The Reims Cathedral of Notre Dame, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is one of many monuments representative of the French gothic art movement. Its role in France’s architectural history, let alone its importance in the country’s history, has made the cathedral a well-known symbol.
The cathedral has undergone several reconstructions since its first stone was laid by the Archbishop Albéric de Humbert in 1211. The pre-existing edifice was destroyed during a devastating fire. Unfortunately, the cathedral’s roof caught fire in 1481 during renovation work. Thanks to financial backing from the royal crown, the work was able to continue. As a way to show gratitude, it was then decided to decorate the roof with statuettes of the “fleur de Lys,” a flower symbolic of the crown, which were later removed during the French Revolution when an anti-royalty campaign was put into motion.
The cathedral was the target of German bombings during a WWII operation to demoralize the French population by destroying symbolic monuments. The cathedral was hit by a total of 288 artillery shells. Reconstruction began in 1919 as the result of numerous private investors. The edifice was progressively improved upon; its oak-wood roof was replaced by one with non-flammable material. Restorative works on the cathedral continue today.
It was at the Reims Cathedral in 496 AD that Clovis was baptized by the bishop of Reims, Saint-Rémi, who anointed the Carolingian King with an ointment that came from Sainte-Ampoule. The same concoction was used for the coronation of Kings, thus becoming a tradition in Reims until the reign of Charles X in 1825. The city of Reims became known as the “City of Kings,” because it was there that French monarchs ascended the throne.
During the 100 Year War, Jeanne d’Arc, whose statue adorns the cathedral’s forecourt, insisted on crowning King Charles VII at Reims thus confirming the power that the French kingdom held over the English with whom they were in conflict.
The Reims Cathedral is especially known for the mind-blowing number of statues that festoon its walls: 2,303! In fact, it’s the world’s only religious edifice that contains the largest number of statues, one of which is particularly famous; the “Ange au sourire” (The Smiling Angel), emblem of Reims. A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, the cathedral measures 149 meters in length and 87 meters in height (including bell tower), and is built in the shape of a Latin cross. Four chapels surround the nave.
Despite a series of events that damaged the cathedral, one can still make out the 13th century stained-glass windows. Special attention must be given to the uppermost part of the windows in order to fully admire them. Contemporary stained-glass windows were added, such as those completed by the artist Marc Chagall in 1974.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Reims Cathedral is the Musée des beaux-arts (Museum of Fine Arts) where visitors can admire a replica of the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, La mort de Marat (The Death of Marat). The cathedral is also a departure point for other sites located in the center of Reims (Rue de Vesle, Place Drouet-d’Erlon and the Place du Forum).