Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims is one of the masterpieces of Gothic architecture in Europe.
Built from the early 13th century onward, it represents the pinnacle of Gothic art. Its stylistic consistency, exceptional interior brightness, and especially the magnificent sculptures (over 2,300 statues) make it unique. The Cathedral was an inspiration for many other similar constructions, particularly in Germany. The Cathedral was also, and especially, the place of coronation for the kings of France.
History of Notre-Dame cathedral of Reims
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The present cathedral was not the only one to occupy this site. The first one, the Cathédrale de Saint Nicaise, dates back to the beginning of the 5th century, built on old Gallo-Roman baths. It was in this modest building, then measuring 55 meters long, that Clovis was baptized on December 25th around the year 498 by the bishop of the city: Rémi. Three centuries later, in the Carolingian era, Louis the Pious was the first monarch to be crowned there. In the 9th century the cathedral was rebuilt and named Cathédrale d’Ebbon et Hincmar, and in 862 it was consecrated by Charles the Bald. It became larger, at 86 meters long, and in the next century it was enlarged again to 110 meters. The first stone of the present cathedral was laid by Archbishop Alberic Humbert on May 6, 1211 following the destruction of the previous building by a fire. Much of the building was already built at the end of this century.
The towers would be added in the 15th century. The cathedral was then about 150 meters long, the nave rose to 38 meters and the two towers of the main facade, though lacking spires, rose to 82 meters. The dimensions of the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims are less impressive than other Gothic cathedrals of northern France from the same era, but the sensation of verticality, its towers reaching skyward that represent the heavenly Jerusalem, is still remarkable. The relative narrowness of the nave also accentuates this impression. The ubiquitous glass canopies and rosettes let in an abundant light, giving a feeling of lightness to the building that is found nowhere else.
Although it was a symbol of royalty and of royal power, the cathedral was relatively spared during the French Revolution of 1789. The first major restoration projects were conducted in the 18th century, and from the following century until today, restoration campaigns have continued, uninterrupted. In the 19th century, the major renovations were undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc (from 1860 onward). And on September 19, 1914 began the Martyrdom of the Cathedral (see below). In 1996, Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral on the occasion of the 1,500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis by Saint Rémi. In May 2011, the city celebrated the 800th anniversary of the laying of the first foundation stone of the present cathedral.
"The Martyrdom of the Cathedral"
The cathedral was hit by the first German shells in September 1914, setting fire to the building. The frame was completely destroyed and 400 tons of lead from the roof melted and destroyed the gargoyles, as well as the archbishops’ residence: the Palais du Tau. The stone broke under the effect of heat, many statues were destroyed, and some collapsed. The Martyrdom of the Cathedral lasted another three years, hit by a total of 300 rounds. The rosettes and canopies exploded under the shock waves. At the end of the war, architect Henri Deneux would direct the reconstruction work with the invaluable help of generous donors, including American foundations (Rockefeller, Ford, etc.). The frame was replaced by a reinforced concrete structure to prevent future destruction by fire. The reconstruction and restoration are still ongoing.