of Reims, with its numerous statues, is far superior to that of Paris. However, despite its dark interior, I think Paris is much better on the inside. I believe that the original intent of the stained-glass has been kept better in Paris and thus creates a more authentic Gothic experience. Plus the width of Paris is greater than that of Reims, creating a more impressive interior space. Read more here.