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.