The names of the towns and cathedrals of northern France can be a challenge for American English speakers. They all seem to require vowels and consonants not only strange to American ears, but downright taunting.
We started this trip at Notre Dame de Paris. That “tre” in “Notre” is something not available in English, outside the clearing of one’s throat. We tend to just go with the name of the Indiana university and say “Noter Daim.” But to approximate the French, you have to give it a “Notra,” ending at the back of the soft palate and “Dom.”
Then we went to Rouen, which is easier, except for that non-rhotic “R” at the start, but we can get by with “Roo-on.”
The drive took us to Amiens, with is a little like saying “Onion,” but with an “M” instead of an “N.” Beauvais is the easiest one: “Bo-vay.”
It’s a little trickier at Noyon, which we might offer “Nwa-yone,” especially if you can say it while losing the “n” in “yone” somewhere in your nasal cavity.
After that, we climbed the hill to Laon, which looks easier than it is to say. Try “loud,” but without the “d” on the end, but with that nasal sound that the French like to use for an “n.” Or, give up and just say “Lao,” as if you were naming the “Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.”
Yet, none of these challenges the English speaker as much as the next cathedral town. In English, we spell its name Rheims, although in France, they spell it Reims. If you think that should be “Rems” in the mouth, well, foolish you. The closest you might get is to say “Rance,” as if it were a gunslinger in a Western movie. Why this should be? Well, if you want to give it the Gallic good-old-try, you might speak the initial “R” at the back of your throat, as if you were clearing it of phlegm, follow that with the “ei” spoken both through your mouth and your nose at the same time, and then attempt to elide into an “m” completely nasal, but more like an “n” than an “m.” Round it all off with a sibilance and you’re good to go. It should come out, perhaps a leaning a little toward “Rass,” as if it were attempting to clean out your sinuses at the same time.
All that aside, the cathedral in Reims is from central casting; it is the handsomest, most perfect, with good bone structure and a set of capped teeth to rival the glossiest Hollywood star. If you were to invent the perfect Gothic cathedral, you would have invented Reims.
Yet, something seems just a little off, like the Hollywood star you suspect of being hollow behind the glittering eyes.
Unlike the buildings in Amiens, Beauvais, Noyon or Laon, which seem too large for the towns or villages they dominate, the cathedral in Reims sits at the center of a sizable city. Traffic is congested and parking is hard to find. When you confront it, walking into the parvis, you see an edifice that shines large, the hub of a great urban wheel.
Also unlike the other cathedrals, it is symmetrical, with two identical towers on either side of the central three portals. Other cathedrals seem hotch-potch, assembled from spare parts, almost, Reims was put together from a kit straight out of the box, all parts included.
Which is all the more surprising, considering that it has been worked over and rebuilt, redesigned and rejiggered for some 800 years. If it looks all of a piece, that is because its many restorers and rebuilders made the conscious decision to keep the essential plan unchanged.
So, the first impression of Reims is of a sturdy, beautiful, archetypal Gothic church, three great arches on its western front lined with rings of sculpture, a great rose window in the center, a line of kings above that and the twin towers rising to the height of a 26-story skyscraper. It is jutting jaw and piercing eyes, all perfectly tanned.
I’m afraid I may be sounding a little too snarky about what is a very impressive bundle of awesome. If you had never seen Chartres or Paris or Amiens, then Reims would satisfy all your spiritual hunger for a Gothic cathedral.
The problem is one that you face in almost every Gothic survivor. One recalls the problem of Theseus’ ship, in which, over the years, every board, every nail, every rope has been replaced, one by one. And one asks, is this the same ship that carried Theseus home from Crete?
Or, more aptly, the Japanese temple, whose wood is replaced every 20 years. The grand shrine in the city of Ise has been replaced this way more than 60 times, yet is considered the same temple that was built in AD 692.
(It is widely believed — though not exactly true — that all the cells in a human body are replaced every seven years, yet we think of ourselves now as the same person we were when we popped out of the dark into this bright world.)
Reims has undergone something of the same constant renewal, like the goddess Aphrodite.
The modern cathedral was begun in about 1220 and was finally roofed in 1299, but work continued, adding details through the 14th century. A fire in 1481 required major reworking, finished in 1516, keeping to the Medieval style.
The continuous renewal of Reims began in 1610 with gussying up the central portal of the west facade. Nineteen statues of the central portal archivolts were replaced.
Later reworkings took place from 1727 to 1742 and from 1755 to 1760 to repair the deterioration caused by rain leakage and freezing. Many of the sculptures were repaired or replaced.
But the real overhauls began in the 19th century, as France began looking at its great cultural monuments and deciding to upgrade them. The Romantic movement in art and literature idealized the Middle Ages, and books such as Chateaubriand’s “The Spirit of Christianity,” and Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (to give it its popular title) revived interest in buildings that had been allowed to deteriorate or had been desecrated during the violently anti-clerical French Revolution.
In 1818, a catalog of “Romantic and Picturesque Sites of Ancient France was begun, not finished, in 20 volumes, until 1878. And in 1830, the government created an post of Inspector of Historical Monuments.
Hugo wrote a pamphlet called “War on Demolishers,” to “stop the hammer that is mutilating the face of the country” by destroying historic edifices. He denounced “ignoble speculators,” who “vandalized” the great monuments to build cheap get-rich-quick developments. He called for a national law to protect the old treasures.
He also explained “There are two things in an edifice: its use and its beauty. Its use belongs to its owner, its beauty to everyone. Thus, the owner exceeds his rights in destroying it.”
Between 1826 and 1837, the first major interventions of the 19th century were carried out, replacing sculptures on the western facade. One after another, from then on, a series of restorers and architects tried to bring Reims back to what they considered the authentic and original designs of the cathedral. First diocesan architect Arveuf, then Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of Notre Dame of Paris, who undid the modifications of 1481-1516 and replaced them with his own design.
After Viollet-le-Duc, Eugene Millet did the same thing to the south side of the nave. From 1879 to 1886, Victor Ruprich-Robert did the same thing to the north side. After him, Denis Darcy jumped in, working to 1904. From 1904 to 1915, Paul Gout reworked the western facade and parts of the chevet. The work was not quite finished when World War I broke out. The war did not treat Reims kindly. It was bombed and a good portion left in rubble.
It took another 20 years to fix what the German artillery shells had broken. Restorer Henri Deneux, began in 1919, clearing away debris and cataloging the fragments and installing a temporary roof. The glass was a particular victim of the war. Deneux had the guide of drawings made of the stained glass made before the war and had many of the windows rebuilt, sometimes from the shards of the originals.
By 1938, most of the restoration was complete, but World War II was in the offing. This time, the windows were removed for safe storage and reinstalled after the war.
The rose windows at Reims are beautiful and unusual. Each of the four roses has an “eyebrow,” an arc of stained glass over the oculus. There are roses on the transept facades and two, one large, one smaller, on the western facade. Outside the roses at Chartres and Paris, these are among the most stunning in Christendom.
The large window dates originally from 1240s, and was restored in 1872; because of war damage, it currently contains only about a quarter of its original glass. The rest, like the lower rose, dating from 1255, now has replacement glass from 1937.
The south rose was destroyed in a storm in 1580 and replaced a year later, then destroyed again in WWI and recreated in 1937; the north rose dates from before 1241, but now contains only a couple of original panes, also having been replaced after The Great War.
Finally, there are modern admixtures, like the great trio of lancet windows designed by artist Marc Chagall and installed in 1974.
So, like Theseus’ ship or the Shinto temple, the question of how much can the current cathedral be called Gothic is problematical.
Reims was clearly one of the big boys, as far as cathedrals go, but it is hard, sometimes to really appreciate how much restoration has gone on at these buildings. The older, plainer looking churches, such as Noyon, tend to be more authentic, however you want to define that. The better looking churches are usually the ones restored by Viollet-le-Duc or one of the other enthusiastic restorers of the 19th century. You have to choose between effectiveness or authenticity. Are you willing to accept the slightly “Disneyesque” interpretations of the restorers, to get a feeling for what the buildings must once have been like, or do you approach it with a scholar’s eye, and want to see nothing but the actual evidence of the era, uninterpreted by later centuries, no matter how well-meaning.
This is why Chartres is so well admired by those who know: Most of it is original, and most of it wasn’t destroyed during the Revolution. It is the best example of the style, without the admixture of good intentions. We will be visiting Chartres soon.
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