The Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral is a religious building located in the Marne department, in the Grand-Est region. Of Roman Gothic style, the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral is also famous for having been, since the 11th century, the place of the coronations of the kings of France. Built at the beginning of the 13th century, it welcomes more than 1.5 million visitors each year. Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1991, the Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral has always been a major tourist attraction in the Champagne region. In this article, we will look at the history of the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, as well as its formidable architecture described as a major achievement of Gothic art in France.
The history of the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral
The first cathedral in the region of Reims appeared around 401, on ancient Gallo-Roman baths. It was in this religious building, which at the time was 55 meters long and 20 meters wide, that the baptism of Clovis took place, between 496 and 499, according to various sources. A baptistery was added in the 6th century, north of the present cathedral. In the 8th century, the coronation of Louis Le Pieu celebrated in the cathedral highlights the poor condition of the building. Under the direction of the imperial architect Rumaud, reconstruction work on the cathedral began around 826. The interior of the building is decorated with sculptures, tapestries, gilding and mosaics. On October 18, 862, this second cathedral, now 86 meters long, was consecrated by Charles the Bald, king of Aquitaine. At the beginning of the 10th century, an ancient crypt dating from the first cathedral was found and renovated before being dedicated to Saint-Rémi. This crypt will become the initial core from which each of the cathedrals will be built. It is also the place where the altar of Notre-Dame de Reims has been located for over 15 centuries. At the end of the 10th century, the bishop Adalberon enlarged and illuminated the cathedral: the arcades that extended from the entrance to the quarter of the basilica were knocked down and windows allowed the interior of the monument to be illuminated. At the beginning of the 12th century, the facade of the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral was demolished, as well as its tower, in order to erect a new facade, of Gothic inspiration and framed by two towers. A new choir and chapels were added to the east of the building, which is now 110 meters long.
The construction of the current Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral
In 1210, a fire destroyed the previous building and in 1211, Archbishop Alberic laid the first stone of a new cathedral. Work on the choir of the building began in 1221 but, following riots, the work was interrupted between 1233 and 1236. The spans of the nave were built between 1241 and 1250-1255. Work on the façade began in April 1252 and the roof of the cathedral was laid in 1299. In 1481, a new fire destroyed the frame, as well as the large central bell tower and the galleries at the base of the cathedral roof. During the French Revolution, the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims was severely damaged: some statues were broken and the portals were torn off, the cathedral being transformed into a fodder store. In 1860, restoration work, supervised by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, was carried out. In 1914, during the First World War, the vaults of the Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral were deliberately bombed by the Germans. Indeed, on September 19, 1914, 25 shells hit the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral and a scaffold on the north tower caught fire. The damage was considerable: stones and statues shattered, stained glass windows exploded and the roof structure collapsed. A total of 288 shells hit the building and, at the end of the war, reconstruction work, supervised by the chief architect of historical monuments, Henri Deneux, began in 1919. Inspired by Philibert Delorme, a 16th century architect, the destroyed oak frame is replaced by a more modern, lighter and fireproof structure. The restoration of the facade was spread out over nearly a century and nowadays, the belfries only have two bumblebees (large bells) named Marie and Charlotte. The two drones are now rarely used in order to preserve the fragile state of the structure.
The architecture of the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral
The formidable architecture of the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral is described as a major achievement of Gothic art in France. As for the structure, the building is nearly 150 meters long and the nave is 38 meters high. The transept has a surface area of 1,900 m² and the two towers of the facade rise to 81 meters. The building has a total surface area of 6,650 m². The stone used for the construction is Lutetian limestone, a stone from quarries located north of Reims. Built on a Latin cross plan, the elevation of Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral is three stories in the nave, transept and choir and large arcades separate the main vessel from the side aisles. Above, high windows of Gothic style and rounded called “windows of Remy” scandalize the wall. The Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral also has several chapels:
- The chapel of St. John: this chapel located under the arm of the south transept houses the altar of the apostles, a furniture dating from 1541 and classified as historical monuments.
- The chapel of Joseph: dedicated to Joseph, this chapel has a limestone altar carved with three scenes from the life of Joseph and a floor designed by lead wires inlaid in the stone.
- The Chapel of the Sacred Heart: this chapel has stained glass windows made by the German painter Imi Knoebel and a golden and red altar that rests on black marble.
- The Chapel of the Virgin: also known as the “Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament”, this chapel is located at the beginning of the ambulatory, around the choir, on the north side. This chapel houses a statue of the Virgin Mary and an altar with a circular pediment supported by four marble columns dating from 1741.
In July 1909, a statue of Joan of Arc by Prosper d’Epinay was donated to the Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral. Placed in an apsidal chapel, the statue of Joan of Arc is 1.70 meters high and is made of silver bronze, ivory and marble. In total, the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral is decorated with 2,303 statues! Its western facade of Gothic style includes three portals:
- The central portal: its general theme is the Virgin and her glorification. On his left is the visitation and the annunciation, on his right the presentation of the temple, a scene from the life of Jesus recounted in the gospel.
- The south portal: located to the right of the central portal, the south portal is dedicated to the end of time and the last judgment. Statues of prophets and apostles adorn the vault of this portal.
- The north portal: located to the left of the central portal, the north portal includes saints and martyrs. This portal also houses the statue of the smiling angel, which has become the emblem of the city of Reims.
The large rose window on the facade of the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral was inspired by the rose window in the north arm of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. Located 50 meters above the ground, is the gallery of the kings, with in the center, the baptism of Clovis. Further down, you can see the story of David’s fight against Goliath and a 5-meter high statue of Goliath, which is currently located in the Tau Palace (former residence of the Archbishop of Reims).
In spite of the multiple successive destructions, the cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims still has many stained glass windows dating from the 13th century grouped in the upper parts of the nave, the choir and the transept. Since the end of the First World War, the cathedral has received contemporary stained glass windows. The most famous are those made by the painter-engraver Marc Chagall and the artist Brigitte Simon.
The ridge of the roof of the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral is decorated with shamrocks and fleur-de-lis to remind us that the monument was the place of the coronation of the kings of France. Destroyed during the French Revolution, these decorative elements were restored after the First World War.
All practical information on how to get to Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral, as well as the schedule and fees, can be found on the website www.cathedrale-reims.fr