Built from 1211-1300 A.D., the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims represents the apogee of French religious architecture and the High Gothic style. It has served as the coronation church for 26 kings of France, from Louis VIII in 1223 to Charles X in 1825. The most outstanding feature of the cathedral is it’s facade with hundreds of sculptures whose masters attained a realism and perfection not seen in European art since Greek classicism.
The first cathedral on the spot was consecrated to Notre Dame in 401 by the Bishop Saint Nacaise, who in 407 was martyred on the entrance steps, decapitated by Vandals. The crypt of the present cathedral is the only surviving element of this early church. By 496 things were looking up for the early Christians and the first King of France Clovis I was baptized on the site along with 3000 of his soldiers by Saint Remi, the town’s namesake. Subsequent buildings were destroyed and rebuilt; the present cathedral’s construction was begun in 1211 after a devastating fire destroyed most of the town in 1210. Inspired by Chartres and other gothic innovations, Reims was built during the golden age of cathedral construction. During this period 80 cathedrals were built, including those of Paris, Strasbourg, Mont Saint Michel, and Sainte-Chapelle.
In 1226 Saint Louis (Louis IX) was coronated at Reims; his reign promoted the international relic trade as well as the appearance of Late or Flamboyant Gothic style that dominated architecture until the beginning of the Hundred Years War which slowed down any artistic development. It was during this war that a young Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) inspired the French to victory over the English at Orleans and then led the dauphin to the throne to be crowned King Charles VII in 1429 at Reims Cathedral. She stood by his side at the place of honor, a far cry from where she would spend her final moments.
Other fires and tragedies were to leave their mark on Reims Cathedral. During World War I, on September 19, 1914, the cathedral was hit by hundreds of shells and set on fire again, causing extensive damage to the stained glass windows and almost causing a complete collapse of the building. Even today restoration work continues, as the cathedral has a new threat: pollution. Acid rain threatens to melt the sublime faces of the statuary into oblivion.
It is this statuary that makes the cathedral an artistic jewel as well as a historical monument. The statues at Reims reached a new level of realism, seen especially on the famous “Smiling Angel of Reims” with it’s wings outspread over it’s jovial expression. Many other statues share the features of this proto-humanism. Their contoured faces show an interest in anatomy, their gestures are fluid, and their garments have numerous, deep folds. In general the figures are beautiful- not the solid, stocky, expressionless decorations of earlier periods.
The restoration work has also created new elements of artistic beauty for Reims Cathedral. Architect Jacques Simon is responsible for much of the restoration work, including the fabulous “Champagne windows” in the southern transept arm which detail in beautiful color the longtime livelihood of the region- the tending of vineyards, the harvest of grapes, and cellar alchemy whcih produces the finest sparkling wines in the world. In 1964 Russian born painter Marc Chagall designed the stained glass windows of the easternmost apsidal chapel, fusing religion and modern art with his symbolic ruby reds and fresh greens. La Cathedrale-de-Notre-Dame-de-Reims is perhaps the most historically significant of the great gothic cathedrals of France. It’s architecture and art make it an absolute marvel of the handiwork of craftsmen, of the Middle Ages and today.