Nave view of Notre-Dame, in Reims, France
Nave view of Notre-Dame, in Reims, France
Image: Supplied

This week your lucky arts correspondent drove from Paris to the German town of Bayreuth, a road trip that allowed me to make an early pit stop in Reims, about two hours east of the French capital. At the heart of the city sits Notre-Dame de Reims, an important example of Gothic architecture and an object of pilgrimage for French Catholics, art history buffs and Unesco heritage day-trippers alike.

There has been a sacred building on this site for more than 1,500 years. Clovis, the king of the Franks, was baptised here in the 5th century CE to declare his kingdom a Christian one, and it became the traditional location for the coronation of French royals. Construction of the cathedral as it stands today began at the start of the 13th century and, depending on how you define “complete”, it took between 60 and 200 years to finish.

By the time the nave, towers and transepts were all done, the Hundred Years’ War was nearly over and Joan of Arc had been burnt at the stake. Over the next half a millennium, bishops and cardinals occasionally marked their tenures with new additions to the cathedral. Then, during the French Revolution, anti-royal and anti-church sentiment led to the destruction of some stone sculptures and the melting down of gold fixtures. But all was forgiven in the post-Napoleonic era, and the Notre-Dame of Reims flourished, even as the romantic spirit waned in the 19th century. Joan, by now popularly if not officially canonised, got her own statue.

World War 1 marked a decisive rupture. In 1914, the Imperial German Army shelled the cathedral and rendered it a burnt-out wreck. After the war, it was proposed that the structure should be left in its dilapidated state as a memorial to those who died “the war to end wars”. Ultimately, the decision was made to restore it, and over the next two decades painstaking reconstruction was undertaken.

For all these reasons, the architectural and artistic curators of the cathedral at Reims have not had the privilege of indulging “originalist” fantasies. Much of the 700-year-old structure and its plenitude of statuary has survived. But much has had to be copied or commissioned anew. Add to this the battle being waged in Reims today — against the accumulating grime caused by pollution — and the result is anything but uniform: the intricate stone and cement façade is a hodgepodge of beige, brown, grey and black.

Fortunately, multi-hued fragmentation is part of the appeal, not least because the cathedral is particularly celebrated for its stained-glass windows. Here again, some of the brightly coloured pieces of glass date to the 13th century, but most do not and are the result of 20th century interventions. Marc Chagall and Jacques Simon are two of the more renowned modern artists whose work can be seen at Reims. These stained-glass installations take various forms. Some are abstract, some figurative; some represent traditional biblical scenes, while others (because this is Champagne country, after all) pay tribute to Dom Perignon and to the process of winemaking, from vineyard to cellar.

Perhaps the most significant form of renovation at Reims in the 20th century was not architectural but diplomatic. In 1962, French president Charles de Gaulle and German chancellor Konrad Adenauer sealed their countries’ reconciliation in a special ceremony at the cathedral, making it a symbol of Franco-German friendship. This transnational alliance has proved a key stabilising force in global politics and in many ways it continues to sustain the EU as a necessary counterforce to resurgent right wing populism.

Another hour or two east of Reims and the traveller enters Alsace Lorraine, the much-disputed Rhineland border territory. Today, the terrors of nationalist warfare seemingly forgotten, the region is a comfortable mélange of French and German names for places that preserve a millennia-old way of being. Criss-crossing this beautiful landscape, I stay for the night in the picture-perfect village of Neuwiller-lès-Saverne. My host, Manfred, speaks in French but tells me he is “actually German”. A carpenter by trade, he has spent his retirement years renovating the old house he lives in — a labour of love, he reassures me, but “not nearly as difficult as restoring a cathedral”.

This article was orginally published in Business Day. 

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