Guess where I was yesterday

You aren’t going to win any prizes: the west façade of Reims Cathedral is unmistakable.

For what it’s worth, I find it the most beautiful west façade in Christendom. Its perfect proportions and stylistic unity testify to the advantages of building the whole thing at roughly the same time.

Unlike, say, Rouen Cathedral, Reims was built over a few decades of the late 13th, early 14th century, rather than passing from one generation of builders and stonemasons to the next for centuries on end.

Other than its aesthetic aspect, Reims Cathedral plays a vital role in Western history. French kings were traditionally crowned there – including the Merovingian king Clovis, generally regarded as the first French monarch because he brought all the Frankish principalities together.

Actually, Clovis (d. 511) was crowned in the original church on the same site that was destroyed by fire in the 13th century. More important, it was there that Clovis converted himself and proto-France to Christianity in 496 AD.

In common with many European princes, he was browbeaten into conversion by his wife, Clotilde. In general, Christianity owes its universal spread to women at least as much as to men, perhaps even more so.

Men like Clovis stubbornly clung to their paganism because it suited their temperaments better. It took the gentle, civilising touch of women like St Clotilde to lead them to Christ. Characteristically, Clotilde was officially canonised, but Clovis never was – it was only by popular acclaim that he got to be known as St Clovis.

(There is an argument there somewhere that women don’t have to be ordained to play a vital role in Christianity. But that’s for another day.)

Like most great Romanesque and Gothic buildings, Reims Cathedral bears the stigmata of modernity. In fact, the medievalist Régine Pernoud estimates that some 80 per cent of all such buildings were destroyed in France during the Revolution and – which is less known – the following century. Add to that the Reformation before and the two world wars after that mayhem, and it’s amazing that any great architecture is left standing.

One can only imagine what France would look like if we could admire 100 per cent of the beauty that keeps us spellbound even after such attrition. That’s what I invariably tell my friends who badmouth the French, a popular sport in both England and the US: the people who created such treasures can’t be all bad. And don’t get me started on their wine and cheese…

Reims Cathedral didn’t escape its share of barbaric destruction: the Germans heavily shelled it several times during the First World War, and it took much intricate restoration to return the cathedral to its original splendour.

But not quite: the expertise required to replace the smashed stained glass with replicas had been lost. Rather than simply putting in plain glass, as a reminder of modern vandalism, the powers that be invited Marc Chagall to create his own version of stained glass. That produced a jarring visual dissonance, suggesting that the French had lost not only their ability to make stained glass but also much of their taste.

After the war, the Germans staged a show of regret, putting it all down to an accident. But it wasn’t; they were acting in character. Those cannoneers were Modern Men, the sociocultural type brought about by the hatred of Christendom and everything it produced.

This kind of hatred was trenchantly described by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, whose testimony of modern Germany under and before the Nazis is exceptionally moving. In his book Diary of a Man in Despair, he recalls General Ludendorff, effectively in command of the German forces in the First World War, ordering the destruction of Coucy castle.

That priceless treasure of Western past had no military significance to either side. And yet Ludendorff ordered the castle razed. “He hated Coucy,” writes Reck, “because he hated everything which lay outside his barracks view of life – spirit, taste, elegance, everything that gives distinction to life.” Everything produced by Christianity, I would have been tempted to add.

This kind of hatred must be capable of releasing immense energy, for it produced Modern Man and weaned him to maturity on the congealing red liquor that is his favoured sustenance. And lest you may think I have it in specifically for the Germans, they aren’t the only culprits.

Again one has to go no farther than France to find proof of that. Towards the end of July, 1944, when the Allies enjoyed air supremacy on the Western front, the RAF bombed and seriously damaged the 11th century cathedral at Nevers, in our part of France. (Alas, it was never restored as seamlessly as Reims.)

That was a low-altitude daytime raid, and yet the pilots explained they had mistaken the cathedral for the railway junction several miles away. I’m no expert in aerial bombardment, but it seems to me a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral looks rather different from a smallish railway station even from a couple of thousand feet.

In fact, those pilots neither loved nor even respected the culture that celebrated itself, God and humanity by erecting that magnificent structure. The “bombs away” command was a scream of hatred for Christendom and all its creations.

Such thoughts flashed through my mind yesterday, as Penelope was taking the touristy shot above. I had no time for more involved thought – we still had 300 miles to go, and all that wine at lunch was making me sluggish.

13 thoughts on “Guess where I was yesterday”

  1. I would very much like to pray the Mass in such a beautiful place. Our local church – not considered a parish, thank God! – was built by the local Polish community and looks like any other local shop. I’m sure they were on a very limited budget and did the best they could, but it is less than ideal. Once I asked our priest for his sermon notes and he replied they must still be up on the lectern (certainly not a pulpit). I replied that I felt uneasy about entering the sanctuary. He laughed and said, “That’s not a sanctuary!”

    However, that non-parish designation is about to save our Mass! The Apostolic Nuncio recently summoned our Bishop and the Archbishop of Los Angeles to discuss their alleged non-compliance with Traditionis custodes. Latin Masses at all parishes are to be moved from the church to the gymnasium. Since we are not a parish and we do not have a gymnasium our belief is that our small but growing TLM community will continue on. The Norbertines of Saint Michael’s Abbey, the closest beautiful church, have announced they will now offer Mass in the Tridentine form in their cemetery chapel. Two Latin Mass options within a 40 minute drive puts us in what I fear is a rare position.

    I am jealous of those who visit the cathedral and would like to visit some day, but for now I will be thankful for my Latin Mass in a meek and humble building.

    1. What happens in the building is much more important than the building itself. Those Roman Christians managed to celbrate Mass in catacombs after all. Yet there is no harm in God’s house hinting at God’s beauty — pomp and circumstance matter. What amazes me is how those tiny townships with small populations could manage building such lofty structures. When Reims Cathedral was built, for example, the place already had a vast basilica easily capable of accommodating the whole population (estimated at roughly 30,000 at the time). And yet they felt the need to erect the cathedral – straining every sinew of finance, creativity and toil. That’s some kind of miracle, I suppose.

      1. Stay outside. The proposed altar, baptismal font, and reliquary in the modernist-minimalist style is each an insult to the many workers who contributed to the original cathedral and to the faith that inspired their work and dedication.

  2. “weaned him to maturity on the congealing red liquor that is his favored sustenance.”

    Blood, not wine. Think too Monte Cassino. Only occupied by the German military after the allies bombed the abbey. Bombing thought to have been done in part to assuage the feelings of the British Indian Army troops under “Christian” command.

  3. My new French Andre Brunel from Bretagne really enjoyed this article as it helped him discover a new French medievalist named Pernoud.

  4. Have you visited Salisbury? Like Rheims, it was mostly built in a single mighty effort. The Church of England has done its best to spoil it, with Modernist glass behind the High Altar and exhibitions promoting Marxism in the transepts, but it’s still my favourite.

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