January 2019 Print

The Cathedral of Rheims

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

It is easy to give the history of the cathedral of Rheims because dates have been meticulously kept. An early cathedral reared in honor of the Blessed Virgin was built in 401. In 496, Clovis and a great many of his warriors were baptized by St. Remi; it sanctioned and strengthened the Frankish conquest. Restoration work undertaken after the World War I has revealed, by the north tower outside the cathedral, a baptistry which might have been the one used for Clovis’ baptism. The baptistry stood outside the cathedral of the time, a smaller one which rather looks like a fortress, with thick walls, a shelter for Catholics when in peril. Around 820, the building of the second cathedral, the Carolingian one, took place: it was completed in 862. In 1150, the choir was reconstructed and the nave enlarged. But in 1210, the Carolingian cathedral burnt down by a conflagration that ruined also a large part of the city. The following year, the present cathedral was started. It was not yet completed when the coronation of Charles VII took place, in the presence of Joan of Arc. In 1481, the roof, the central tower, the four pavilions of the transept towers burnt down. The fire was due to the remiss leas workers in the roofing of the edifice. It destroyed the whole of the frame work. The repairs were completed in 1515, but the central tower and the four smaller ones surrounding it were never rebuilt. During the Revolution, the cathedral was turned into a “club,” the into fodder stores. In 1824, the coronation of Charles X took place; it was to be the last one. In 1914, the cathedral was very damaged by incendiary bombs. It was not before 1927 that the nave was reopened to the congregation. In 1927, the cathedral was re-consecrated and worship was allowed in the whole building. In the present cathedral, 24 kings of France were anointed, from Louis VIII to Charles X.


The foundations of the cathedral are 24 feet deep; they rest upon solid chalk. Here are some of the main measurements: the total length is 452 feet, the length of the transept is 186 feet, the width of the nave is 45 feet. The total area of the building is 71,580 square feet.


It is in the glory of sunset the west porch can be seen in its most sublime beauty. The façade may be divided into four parts: the porch, the great rose window, the kings’ gallery and the towers. The vertical lines soar up powerfully and yet nothing is heavy. The most striking fact is the felicitous harmony of proportions and of volumes, together with a unity in style. The main center gable represents the Crowning of the Virgin, the left gable the Crucifixion, the right gable the Last Judgment. Between the two doors of the great central porch there is a statue of Our Lady with Jesus in her arms. Let us take a good look at the great statues standing at the splayings of the center arch; they represent three scenes out of the life of Our Lady. On the right, the Annunciation and the Visitation; the next two statues represent Mary of the Incarnation and her cousin Elizabeth. On the left, it is the Presentation: Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms, attended by St. Joseph, Simeon and the prophetess Anne. At the head of the abutments limiting the center door we find Salomon on the right and on the left, queen Sheba. The left porch suffered more from the 1914 fire, because the proximity of the north tower. The identification of the eleven statues cannot be made with entire certainty. The angel on the left is the celebrated “Smiling Angel.” You can buy medals representing him in all the religious stores lining the square in front of the cathedral. All these statues were made circa 1250. The door of the right porch has an immediate and striking effect on the visitor due to its definitely more archaic statuary, a treatment that is also to be found in the porch of the north transept. The six statues on the right are easily identified: Simeon with the Christ Child; St. John the Baptist; Isaiah; Moses with the brazen snake and the tables of the law; Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac; Samuel carrying a lamb. The statues on the left date back to the 13th century. The curves of the three arches constitute one of the most glorious elements of this porch, due to their innumerable statuettes disposed in five rows. The central gable, a very slender one, adds to the beauty of the whole statuary, and so do the two side gables. The visitor should look up to examine the upper story, with the great Rose Window in the center of the front. Twelve colonnettes radiate from the middle of the rose, supporting as many arches whose tops meet the great outer circle. Just above the great rose, a large bas-relief recalls the fight between David and Goliath. Formerly, these carvings were painted. The whole of the third story is barred by the gallery of Kings, 54 of them plus Clotilde and St. Remy. From the level of the street, one can hardly imagine their enormous size. Their average size is 15 feet and each one weighs more than 6 tons. The towers, slender ones in open work, were to be deprived of their spires forever. They are 247 feet high. The visitor may climb 420 steps to their tops. At the time of Charles’ VII coronation, the building of the towers was in progress. The south tower shelters two great bells. One was consecrated in 1570 and it is tuned to the note of F. It weighs 12 tons and is 7 feet in diameter. The second one is much smaller. It only weighs 7 tons; it is tuned to the note of G. They are not used now for safety reasons. But 14 smaller bells play 14 different melodies according to the phases of the liturgical year. The north transept has three doors whose carvings are older than the rest of the edifice. Below the spandrel, representing Christ, attended by Our Lady and St. John the Baptist, can be seen a procession along two files, of people rising from the dead; virtues and vices; Satan leading the damned to hell, among whom the satirical sculptor included a king, a bishop and a priest. The six statues against the wall are those of the Apostles: St. John, St. Paul and St. James on the right; St. Andrew, St. Peter and St. Bartholomew on the left. The rose window, whose beauty can be appreciated chiefly from the inside, is topped on the outside by a gallery in open work with seven 13th century statues representing the Prophets. The life of St. Remi is developed across the spandrel. The south front has no porch. Regarding architectural design, it is scarcely different from the north transept. The upper part shows the Assumption of the Virgin. Visitors can attend guided tours of the upper parts and roof of the edifice. The side fronts of Rheims cathedral are of exceptional beauty. They are remarkable for their unity, their architectural line, their balance. There reigns the same harmonious air in the two stories of the edifice; windows with twin openings, well balanced buttresses, octagonal pinnacles rising above four rectangle shaped pyramids, their fronts supported by two slender columns. Two superimposed flying buttresses lean on counterforts at each abutment, thus securing the strength of the whole building. The fleurs-de-lys on the top are 4 feet high. Before going inside, we should mention the graceful smaller tower at the chevet of the cathedral. A gilt angel, used as a weathercock, revolves on its top, 270 feet above the ground.


Inside, the whole edifice is vaulted over pointed arches. Replacing the semicircular arch, the pointed arch enabled the architect to increase the span of arches. The pointed arch is triumphant, recalling two hands joined in prayer. The pointed arches in Rheims look sharper than in any great Gothic cathedral. Aisles, triforium, upper story extend in harmonious regularity. In the nave, the arches rest on detached pillars. The supporting pillars, on the outer side of the aisles are imbedded, one column being flanked by three colonnettes on its right and left. The triforium spreads its 12-foot-high gallery along the whole length of the edifice. The pulpit made in the 18th century, came from a church in Rheims that was destroyed during the Revolution. The high altar, standing at the cross of the transept, in an advanced position per the requirements of the Coronation Ceremonies, is made of precious marble. The six candlesticks date back to the Coronation of Charles X. There is a smaller altar in the back. Both altars are 18th century works.

There are several apsidial chapels, two of them on both sides of the transept, the other five radiating; the middle one, called of the Blessed Sacrament, is nine-sided and much larger. In the south transept chapel is a beautiful Renaissance Reredo, of the 16th century. In front, the flooring is partially made from ancient Roman mosaic. Along the aisle walls of the nave, precious tapestries are displayed. Some of the tapestries represent the life of Our Lady. They were used for Coronation ceremonies and have been restored. In 1914, all the larger tapestries were sheltered in a safe place and preserved but the smaller ones left in the Archbishop Palace were destroyed.