Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
The Cathedral of Reims

WHEN THE FIRE of May 6, 1210, consumed much of the town of Reims and damaged the cathedral beyond repair, the choir of Soissons was nearing completion and Chartres had been under construction for sixteen of the twenty-six years needed for the virtual completion of its vaults. Jean d'Orbais, who supervised the laying of the first stones in the south side of the choir on May 6, 1211, must have known the new High Gothic designs of Chartres and Soissons, the latter only thirty-five miles to the west of Reims. Indeed, Notre-Dame of Reims (figs. 245-257) stands architecturally as a bold development of ideas clearly stated at Chartres and Soissons; yet the master builders gave Reims its impressive originality by combining new design features with reinterpretations of the older Reims tradition.

In 1914, the shelling of Reims set fire to the roof and to the scaffolding around the north tower and as a result calcined the left portal and much of the tower. Subsequent bombardments damaged buttresses and sculpture and penetrated the vaults in many places, doing incalculable damage to the interior. When restorations were beginning in 1918, excavations were carried out under the supervision of the architect Denoux, assisted by Hans Reinhardt. As a result of these excavations and the recent publication of Hans Reinhardt's monograph (see bibliography), some light has been shed on the history of the cathedral prior to the fire of 1210.

Around 400, Bishop Saint Niçaise moved the Episcopal See to the center of Reims and, according to Reinhardt, occupied part of the Roman baths. Following the martyrdom of Saint Niçaise and others by the Vandals in 407, funds were raised for repairs; but it was not until the late fifth century that a small, two-aisled church with narthex and a separate baptistry was completed in time for the baptism of King Clovis of the Franks in 496. Remains of this first church, dedicated to the Virgin, were unearthed in the present nave and east of the crossing.

During the Carolingian period, as the importance of Reims increased, a new cathedral based on the monastery of Saint-Riquier at Centula was constructed by Archbishop Ebbon after 817. Some foundations of this double-ended cathedral, with its four turret towers, were unearthed in the post-World War I excavations, but the details which would substantiate the reconstruction proposed by Reinhardt are wanting. If the Carolingian Reims does indeed echo Saint-Riquier, Reinhardt makes the interesting observation that the present thirteenth-century transepts with circular windows in the middle zone (figs. 247, 252) are a reflection of the elevation of the transepts of the Carolingian cathedral. In 976, the west end of the Carolingian cathedral was razed, the nave extended by three bays, and a new central porch and tower erected. This new scheme is reflected in the central western porch towers of Saint-Benoît-sur- Loire, Chartres, and other monuments of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. According to Reinhardt, the nave was probably rebuilt with alternating piers and columns at the same time.

In 1152, Archbishop Samson ( 1140-1160) destroyed the western central tower, added two bays to the nave, and erected a twin-tower façade emulating Suger's façade of Saint-Denis (dedicated

-197-

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