The very ancient city of Reims, now the capital of the Department of the Marne, was a large centre of population when it first fell under the sway of the Romans. During Caesar’s occupation it was known as Duroctorum, in the Praefecture of the Gauls.
A powerful metropolis and a faithful adherent of the Romans, the city early attained prominence as a centre of Christianity. St. Sixte preached the word here shortly after the first bishopric was founded, after capture by the Vandals in 406 A. D. The city was practically razed by Attila, who afterward met defeat at Chalons. During the Roman Empire it was the most important town of the Province of Belgica Secunda, later becoming known as the capital of the Remi, the name given to the people inhabiting the country round about.
In 508 A. D. the Franks under Childeric captured the city, and in 720 A. D. Charles Martel captured it from Bishop Rigobert. Here, too, Pope Stephen had his famous interview with Pepin, and attended the crowning of Louis le Debonnaire in 816 A. D. In 744 it was made an archbishop’s see, with suffragans at Amiens, Beauvais, Chalons, and Soissons. It is today the ecclesiastical capital of France – the Archbishop of Reims being the metropolitan prelate.
Clovis, son of Childeric, King of the Ripuarian Franks, in 496 A. D. conquered the last Roman stronghold at Soissons, and, having married a Burgundian princess, Clotilda, was induced to accept Christianity. He was accordingly baptized here by St. Remi on Christmas Day, 496 A. D.
Leo III. met Charlemagne here; a council was held in 1 1 19 A. D. by Calixtus II. in an attempt to reconcile Henry I. and Louis le Gros; and, later, another, to excommunicate another Henry.
Succeeding years saw a continuity of archbishops, who achieved by their religious works a world-wide fame and glory. In these early days they held the temporal as well as spiritual power of the cities, and in some instances even coined their own specie.
In spite of the changes of the times and conditions of life, the ancient capital of Belgica Secunda still remains the chief city of the Departments of the Marne, Ardennes, and Aisne. Its ecclesiastical and secular monuments, headed by the grand Cathedral of Notre Dame, form an array which is well worthy of such extended consideration as the traveller or student can give. The Benedictine Abbey, the Church of St. Remi, is likewise notable in all of its dimensions and details. Its construction dates from 1 162-1506, though the remains of a former tenth-century structure are made use of therein. Its chief treasure is the tomb of St. Remi, a wonderful Renaissance funeral monument of imposing proportions. Another monumental feature of more than unusual note, is the magnificent Roman arch of the former fortress of Porte Mars. This truly majestic specimen of the work of the Roman builder is supposed to have been erected by Agrippa in 25 B. C., in honour of Augustus, although another authority puts it as late as the period of Julian, 361 A. D. At any rate, it has stood the rigours of a northern clime as well as any Roman memorial extant; indeed, has seen fall all its contemporaries of the city, for at one time Reims was possessed of no less than three other gateways, bearing the pagan nomenclature of Ceres, Mars, and Venus.
The various other memorials of the city are on a no less grand scale, but the average person will hardly have eyes and ears for more than a contemplation of the wealth of splendour to be seen in its overpowering cathedral. Of the glorious group of monumental churches of northern France, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, if not admittedly the most beautiful and memorable Gothic edifice in all France, needs but little qualifying comment. It has a preeminence which has been generally conceded, and even elaborately endorsed, by most observers qualified to pass opinion hereon. Contemplation of the wealth of detail, and of the disposition of its wonderful west front, no less than of its general excellencies, can but compel the decision that in its exterior, at least, the Cathedral of Reims is the peer of any existing Gothic fabric. Though less huge than Strasburg or Cologne, and lacking the doubled tier of flying buttresses of the latter, it is altogether the most splendid and well-proportioned Gothic mass extant. The diminishing or pyramidal effect of the towers and gable of this west facade is an exemplification of the true symmetry of Gothic form. Lofty, and not closely hemmed in by surrounding structures, it looms, from any adjacent view-point, fully two-thirds of its decorated splendour above the general skyline round about. Aside from modern adulation we have the praise of an early historian, who delivers himself thus:
“Decor et majestes praeclarissime hugus structurae omnem scribendi peritiam longe superat, ob elegantum omnibus est admirationi, at que sibi similem non habet in tota Gallia.”-Met. RememsisH’ist. Dom. Guliol. Marlot S”. Nicasii Rem. Prioris, Tom ii. p. 470
Following the preaching of St. Remi, and the murder of St. Nicaise, who founded a church on this site in 400 A. D., Ebo, bishop in 818 A. D., laid the foundations of a new church, Louis I. granting that such material as might be needed be taken from the city wall. To assist, the sovereign also sent his architect, Rumaldi. In 847 A. D. Archbishop Nicman secured a renewal of the privileges, and in the presence of the king the building was consecrated in 862 A. D. The western entrance was ornamented with graven statues of Louis L, the patron, Pope Stephen, and the archbishop himself.
This entire fabric succumbed to fire on the 6th of May, 1210, and the present structure rests merely on the remains of the ancient crypt, which in a measure survived. Few visible remains of this ancient foundation are today visible. The new church reared itself rapidly under the immediate supervision of the Archbishop Alberic de Humbert. The choir, begun within two years of the fire, made such progress as to allow of the high altar being ceremoniously dedicated within three years; and, before the middle of the century, the records tell us that the main body of the church was entirely completed. The right tower was uncompleted at this time, but was finished by Cardinal Philastre in 1430, up to which time intermittent labour had evolved a superlative combination of constructive and decorative excellencies. The extreme lightness of the west front is brought more and more to impress itself upon one by reason of the consistent disposition of the excellency and delicacy of its sculptured ornament.
This western front, from the grand portals upward, is the apogee of French Gothic ornament, – at once the admiration and boast of all France. Here is no mixture or confusion of style, in design or decoration. The pointed arches of window and doorway are of the accepted ” best manner,” the heavy detail is placed low and rises gracefully to the ” Gallery of Kings,” a grand succession of stone effigies of royalties from Clovis to Charles VII., a decorative arrangement not made use of elsewhere to anything like a similar extent, a fact which of itself stamps the cathedral as the royal church of France. Conceived by one Gaucher, the portals are not only superior to all others in richness, depth, and quality of the sculpture shown in the hundreds of figures with which they are peopled, but are of exceedingly true and appropriate dimensions, taken in relation with the other parts of their setting. Immediately above the gable of the central portal is a wonderful rose window, of the spoke variety, containing thirtyfour sections, -of immense size and nearly forty feet across. This ” most perfect rose,” designed by Bernard de Soissons, may well be credited as one of the masterworks of architectural decoration in all the world. Flanking this great window on either side are two open lancet arches, while above is the ” Gallery of Kings ” before mentioned. The twin mullioned towers on either side rise for two hundred and sixty-seven feet. Light and airy, they depend for their effect of grace and symmetry entirely upon structural design, lacking sculptured ornament of any kind. Formerly they possessed spires of a great height, which, however, were destroyed by fire in the fifteenth century.
” Were all its original attributes complete,” says Fergusson, ” we should have the beau ideal, externally, of a cathedral.” This is probably an adaptation of Viollet-le-Duc’s estimate, which he expresses thus: ” This west facade is the most splendid conception of the thirteenth century, – Paris, like Laon, being really a transition example, Amiens representative of different epochs, Chartres a mere reunion of fragments, and Bourges and Rouen a melange of three centuries.”
The south transept portal, which is of great breadth, contains statues of the Archbishops of Reims, and one of Clovis. A similar doorway on the north side, though now walled up, contains, in the tympanum, a fine sculptured ” Last judgment,” while the transept itself houses one of those great clocks so frequently met with in Continental churches, – in this instance said to be the oldest running timepiece in existence.
Seven flying buttresses, between the transept and the west front, flank the nave, each holding aloft an elegantly canopied niche containing a full-length winged figure, a further unique arrangement being a similar figure which caps or pinnacles the outer piers, from which the buttresses spring. Above the point of contact of the buttresses with the main body, runs an effective balustrade of small pointed arches, while the abside shows, again, a wonderful combination of the buttress as a decorative and utile feature, combined.
The exterior may be summed up briefly as being the most gorgeously peopled and decorated structure of its age – as though it were expressly designed to show off this great throng of statues to the best possible advantage. Taken collectively, the series forms, says one writer, ” the most complete and magnificent collection of mediaeval iconography extant.” The figures were originally perhaps as many as five thousand, representing nearly all the families of mankind.
In size the Cathedral of Reims ranks third among the four largest in France, being exceeded only by Amiens and Chartres, while Paris is slightly smaller.
The interior presents by no means the aweinspiring grandeur of the exterior mass, and is possibly inferior to both Amiens and Chartres, and though well disposed, lacks the lightness of Cologne or Beauvais. A first impression rather indicates large proportions of length, breadth, and height in the nave, though these dimensions are not actually of the greatest. The transepts, including their aisles, are, however, of an extreme width, but very short; and the absence of side chapels, either here or in the nave, produces a regularity of outline unusually convincing.
The nave piers, of which there are ten on either side, with two window piercings, are of a manifestly heavy order, the capitals unusually so, being very deep and weighty with carving in high relief. The triforium is severely plain, being a mere shallow gallery of small pointed arches. The nave itself is, moreover, somewhat gloomy, when contrasted with the brilliant lighting of the aisles, caused by the peculiar arrangement of plain and coloured glass, the former filling the windows of the clerestory and the latter those of the aisles, the reverse being the case with the opposite ranges. The aisles have no chapels between the rather low windows, but groups of clustered columns against the walls. The vaulting is deep, with simple ribs, coloured with a blue ground spangled with stars and fleurs-de-lys. The choir is surrounded by seven chapels.
There are ten columns in the choir, all with beautifully wrought capitals. The pavement here is composed of marble taken from Libergier’s abbey church of St. Nicaise, from which edifice, since destroyed, was transferred the tomb of Jovinus, the Roman prefect of Reims, who became converted in 366 A. D. The sarcophagus consists of a huge block of marble, nine feet by four, with a figure of Jovinus, ” lion hunting on horseback,” carved in high relief. The roof of the choir is curiously constructed of wood, of chestnut, say the authorities, as no spiders are found. The high altar, as reconstructed by Poncelet Paroissien in 1550, was a very beautiful affair if old prints, usually none too reliable as to detail, are regarded. It was, however, destroyed during the middle of the eighteenth century.
The glass of the rose window dates in part from the period of the greatest richness (thirteenth century).
The sepulchral monuments, aside from the sarcophagus of Jovinus, are today practically nil, having been swept away during the terrors of the Revolution. Two interesting effigies still remain, however, near the western doorway, a figure of a mailed knight and an abbess. Among the real riches of the Cathedral are the remarkable and unique tapestries; well preserved, and of the finest quality of design and texture. Fourteen, by Lenoncourt, date from 1530-70; those in the south aisle, the Pepersacks, the gift of Abbe Lorraine, from 1640; and the modern Gobelins of the nineteenth century, the gift of the government. The ” Tresor,” which includes the church plate, most of which appears to have endured the ravages of invasion and wars, is truly magnificent and intrinsically of great value. The chief of these are: the chalice of St. Remi, of the eleventh century; a reliquary containing a thorn from the Holy Crown; the marble font in which Clovis was baptized in 496 A. D. ; the chasuble of Louis XIII., and the Sainte Ampoule, which contained the holy oil brought by a dove from heaven for use at the conversion of Clovis, now a mere fragment enclosed in a modern setting, after having been ruthlessly shattered by a sansculotte in 1793.
Adjoining the Cathedral, on the right, is the Episcopal Palace, which, with its dependencies, occupies a hectare or more of ground.
In the first courtyard is the modern library building, which houses the cathedral’s rich bibliographical treasures. Further, through a gateway, is a structure, in itself a grand building, of the time of Louis XIV. The right wing was constructed by Le Tellier in 1690. This portion is now occupied as a dwelling by the archbishop. At the end of the furthest courtyard is “The House of the Kings,” a truly grand establishment, so called in the official documents because it was the logement of the monarchs who visited the city on affairs of state. This recalls to mind not the least notable of the functions performed by the great cathedral itself.
With four exceptions all the Kings of France, from Clovis to Charles X., here first entered into their kingly state. The monarchs of France were a long and picturesque line, and the ceremonies attendant upon their coronations were accordingly imposing and magnificent. The culmination, for theatrical splendour and effect, was doubtless that of Charles VII., who, through the efforts of the ” Maid,” here came into his own. It was a splendid, if gaudy, pageant, and the most memorable event among that long series which only ended with the coronation of Charles X. in 1823.