Rheims: A Cathedral for Coronations

The cathedral of Rheims is emblematic of the French monarchy and an integral part of the History of France.

The Gothic cathedral Notre Dame in Rheims is the third edifice constructed on this location At the beginning of the Vth century, Bishop Saint Nicaise dedicated a first church to the Virgin before he was martyrized by the Vandals. In the middle of the IXth century, Ebbon and Hincmar erected a massive Carolingian basilica, altered in the Xth and XIIth centuries and severely damaged by a fire in 1210. On May 6, 1211, Bishop Aubry de Humbert  laid the corenerstone of the present cathedral whose construction was conducted in a remarkable spirit of unity by the four succeeding architects until 1287. The same year, the inside was achieved as well as the rose window. Completion of the cathedral was slowed down by the Hundred Years War, by plague from 1348 to 1349 and a lamentable fire in the timber work in 1481. It was only in 1516 that Notre Dame of Rheims had the appearance that survived until today, without the seven spires originally planned. 

World War I almost destroyed her. Crushed and burnt, it offered a deplorable vision of devastation in 1918. Twenty years were necessary to reopen the cathedral to the cult and works never end. The replacement of the damaged statues and the restitution of the stained glass windows will require several generations.

The inner space seduces with its balance and harmony. Taking advantage of the lessons learnt at Chartres cathedral, the architect broughtt he three storeys of the elevation to 38 meters. Rheims is over 138 meters long and lit by windows whose elegance ensured its success all over Europe. The reverse side of the West façade has been totally pierced and sculpted, a small rose surmounted by reliefs replaces the portal tympanum. The stained glass windows suffered a lot from the XVIIIth century "embellishments" that destroyed medieval wonders and shellings of WWI.  The large rose dedicated to Mary and the upper windows in the apse date back to the XIIIth century as well as the roses of the transepts that were more or less restored. A symbolic labyrinth used to occupy the centre of the nave, as in several French cathedrals.  Though it has been destroyed its design was kept and can be seen at the fascinating Musée du Tau. 

Outside architecture and sculpture are closely linked. The buttresses housing angels with their wings spread, look so light that we would easily forget they ensure the stability of masses. The apse presents a harmonious combination of volumes that culminates in the bell tower topped by a weathercock angel. The basis of the North façade is perforated with three asymmetrical portals that probably were created for a first project of Western façade and finally installed here. They frame three local saints. The magnificent West façade certainly is the most splendid of all erected in the XIIIth century with the general élan of its lines and the glorification of the Virgin crowned by the Christ who is here the centre of gravity, above the main central portal. 

Both side portals display the antithesis between the sufferance of Christ and his triumph. The Christ, dead on the Cross, announced to the inhabitants of Rheims by their bishops saints (on the left) will come back and judge the world, assisted by the apostles, like the Prophets (on the right) said. The 35 statues of the façade marvelously illustrate the art of the XIIIth century sculptors who got rid of the Romanesque ponderousness still visible for the prophets on the right portal of Chartres. These artists knew how to look at antique sculptures, namely for the Visitation on the central portal, to achieve the playful grace of the School of Rheims whose smiling angels are mere masterpieces together with Saint-Joseph and the servant of the Presentation.  Above the grand rose, statues of the kings recall France became Christian in Rheims.

Among all the bishops that succeeded here, Saint-Remi, in the turmoil of the falling of a civilization, was a great chance for Rheims and France. By leading Clovis to the Catholic faith, he enabled the fusion of the Gallo-Roman inheritance and of the Barbarians contribution in the melting pot of Faith. The christening of the first Christian king announced the tradition of coronations in this precious cathedral. Many Carolingians as from Louis the Pious (816) to almost all Capetians until Charles X (1825) came back on Clovis footsteps to receive the Crown of France and ointment with the miraculous Holy Ampoule in Rheims.

This article is dedicated to my dear friend Michael Johnson, a talented writer who gave this site magnificent articles on Art and Architecture History.We both share a passion for the Gothic Style. 

Western Façade of Notre Dame of Rheims.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/66/Facade_de_la_Cath%C3%A9drale_de_Reims_-_Parvis.jpg

Reverse side of the West façade, Notre Dame of Rheims.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0f/Cathedrale_de_Reims_1.jpg

The smiling angel on the West façade at Rheims cathedral.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Ange_au_sourire.jpg

Coronation of the Virgin, West façade of Rheims cathedral.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Catedral_de_Reims_detall_porta.JPG

The apse of Rheims cathedral.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/Cath%C3%A9drale_de_Reims_et_Palais_du_Tau.jpg

Joan of Arc for the Coronation of Charles VII, painting by E. Lenepveu, 1889-90.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5e/Jeanne_d%27Arc_-_Panth%C3%A9on_III.jpg

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