When I visited Champagne, I had to stop by and see the cathedral in Reims. I’d heard so much about it and had to see it in person. Yeah, from a distance, it might look a lot like many other French cathedrals, but this one is different. It’s beautiful, light and airy, but that’s only scratching the surface. It’s fascinating because of its dramatic history.
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is considered by many to be the world’s most perfect Gothic church. Located in eastern France (an hour or so away from the WWI battlefield of Verdun), it was almost completely destroyed during the First World War. On September 19-20, 1914, 25 German shells struck the cathedral which then caught on fire, causing massive damage. It became known as the “Martyred Cathedral” a symbol of destruction during the Great War and brought out strong emotions in the French. Strong emotions are an understatement. Several injured German prisoners found refuge in the cathedral but were killed outraged French.
In 1924, billionaire American John D. Rockefeller, gave money to restore the cathedral. Fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie kicked in some money too. Today, it’s mostly restored, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely worth the few million they poured into it.
Reims has been a town since Roman times. In 498, Clovis was baptized as the first Catholic French king at the church. This was a big deal. If you don’t believe me, Pope John Paul II visited for the 1500th anniversary of the event. I can pretty much guarantee that no world leader will mark the 1500th anniversary of anything I have done or anywhere I have been. Monkey see, monkey do. All the cool kings wanted to do it like Clovis did and it became the site for coronations of French kings (until the revolution). Joan of Arc famously knelt in front of Charles VII when he was crowned King of France there. Today, they have a Gallery of Kings, statues of the famous kings who were crowned there.
In 1211, when the existing church burned down, the built a bigger better one on the site of an earlier church (just like Geneva’s Cathedral St. Pierre). Part of what makes Reims Cathedral such an amazing building is the amount of light inside (particularly in comparison with others constructed around the same time). The architects designed the windows so that they would let in as much light as possible.
Notre-Dame de Reims did not escape the French Revolution unscathed. Fleur-de-lys and clovers were removed because they had been symbols of the monarchy. They were replaced during the restoration. Thanks Mr. Rockefeller.
Large circular windows at the ends of the cathedrals are known as the “Rose Window.” It took me a few cathedrals to figure that one out. Luckily, we’ve seen a few this year (Toledo, Milan). The church is known throughout France for its impressive stained glass windows. During the restoration, some more contemporary have been used. I like the one depicting Champagne making from the 1950’s. Who would have thought church windows would depict hooch? The windows designed by Marc Chagall from the 1970’s (above) were my favorites because they were ethereal and dreamy. You wouldn’t expect something so massive to look so light. They plan on continuing with the different windows, making it interesting to for visitors compare and contrast the different styles.
By the way, if you go there, hunt out the “Smiling Angel” (also known as “Smile of Reims” and “L’Ange au Sourire”). Decapitated by a burning beam in 1914,, during the fire of September 19, 1914 it the destruction and then with the restoration of the city.
- I Got A Kick From Champagne (schwingeninswitzerland.wordpress.com)