Looking for Epiphany in France? Here’s the (correct) link to the article! The vista of Reims Cathedral appearing at the end of Rue Rockefeller is an unforgettable sight. This is where the History of France brings you back in the past. For the cathedral of Reims is not only a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. It is the coronation site of the Kings of France. This explains why the UNESCO has granted the monument the prestigious label of World Heritage Site since 1991. Moreover, the stunning landmark in the Champagne region welcomes 1.5 million visitors each year. Let’s find out why it’s such a popular attraction (and as you’ll see, it has to do with history and architecture!!)
Floor Map of Reims Cathedral
By size, Reims Cathedral is quite an extraordinary construction. It had to accommodate huge crowds. Hence its gigantic dimensions: a surface area of 6,650 m2 and a length of 122m.
Facts and Figures:
The following facts and figures shows why the cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims ranks among the greatest churches of France.
- Total length: 149.17 m (Amiens: 145 m, Notre-Dame de Paris: 130 m)
- Length of the West front: 48.80 m (Rouen: 61.60)
- Height of nave: 38 m (Beauvais: 48 m, Amiens: 42 m)
- Towers height: 81.50 m (Strasbourg: 142 m, Orléans: 88 m)
- Height of the spire (Angel): 87 m (Rouen: 151 m)
- Total floor area: 6,640 m2
- Diameter of the West front rose window: 12.5 m (13.1 m for the transept roses in ND de Paris)
- Total area of windows: 3,900 m2 (including 1,500 m2 in colour)
- Number of windows: 80 and 4 rose windows
- Number of statues: 2,302
- – tall statues: 211 (3-4 m tall)
- – medium statues: 126
- – small statues: 936
- – statues depicting animals: 788 (all sizes)
- – statues inside the cathedral: 191 depicting people and 50 animals.
- Number of Kings of France coronations: 25
History of Reims Cathedral
Construction took place between 1211 and 1516. With an architectural program of great artistic richness, Reims Cathedral ranks among the most beautiful examples of Gothic art.
Reims has been a major city since Gallic times. First as the main city of the Remi (a Gallic tribe). In the Ancient Times, it became the capital of the Belgium province. This was a vast territory covering the whole north of Gaul at the time.
The first sanctuaries on the site
St. Nicaise founded the first cathedral Notre Dame de Reims in 401 on the site of ancient thermae. The Saint would later suffer martyrdom and die by decapitation.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, the Bishop of Reims naturally benefited from this influential situation. He began to enjoy a continuously increasing prestige, positioning himself as the official upholder of public authority. During the Middle Ages, Reims was an eminent religious centre. It comprised of a cathedral and three great abbeys: Saint-Remi, Saint-Nicaise and Saint-Denis.
In the 8th century, the Bishop of Reims took the title of Archbishop before becoming the count of the region as early as 1023. This made him Lord Magistrate with control over high and low justice. The Archbishop of Reims had authority on a vast territory located in the North of France. It included the bishoprics of Châlons, Soissons, Senlis, Noyon, Laon, Amiens, Cambrai, Arras, Thérouanne, and Tournai (present-day Belgium).
A Carolingian cathedral was built in 820 and consecrated in 862, in the presence of Charles the Bald. In the 11th century, St. Remi consecrated the 8th old century crypt which had been rediscovered.
Unfortunately the former cathedral burnt down with a large part of the city on May 6, 1210.
The construction of a grand Gothic church
A year later, the Archbishop Aubry de Humbert ordered the construction of new walls of the current Gothic building above the foundations.
Due to major investments and donations, the construction site for the cathedral was carried out with great rapidity. Therefore within ten years only, around 1220-1221, workers completed the Rayonnant chapels and the ambulatory. On the other hand, progress work was going well at the chancel, transept and double aisles although partially being completed.
During the following decade, from 1220 to 1233, work continued at a frantic rhythm. Cathedral builders worked on the walls of the transept aisle’s west side. In 1228 they had built the five eastern bays in the aisles of the nave. Thus protecting the old narrower nave, church services could still take place.
How to finance the construction?
The archbishop looked for financial means to support the incredible construction site. Collectors of alms were sent in suffragan dioceses in order to seek donations in exchange of letters of indulgence. Similarly, the chapter put some of its properties for sale.
However, from 1233, the people of Reims began to protest against the cost of the operation associated with the work. They were not the only ones to express their dissatisfaction. The suffragan bishops, particularly the Bishop of Laon, also protested against the forced collections of funds.
Faced to the danger of such revolts, the chapter had to abandon the city for more than two years.
The grand plan played down
Thus the construction site clearly slowed down in 1233-1236. The joint authority of the Pope Gregory IX and King Louis IX was required to ease people’s minds.
It seemed that the choir and the transept were completed after the chapter’s return to Reims. However it seemed that the revolt of the people of Reims and serious work disruptions suspended the construction of typical Gothic parts of the period such as:
- implementing double aisles in the nave (a logical solution to the layout of the choir and transept),
- installing side chapels in the buttresses of the nave, and
- abandoning the construction of the two spires of the towers,
- as well as the initial gigantic project which planned the construction of seven spires.
The completion of the cathedral
Around 1245, the new western façade began to rise at more than twenty metres beyond the old one. In 1252, the portals reached the height of the gables. However the two towers took much longer to build (not before the first half of the 15th century).
On July 24, 1481, the roof caught fire and repairs lasted for 9 years.
The last stone was laid down in 1515. However the cathedral suffered several damages, due to forces of nature and political events:
- In Easter 1580, a storm destroyed the great rose window of the south transept and,
- in 1712, a howling wind knocked over the angel of the bell tower (it was restored in the same year).
In 1744, as in many French cathedrals, the rood screen disappeared along with the choir walls. The cathedral’s chapter had the famous labyrinth removed in 1778.
The troubled times of the French Revolution
During the French Revolution, the new authorities in placed transformed Notre-Dame de Reims in a fodder store. And as they did, a number of symbols evoking the Ancien Régime disappeared:
- the ridge cresting decorated with fleur-de-lys and clovers
- the fleur-de-lys of the apse gallery inside the cathedral.
- the canopy above the Virgin on the central portal’s trumeau with its pyramid
- the 13th century sculptures of the lintel (replaced with a revolutionary inscription).
The Renaissance of Reims Cathedral
In the 19th century, French writer Victor Hugo instigated a campaign to protect Gothic architecture in France through his novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”.
This led in Reims Cathedral to restorations, replacements and new creations.
In 1860, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc directed the restoration work of Reims Cathedral. The French architect essentially focussed on the high galleries of the nave and the apse, the great rose window and the towers.
The Martyred Cathedral during WWI
The First World War did not spare Reims Cathedral. Twenty-five German shells severely damaged the sacred monument on September 19, 1914. Reims and its “Martyred Cathedral” became the symbol of German destructions during the Great War.
The partial destruction of the monument led to a strong wave of emotions across the country.
Several injured German prisoners who found refuge in the cathedral were killed by outrage.
In 1919, President Wilson and his wife visited the cathedral in ruins.
In 1924, Reims Cathedral, the palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles received a million dollar donation from the wealthy American John D. Rockfeller, for their restoration.
The 1924-1926 restoration work included major restoration. One of the best examples is the ridge cresting of the roofing which the Revolutionaries had destroyed. It is visible today with its decoration of alternating clovers and fleur-de-lys.
The cathedral nowadays
On July 8, 1962, President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer celebrated the Franco-German reconciliation in the presence of Mgr Marty, Archbishop of Reims.
In 1991, Reims Cathedral became a Unesco World Heritage Site.
In 1996, Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral on the 1500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis by St. Remi.
In 2011, Reims Cathedral celebrated its 800th anniversary.
My book recommendation!
Its name? Simply:
Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting by Rolf Toman, Publisher: Ullmann
This book has been for me a great resource that helped me better understand the Gothic movement in art from the 12th century to the Renaissance. An architectural style that first originated from France and spread all over Europe.
Over 500 pages it focuses on the development of Gothic architecture with many illustrations and photographs, but not only. I’ve also found interesting the in-depth discussion of the most diverse art forms, including painting, sculpture, metalwork and even book illumination! It also includes specific coverage of the Cathars’ Heresy and the Papal Palace in Avignon. And, of course, it mentions the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims!
This is definitely the book I recommend if – like me – you love everything about Gothic such as churches, gargoyles, stained glass, flying buttresses and so much more.
The Coronation of the Kings of France in Reims
In 498-499, the baptism of Clovis by Saint Remi was the founding act of the Royal Anointing in Reims Cathedral. However, Pepin the Short was the first French King to be crowned. The ceremony took place in Soissons in 751. Then there was another consecration in Saint-Denis in 754 with the presence of Pope Stephen II.
Read more about the Coronation of the Kings of France.
The exterior of the Cathedral of Reims
Reims Cathedral features amongst the most beautiful examples of gothic art still standing:
- with a Rayonnant Gothic style façade that covers a considerable area,
- an interior elevation defined by its soaring heights and narrow dimensions,
- the richness of its sculptural work, and
- the quality of workmanship in the materials used
Its construction, which probably began in 1211 and would have taken three centuries, has never been completed. Indeed the intended spires are still missing!
The Western Façade
The cathedrals of Noyon, Paris or Laon inspired the majestic façade of the cathedral of Reims. The latter underwent a radical modification in the 1250s, most likely due to the arrival of a new generation of builders. The Gothic style of the cathedral evolved into a Rayonnant Gothic style of impressive size.
Reims cathedral displays a classic harmonic façade containing 4 levels:
Two niches surround the three central portals. A rose window occupies the tympana of the three portals. The sculpted decorations are therefore found in the gables, arches and splays.
Above the central portal is a Rayonnant great rose window topped by a broken arch. The latter is subdivided at the centre by the point of the portal’s gable.
On both sides of the rose window, you can find ornamental blind arcades topped by mitre arches.
The buttresses are decorated with niches housing statues:
- The ones that frame the rose window portray Mary Magdalene on the right and Christ the Pilgrim on the left.
- The latter statues is related to two other smaller ones which are just located on the edge of the rose window. They represent the Pilgrims at Emmaus.
- To the far left of the façade, the west facing statue shows St. John, while the north facing statue is of St. Thomas.
- To the far right, St. Peter faces St. John while St. Paul faces St. Thomas.
Above the rose window, one can make out the eroded depiction of David and Goliath.
The upper level is called the Gallery of Kings. Here, niches house the statues of kings. The central area is dedicated to the baptism of Clovis.
The two towers reach 81.5 metres high. They are built on a square base and are encircled by corner turrets, evoking the towers of Laon cathedral (which was a great inspiration to the architects of Reims cathedral). Louvers cover the openings.
The Western Portals
The cathedral’s West Front features three portals.
Here’s a map showing the locations of the Saints’ statues.
North Portal (to the left)
This portal is dedicated to the Passion of Christ. The scene wherein the true cross is discovered by St. Helen, is depicted in the small gable of the niche, just to the left of the portal.
The main gable of the portal represents Christ crucified between the Virgin and Saint John.
The arches depict scenes from the life of Christ. From left to right are the stories of:
- Jesus in the temple;
- the Temptation of Christ and Christ Entering Jerusalem;
- the Story of Palm Sunday accompanied by the Betrayal of Christ (the Kiss of Judas);
- the Sleeping Apostles;
- the Mount of Olives and The Hanging of Judas;
- Jesus carrying the Cross and the Ascension;
- the Pilgrims at Emmaus;
- Christ in Limbo;
- and angels.
On the lintel, bas-relief carvings portray the Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus (following on from the story shown on the south portal).
Statues occupy the splays. Going towards inside, you can see:
- To the left a deacon, Saint Nicholas, Saint Helen, an angel and Saint Nicaise. The last statue is of the famous Smiling Angel, symbol of Reims (see below).
- To the right, you can see from inside moving outwards: St. Stephen, St. Paul, the Virgin, St. John the Baptist and the Bishop Saint Rigobert.
The central portal is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is surmounted by a gable showing the Crowning of the Virgin. On the steps of her throne, six angels hold monstrances. The world appears at the Virgin’s feet, while the sun appears above the hand of Christ.
The arches depict scenes from the Virgin’s life, the Tree of Jesse, kings and prophets.
These arches have been the subject of many modifications over the centuries. Of the figurines featuring on the portal,
- only seventeen date from the 13th century on the left and
- twenty-three on the right.
Amongst them you can see the ancestors of the Virgin Mary represented as musician kings, scenes from the earthly life of the Virgin, such as:
- the Bethlehem nativity scene,
- as well as prophets, saints, angels,
- God revealing himself in the Burning Bush
- and Jesus Christ.
On the left, the splays contain from inside moving outwards:
- a female servant,
- the Virgin bringing the child to him,
- a prophet
- and the Queen of Sheba.
On the right:
- the Angel of the Annunciation is turned towards the Virgin of the Annunciation,
- followed by the Virgin of the Visitation who faces Saint Elizabeth,
- then by King David (or Zachariah, husband of Elizabeth) and King Solomon.
On the piers, angels appear intermingled with representations of the seasons.
A Virgin with Child decorate the trumeau.
South Portal (to the right)
The south portal is surmounted by a gable dedicated to the Last Judgement. Christ is on his throne holding the globe of the world, while at his side angels carry the Instruments of the Passion.
In the arches, Saint John appears writing the Book of Revelation, followed by a variety of angels and demons. One can make out angels sounding the trumpets of the Apocalypse along with Saint Michael slaying the dragon.
On the small gable of the niche, just to the right of the portal, you can see the lamb opening the book with the seven seals.
- To the left, the splays house, from inside moving outwards, an apostle, a prophet, a pope (Saint Calixte), an apostle and a bishop.
- To the right they contain Simeon, Saint John the Baptist, Isaiah, Moses, Abraham about to sacrifice his son, and finally Aaron.
The left pier is dedicated to the capital sins on the outside and to the virtues on the inside.
On the right pier, the seasons face the capital sins and the vices oppose the virtues.
The lintel is similar to the one of the north portal in that it represents the Conversion of St. Paul.
The statuary of the Cathedral
In 1861, the priest Tourneur counted more than 2,300 statues on the monument. Therefore this makes Notre-Dame de Reims the cathedral with the most sculptures in France.
In fact the building presents a rare united style despite a construction which spanned over more than two hundred years (mainly in the 13th century).
In addition to the statue of the Smiling Angel, you can also admire the famous “Gallery of Kings” on the façade. Located at 45 metres above the ground, it was created to appreciate the statues from ground level.
Chimeras and gargoyles
You can observe several chimeras similar to those of Viollet-le-Duc on Notre-Dame de Paris, at the chevet of the cathedral. These mythical animals had duty to keep away evil outside the churches. These guardians thus had to compete with the worse devils in regards to their appearance.
They are 88 gargoyles on the cathedral, mainly used to drain off rainwater.
The Smiling Angel (L’Ange au Sourire)
The Smiling Angel became the symbol of the martyred cathedral during the First World War. And then symbol of the whole city of Reims.
A burning scaffolding beam decapitated the statue during the fire of September 19, 1914. In the newspapers, the “Smile of Reims” or “Smiling Angel”, became a symbol of French engineering and heritage destroyed by German bombs.
From original fragments and a casting preserved at the museum of French monuments (former Palais du Trocadéro), architects reconstructed the famous figure after the war. The statue found its original place on 13 February 1926.
The Flying Buttresses of the Nave
Along the nave, the piers of the flying buttresses contain two niches. They house angel statues topped by pinnacles.
At the chevet, the double flying buttresses also contain niches housing statues that represent angels. You can also find these statues on both sides of the nave.
You will come across another group of statues at the chevet level. Look up to the top of the buttresses of the Rayonnant chapels. You’ll see Christ and eleven angels carrying liturgical objects. These statues are among the cathedral’s oldest.
The angel bell tower which dominates the chevet stands 87 metres high. It is the highest point of Reims Cathedral.
The interior of the cathedral of Reims
Let’s start the visit by the nave.
The main nave, consisting of ten bays, is flanked by two single aisles on both sides.
115 meters long, it has a three-storey elevation. This is a classic example of the 13th century French Gothic style, in its most balanced form and inspired by Chartres cathedral. The vault of the locked great nave is 37.95 metres high, lower than that of Amiens and Metz Cathedrals.
The Reverse Side of the Western Façade
The stunning reverse side of the West front is unrivalled to any other cathedrals. It consists of plant sculptures and fifty-two characters (genealogy Christ and Advent characters).
The structure constitutes a true triumphal arch for the king leaving the cathedral after his coronation:
- The splendid carved wall flanks each side of the small rose window of the tympanum.
- Above it is the triforium gallery with colourful stained-glass windows.
- The great rose window dominates the nave.
Episodes of Mary’s life are depicted in the niches to the left of the portal while those of Jean the Baptist are portrayed to the right.
The first niche shows a reproduction of Melchisedech, a high priest and King of Salem, offering bread and wine to Abraham who comes back from the war.
Similar but less well maintained sculpted groups can be seen around the doors of the aisles.
A labyrinth from the late 16th century once existed on the floor of the cathedral. At the centre was an octagon with a representation of the master builder of the labyrinth. The four main architects were represented on the sides: Jean le Loup, Jean d’Orbais, Gaucher de Reims and Bernard de Soissons. The cathedral’s chapter got rid of it in 1779.
Today its graphic representation at a 45 degree angle is used as a logo to designate a French work which has been listed or registered as a historical monument.
The two arms of the transepts each consist of two bays and have double aisles.
The four pillars which determine the crossing of the transept are of considerable thickness. They had to support a large central tower, like the one of Rouen Cathedral (never built)
The organ largely masks the wall of the north arm transept. Above it, the rose window represents the phases of the Creation.
The wall of the south arm transept comprises three levels:
- a set of three lancet windows,
- then three oculi surmounted by a semi-circular arch,
- and finally a rose window organised around a Christ in Majesty.
The Choir and the Ambulatory
The choir of the cathedral consists of three right bays of unequal width.
In order to keep the high altar at the location where it was formerly placed in the Carolingian Cathedral, the choir has been extended. It covers the area of some bays of the nave.
The right bays are surrounded by double aisles. The elevation consists of three levels:
- large archways
- high windows.
The ambulatory extends the first aisle of the nave. It opens onto five Rayonnant chapels.
The Stained-Glass Windows
Despite successive destructions in the 18th century, the cathedral still has many 13th century stained glass windows. You’ll find them in the upper parts of the nave, choir and transept.
On the reverse side of the great western portal is the Great Rose Window. It dates back to the late 13th century. The window represents “the Crowning of the Virgin” surrounded by musician angels, prophets and kings.
All the 13th century stained glass windows of the choir and nave still consist of a considerable surface comprising old parts.
The 13th century North Great Rose Window of the transept represents “The Creation of the World”:
- around God, the Eternal Father,
- the story of Adam and Eve,
- surrounded by all types of birds, fish and animals.
Contemporary stained-glass windows
Since the end of the First World War, contemporary stained glass windows have been integrated into the cathedral.
- in the 1930s, small rose window of the western façade’s central portal and windows of the side portals, rose window of the south transept arm;
- in 1950, stained glass window of Champagne;
- and in the 1960 and 1970 decades.
- After a long break which lasted several decades, this trend resumed with the inauguration of a new stained glass window in 2011. This coincided with the 800th cathedral’s anniversary.
As in Metz Cathedral, the most famous contemporary stained glass windows are due to the artist Marc Chagall. In 1974, he designed three windows located in the axial chapel:
- the Tree of Jesse,
- the two testaments ,
- and the finest hours of Reims.
Rêves de Couleurs
The cathedral of Reims takes centre-stage at Christmas time!
A popular Christmas market welcoming more than 500,000 visitors each year occupies the front square.
In addition, the façade hosts a fantastic sound and light show: Rêves de Couleurs (A dream of colours).
More info about the monument!
Here’s a few website and blogs about Reims Cathedral that you might find useful:
- on the blog: explore Reims Cathedral
- the official website of the cathedral of Reims [in French only]
- the website of the Reims Tourist Board
- the site of Centre des Monuments Historiques for climbing to the cathedral’s Towers.
- to book your accommodation in Reims, click on this affiliate link which will redirect you to our partner booking.com
- Wikipedia’s article on Reims Cathedral
The cathedral is open everyday from 7.30am to 7.30pm (7.15pm on Sunday and celebration days). No visits on Sunday morning from 9am-12pm during masses. Entrance is free.
Things to do in Reims and Champagne
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