By Epiphanius Wilson


French cathedrals have, as it were, a royal character, and this is emphasized especially in the history and architecture of Rheims cathedral, which became, from the time of Philippe Auguste, the church at whose altar the kings of France were crowned.

The origin of the Church at Rheims dates from the third century; when we are told Pope Fabian sent into Gaul a band of bishops and teachers. Rheims was chosen as the seat of an episcopal primacy, and it was in the church built by St. Nicaise, or Nicasius, in 401, that Clovis was baptized and crowned in 496. This ancient building, doubtless of simple Roman proportions, was rebuilt in the reign of Louis the Debonair in 822, when Ebon was archbishop.

It was completed with a magnificence which vied with the churches of Constantinople, Ravenna and Rome. It was considered in its day the most splendid church in France. Its roof and walls blazed with gilding and many-tinted paintings. Its floors were of marble mosaic. Rich tapestries hung round the choir, and its treasury was filled with masterpieces of the goldsmith and the jeweler. This church continued to be the wonder of Gallic Christianity until the beginning of the thirteenth century, when it was destroyed by fire. It is remarkable to notice in the history of French cathedrals how many of them were rebuilt just at the time when the pointed style, which may be called preeminently the Christian style of architecture, had come to birth almost simultaneously in various countries of Europe.

We are obliged to come to the conclusion that the pointed arch was introduced in Germany, France and England by the Crusaders, who had seen it used in the East, and had considered it best fitted for buildings that enshrined the sublime mysteries of the Christian faith. It was in the pointed style, therefore, that the new cathedral of Rheims was built. The name of its architect is not known, but his plan shows that he must have been a man of profound genius. Archbishop Alberic Humbert laid the foundation stone in 1212. The whole province contributed liberally to the work, and in 1242 the building was sufficiently advanced for the celebration of divine service in the choir.

The Church of Notre Dame of Rheims would require a volume to describe it completely. The front is perhaps the most elaborate to be found in France. The three vast portals, peopled with statues of colossal size, their arched vaulting covered with saintly and angelic figures, the mighty rose- windows, flanked with pointed openings, crowned with carved tabernacle work, and the great gallery of kings crossing the whole front, just below the peak of the gable, and above all, the two towers pierced by majestic windows and supported at each corner by niches with three open faces, give an impression of richness and brightness and grace, mingled with that indefinable majesty, which is due partly to the vast dimensions, partly to the harmonious proportions of the whole structure.

The divisions of the front facade resemble somewhat the same part of the edifice at Amiens, excepting that it is far more florid, and less strict and severe in its main divisions. At Amiens the details are kept in strictest subservience to the structural lines of the edifice. At Rheims it is the magnificent wealth of details that crowds upon the view, the walls and arches are surcharged with statues, with niches, with brackets, pinnacles, tracery, foliage, finials and turrets. The sides of the entrances of the three portals are crowded with colossal statues, thirty- nine in number, representing patriarchs, prophets, kings, bishops, virgins and martyrs. On the trumeau of the central gate is a fine statue of the Virgin Mary; on the sides of this trumeau are bas-reliefs representing the Fall of Man, of whose restoration Mary should be the instrument.

It is quite characteristic of a medieval church that we should find, on the lintels and side-posts of these doorways, emblems of agricultural work in the various seasons of the year, as well as different symbols of arts and handicrafts. Amid the carvings of these doorways are the heroes and saints of the Old Testament, types and forerunners of the Messiah, as well as historic scenes, representing the Redemption of the World, the Conversion of the Gentiles, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Last Judgment, the Condemnation of the Wicked, the Reception of the Just into the habitations of the blest. Finally, the Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Virgin sums up, with an imaginative legend, this series of Christian dogma perpetuated in stone.

But the medieval genius is many-sided, and never satisfied with that which is beautiful alone; and this magnificent array of Christian carving would not be complete to the mind of the medieval artist unless he had crowned the angles of his buildings with a series of grotesque gargoyles and allegoric statues, representing the streams that watered the earthly paradise, while at the summit of the roof are niched angles bearing instruments of music. As the rose is a peculiarity of Gothic churches, and from its remarkable shape gives ample room for sculpture in stone, and color in glass, so the rose at Rheims is among the most beautiful examples of the kind, and illustrates the principle that the rose is intended to light up high, remote and shadowy spaces in a long nave or aisle.

Above the great rose-window is a pointed arch in whose voussures are ten statues, relating the history of David, while over this arch runs a band of niches, forty-two in number, in which are colossal statues of the kings of France from Clovis to Charles VI.

The two portals of the transepts are richly decorated in harmony with the style of the western facade. A graceful spire rises from the eastern part of the roof. It is called "The Angel's spire," from the fact that poised upon its summit is an angel covered with gilt and holding aloft a cross. This turret rises 59 feet above the roof of the church. The church itself is 486 feet in length, and from the vaulting of the roof to the pavement is 125 feet. The towers are 272 feet high. I noticed the church is built in the form of a cross, but the transept is very close to the apse, so that the choir being too confined for the great ceremonies, such as that of royal coronations, which used to take place there, has been extended westward across the transept so as to take up three bays of the nave.

There are seven chapels at the east of the church, but none are found in the naves. The plainness of the nave, in comparison with the ornate character of the exterior, is very remarkable, but this plainness detracts nothing from the impressiveness of its long arcades, its towering roof, the noble lines which rise from the ground and support, as it were, on slender sinews of stone, the shadowy ceiling. The rose-windows, four in number, are filled with glass of the thirteenth century, and the tall windows of the chevet and clerestory contain a many colored mosaic of a similar sort. I was particularly struck with the rose-window over the western portal. It represents the Beautiful Vision; the Eternal Father is throned in the central ring of the window, and in the radiating panes is the Hierarchy of Paradise, angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven, while in a wider circumference are grouped the redeemed, contemplating in adoration the majesty of God.

I noticed two very interesting tombs in Rheims cathedral. The first was the sarcophagus of Jovinus, the Christian prefect of Rheims, in the fourth century, who protected the church and was originally buried in the Abbey of St. Nicaise, from whence his tomb was brought to the cathedral. It consists of a single block of snowy marble, nine feet long, and four feet high, on which the consular general is represented in a spirited bas- relief mounted on horseback and saving the life of a man from the lion, in whose flank Jovinus has launched his spear. Very fine indeed is the workmanship of this monument. The figures which surround Jovinus are men of handsome countenance, evidently portraits, their dress and arms being finished with the utmost nicety of detail. The figures are about half life-size.

The other tomb is that of St. Remigius, a Renaissance work erected by Cardinal Delenoncourt in 1533. It is sumptuous and gaudy rather than beautiful. Twelve statues, full life-size, represent the twelve peers of France, six are the prelates of Rheims, Laon, Langres, Beauvais, Chalons, and Noyon; the six lay peers are the dukes of Burgundy, Normandy and Aquitaine, and the counts of Flanders, Champagne, and Toulouse. The white marble of these somewhat stagey figures is beautifully worked and the effect is imposing.

The western wall of the interior is faced with niches, in which the statues seem to emerge from a cloud of gloom. At one time tombs of the most magnificent sort crowded the aisles, enshrining the relics of saints and bishops, but during the raging of the Terror the Revolutionists violated these tombs, seizing their treasures, breaking down with ax and hammer their carvings. But, after all, the church of Notre Dame of Rheims does not seem to have suffered very much loss from the clearing away of these obstructions to the vista of her arcades, which now depend for their solemn beauty upon the simplicity and dignity of their lines and proportions, the effect of their windows, and the religious gloom which lingers in their lofty recesses.


[37] From "The Cathedrals of France." By permission of the author. Copyright, 1900.