9) REIMS CATHEDRAL
An unfamiliar labyrinth pattern is projected onto the worn and uneven marble floor inside the main entry doors—the narthex—of Reims Cathedral. A few focused visitors are meticulously and meditatively working their way along the narrow winding virtual path. Viewed out of context of the floor projection, they look like a group on day-release from the local home for the insane, or at least for the criminally indecisive. Other visitors—those who've just entered the magnificent cathedral—stand in the middle of the projected Labyrinth gazing in awe at the imposing space opening up before them, oblivious of their obstruction to those intent on attaining the central station of the Labyrinth: the place of stillness and rest.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is known as the Coronation Cathedral. It was the location of the coronation of most of the kings of France. The feudal King Clovis I—the first king to rule over the previously disparate tribes of the Franks—was anointed at this site by Saint-Remi in 498. The first official coronation to take place here was of King Louis I, Saint-Louis, in 816. The last monarch to be formally crowned in Reims Cathedral was King Charles X in 1825. Charles' predecessor, and middle brother, Louis XVIII had elected to undergo a smaller scale coronation at Basilique Saint-Denis, just to the north of Paris, in 1815. This seems to have been a wise move given the fate of their eldest brother, Louis XVI, who was beheaded in 1792 in the aftermath of the First French Revolution. Charles did not have quite the same degree of misfortune, being forced to abdicate in 1830 after the Second French Revolution, but escaping the guillotine.
The last official King of France, King Louis Philippe I, chose against a formal coronation when he was raised to the position as the ruler of a Constitutional Monarchy after the July Revolution of 1830. Instead, he chose the epithet ‘King of the French’ (rather than ‘King of France’), pointing to his desire to rule for the needs of the people, rather than for wealth, status, or power.
Reims—strangely pronounced the same as the English word ‘rancid’, but without the ‘id'—is the most populous city, though not the capitol, of the French region of Champagne-Ardenne. It lies a short hour-and-ten-minute TGV ride to the east, and slightly to the north, of Paris. Reims is the major centre for both agriculture and tourism associated with the sparkling wine industry that here, unlike other sparkling wine producing regions around the world, has the right to call its product: Champagne.
The history of the imposing Gothic Reims Cathedral has been turbulent. An early church built on the site of King Clovis' anointment burned to the ground in the early 1200’s. Rebuilding into the present-day form took more than 300 years, and was completed in stages; the people of Reims objecting to the heavy taxes they were forced to pay to fund the massive rebuilding. Most of the external structure that exists today dates from this time, and the cathedral officially celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2011.
Of major significance in the history of Reims Cathedral was the damage that occurred in September 1914, when German warplanes bombed Reims, setting the cathedral on fire. Photographs taken from one of the twin spires the following day show total loss of the roof of the cathedral, as well as damage to some of the upper walls and stained-glass windows. A haunting photographic image displayed in the cathedral shows a man, sitting amidst piles of rubble, painstakingly attempting to reconstruct one of the massive stained-glass windows; pieces of glass laid out before him like a chaotic jigsaw puzzle, his face showing the strain and horror of having his beloved house of worship desecrated.
Another astonishing image is graphically conjured in the telling of the story of the bombing and burning of the cathedral. The immense heat generated with the burning of the roof caused lead—which had been utilised extensively in the building of the cathedral roof—to melt and flow out of the mouths of the gargoyles that circled the building. Mon Dieu!! Photographs of the ruined cathedral were used as propaganda during the later years of the war to inspire sympathy for the French: "We fight against a ruthless tyrannical opponent who has no respect for the magnificent historic monuments they are destroying without guilt or remorse."
Like many churches and cathedrals in Europe and elsewhere, stained glass windows are featured extensively in Reims Cathedral. Those in the nave of the cathedral are simple, allowing light to enter and illuminate the worshippers as they sit in the pews. The panels in the axial chapel—to the rear of the chancel at the 'end' of the church—were designed and executed under the guidance of the great French artist, Marc Chagall. They were only completed in 1974; he was 86 years of age at the time. His characteristic ethereal imagery is beautifully portrayed in the three pairs of panels that feature multiple tableaux from both the Old and New Testament: the history of Abraham and his descendants; the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in rich greens and blues; Christ carrying his crucifix in a dream-like shimmer of deep ruby red. Towards the top of the central panel, Jesus is seen nailed to the cross. His face serene having uttered his last words: "Not my will, but thy will be done, Father. Into your arms I commend my Spirit".
Flanking this magical triptych—in the apsal chapels to either side—are modern stained glass works by the German artist Imi Knoebel, installed in 2011. The colour scheme is borrowed from antiquity: blue, red and yellow. The shapes, however, are ultra modern. Do these sharply angulated and chaotic mix of shapes and images fit into the silent majestic grandeur of an 800-year-old cathedral? Yes. Absolutely.
In keeping with the history of this most magnificent of architectural wonders, change is inevitable. Decay and weathering due to the simple passage of time, or damage by nature or deliberate acts of man, change is the way of such things; it is inescapable. One can either pine for the way things were, and valiantly but vainly attempting to reproduce the original beauty in every detail. Or, one can allow the zeitgeist of now to be appliqued onto the skeleton of days gone by. Cathédral Notre-Dame de Reims is a beautiful example of the marriage of the old and the new . . .
November 13th, 2014.