By John M. Grondelski
Charles Peguy was a French Catholic poet who died in World War I. A distinguishing aspect of his craft was that he wrote his poetry as if God were speaking; in one of the poems, God speaks about beauty. The Lord admits that “there is nothing more beautiful than a child who falls asleep saying his prayers,” although he adds that “Paris and Rheims and Rouen … are my own palaces, so beautiful that I shall keep them in heaven.”
That palace of God’s in Rheims celebrated its 800th anniversary this spring. On May 6, 1211, Archbishop Aubrey de Humbert laid the foundation stone of the current cathedral, which attracts over a million visitors a year. The Archdiocese of Rheims marked that eighth centenary with special celebrations.
The Catholic roots of Rheims (and France) are even older. Today’s cathedral replaced its predecessor, which perished in a fire on May 6, 1210. A bishop, St. Sixtus, began living in Rheims in the middle of the third century.
Rheims’ cathedral is intimately tied to France. The first Frankish king, Clovis, was baptized in Rheims by St. Remi circa 498, meaning that the foundations of what would become France had Catholic roots. Later, Rheims — not Paris — became the site where most of France’s kings (25 of them, including her last, Louis XVI in 1775) came to be crowned.
Work on the present cathedral proceeded relatively quickly by 13th-century standards. The cathedral chapter took over the choir by 1241, and the main part of the building was built by 1275. The whole construction process, however, extended over time (interrupted by wars, particularly with England), with the two great towers that we see today rising only in the 15th century.
War did not only threaten the cathedral of Rheims during its construction. The Champagne region, in which Rheims lies, was among the bloody battlefields of the First World War, and Rheims’ cathedral was subject to German bombardment. Shelling destroyed many statues; fire also ravaged parts of the building. It took two decades after the war to restore the cathedral. Today, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Rheims is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
The cathedral is a magnificent example of high Gothic architecture at its finest. If Paris’ Notre Dame (50 years older) was the first major French effort to raise a Gothic cathedral that reached to the heavens, Rheims showed that in half a century the French had mastered the art. The cathedral’s sheer dimensions are astounding: Its interior is 455 feet long; the transept is 200 feet wide; and the ceiling is almost 125 feet high. The two towers peer over the city at a height of 265 feet, which is 24 1/2 stories. Notwithstanding those imposing dimensions, however, the cathedral is noteworthy for its light: The art of the medieval stained-glass maker is apparent here. Visitors should devote particular attention to the two rose windows above the main entrance and the windows of the choir. Both rose windows on the front facade have Marian themes. The upper “Great Rose Window” depicts the dormition of Our Lady, surrounded by apostles and angels. In the lower rose window, she is surrounded by various titles attributed to her in Marian litanies, e.g. “Morning Star,” “Mystical Rose” and “Refuge of Sinners.” The 11 windows in the choir focus on the lives and deaths of the apostles. Try to visit the cathedral towards evening to see the rose windows in all their glory with the setting sun.
One of my favorite aspects of the cathedral is the “Smiling Angel.” There are actually two: a “smiling angel” (ange au sourire) in the northern portal and a happy Gabriel inviting Mary to be the Mother of God in the right-central portal. The “smiling angel” was damaged during World War I; all that remained was his head, while his body was subsequently restored on the basis of a cast in the Musée National des Monuments Française.
If “there will be more joy in heaven” (Luke 15:7) over every soul that is saved, then if the “smiling angel” is but a shadow of that celestial celebration, there will be joy indeed! The angel’s face and hand gesture almost say: “Yes, with his freedom, with his choice, he got it right and now, look, love can grow, and he can be fully human and fully alive as God wanted him to be. Yes!” Gabriel carries a similar expression, having invited Mary to take part in the Incarnation and receiving her assent. Now, because of her freedom, God’s plans for humanity can go forward.
The smiling angel has been an inspiration to visitors to the cathedral for centuries, so let him inspire you.
John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.
Planning Your Visit
Rheims is about 100 miles northeast of Paris and can be reached by car or train. Many travel agencies in Paris also sponsor tourist excursions to Rheims.
There are two Sunday Masses, at 9:30 (French/Latin with Gregorian chant) and 11am (French).