REIMS, FRANCE: Big Church, Art Deco, and Champagne
On the map, Reims looks like a tiny, little, unspectacular little speck. I was envisioning a small city full of lots of quaint old buildings surrounding the town cathedral. Not so. Reims (pronounced like prince without the p) is a very clean, and neat, and quiet, medium sized city (population 200,000) complete with a large modernized train station and tram system, as well as lots of hotels, cafes, restaurants, museums, theaters, and a huge historical Cathedral. And, being located in the heart of the region of Champagne, numerous champagne producers and their caves are located in the city center.
World War I was devastating for Reims. Verdun, famous for where brutal battles took place is 70 miles east. Much of Reims was destroyed and the Cathedral was heavily damaged. As a result, much of the town was re-built in the Art Deco style which was the leading design style of the time. This affords a refreshing break from the more typical medieval and baroque styles of most other French cities of similar size. Quite a few fine examples of Art Deco architecture line the streets of the old town, the city center. Luckily, Reims was not damaged in World War II, and it was the location where the Germans officially surrendered in 1945.
The most prominent feature in Reims, both physically and historically, is the gigantic Cathedral du Notre Dame (Cathedral of Our Lady), located at the center of the city. Especially for me and other Architects and historians, this is an important pilgrimage to visit the famous medieval churches we dutifully studied in architectural history class. Begun in 1211, it was completed a mere 60 years later. This is quite amazing when so many of the huge cathedrals built in medieval times took hundreds of years to complete. To complete construction of this church, it literally must have involved everyone (and their mothers, and children, and horses, and dogs) in the town and there must have been an influx of workers from all the surrounding regions. The entire town must have been one very large construction site. And, of course, most of the workers were not paid as it was their duty to give of themselves for the glory of God. I recommend anyone with an interest in life and the building of cathedrals in medieval times read Ken Follett’s novel “The Pillars of the Earth” (or watch the miniseries that was broadcast on television years ago and is available on dvd). Even though “Pillars” takes place in England rather than France, it gives a detailed and entertaining look at life of the cathedral builders.
The Cathedral, built in the Gothic style, was constructed in a reddish sandstone with the characteristic three entrance portals on the front façade that are lined with carvings of saints floating lazily overhead and other figures along the sides that represent the “Passion of Christ”, the “Last Judgment”, and, at the center portal, the Virgin Mary. See my photos for the smiling angel; it is unusual to see a smiling statue on medieval churches. Along the sides of the church are repeating flying buttresses, a distinguishing characteristic of gothic architecture, which gives extra support to the main building columns (vertical posts) which allows the columns to be thinner and lighter and thus allow larger windows that allow more light inside. The two tall bell tower structures on the front façade were added in 1400’s and were originally intended to receive tall spires on top, but were never completed. If it were up to me, I say that the spires should still be constructed in order to complete the original design intent. So many large cathedrals in France are missing the spires or one of the symmetrical bell towers, leaving structures that look a bit odd or even silly—the Cathedral in Strasbourg, missing its second tower really looks odd and, yes, silly.
Upon completion, the Reims Cathedral became the “Coronation Cathedral” where 26 French kings were crowned. The last coronation was in 1825. Additionally, it was in Reims in 1429 that Joan of Arc received messages from Our Lady (Mary) encouraging her to rally the French against the English which resulted in the defeat of the English by the French.
The Cathedral survived World War I but did receive a good bit of damage especially to its stained glass windows, most were destroyed and were immediately after the war replaced with clear glass. Much of the clear glass remains along the sides of the nave, making the interior fairly well lit during daytime. In 1974, new stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall was installed in the apse behind the altar. His more abstract artistic style works well with stained glass and he has designed windows for several churches in Europe. Overall, the interior space of the Cathedral is huge and magnificent, light and airy, a fine example of the building expertise if the Architects of the gothic period.
Just around the corner from the Cathedral is another notable architectural treat: The Bibliotheque Carnegie (Carnegie Library) funded by the American millionaire Andrew Carnegie and built in 1921 with a combination of geometric and flowing lines of the Art Deco style. Carnegie built thousands of libraries across the world in an effort to help increase knowledge across the world. Designed as the city library, this building is a real beauty and has been well maintained over the years and still functions as a library. The main entrance hall is clothed in onyx and marble and includes marble mosaic wall panels depicting different trades and professions. Hanging overhead in the entrance hall is a striking hanging light fixture of multi-colored glass. Off to one side of the hall is an open stair with a beautiful sinuous handrail. This library is an Art Deco jewel, don’t miss it!
Not to forget is the fact that this is Champagne country and Reims is the capital city of the Champagne Region. It doesn’t take trips out of the city to visit some of the main champagne producers and their underground cellars. I counted not less than four different Champagne cellars in the city center, and visited Tattinger, one of the largest and best known cellar. The tour begins with a quick video, then we descended precariously down an old spiral metal staircase for a tour of the underground cellars (caves) which leads groups past rows and rows of actual champagne bottles (they say there are 3 million bottles) stacked on special racks that allow periodic turning of the bottles, part of the process of the fermentation process. “Please do not touch or handle the bottles” pleaded the guide. The cellars are in caves carved out of chalk which occurs naturally in the area, and some of the caves were dug by the ancient Romans. The chalk walls are fully exposed; you can see the tool marks from the digging of the caves. The tour was all in English, and they meticulously explain the process of double fermentation required to produce the bubbles in champagne. After strolling approximately 3 miles in the caves, the tour ends back up in the main building with a free champagne tasting, a fitting way to end the experience. You can also make arrangements to purchase and ship champagne home. I just wish that, at the tasting, they offered more than one glass! But, it was damn good champagne!