Rheims

By the side of the River Vesle, in the province of Marne, and on the
verge of a famous champagne producing country, is one of the oldest
towns of France. Rheims, with its ancient gates, its memorials of Roman
times, and monuments of illustrious kings of Gaul, has a history of much
interest. Its cathedral ranks with the finest ecclesiastic buildings of
the world, and is celebrated as the scene of many great pageants of the
coronations of French sovereigns. The Romans captured a city here, and
called it Durocortorum, and in Cæsar’s day this was an important
station. It is recorded that Attila, the fierce conqueror, ravaged the
town with fire.

The Consul, Jovinus of Rheims, was an early convert to Christianity,
which was preached here by two missionaries from Rome in the fourth
century. The marble cenotaph of the Christian consul is to be seen in
the city. Then came the Vandals, who seized the town, and murdered the
bishop at the door of the first cathedral.

When King Clovis conquered the fair territory of Champagne, St Rémi was
made bishop of Rheims, and henceforward the kings of France were crowned
here. Many famous prelates lived in the city during the succeeding
centuries; one, the most celebrated, Gerbert, became pope.

Joan of Arc is an important figure in the drama of Rheims during the
great war with England. The peasant’s daughter, born on the borders of
Champagne, at Domremy, a hamlet which is now a shrine, reached the
height of her triumph in 1429, when she led a vast army to the gates of
Rheims. “O gentle king, the pleasure of God is done,” cried the white
maid, as she knelt before Charles VII. after his coronation in the
gorgeous cathedral.

A yearning for home and the old tranquil life was in the heart of Joan;
she wished to leave the tented field, and to return to her sheep-folds
and pastures. But, at the battle of Compiegne, she fell into the hands
of the treacherous Bastard of Vendôme, and about a year later Joan la
Pucelle was burned to death.

The focus of interest in Rheims is the cathedral. Notre Dame was built
on the situation of a Roman basilica. Parts of the present building
were first constructed in 1231, but the façade is of the fourteenth
century. This magnificent front has a gorgeous portal, with pointed
arches of great grace, rising to a large and handsome rose window. There
are two towers over two hundred and fifty feet high, very finely
decorated. A number of statues adorn this façade, on the portals and in
the arch of the rose window. The figure of the Virgin is over the
principal doorway, bending to receive the crown from the hands of
Christ.

“The three great doorways,” writes Mr Henry James, in “Portraits of
Places,” “are in themselves a museum of imagery, disposed in each case
in five close tiers, the statues in each of the tiers packed
perpendicularly against their comrades. The effect of these great
hollowed and chiselled recesses is extremely striking; they are a proper
vestibule to the dusky richness of the interior. The cathedral of
Rheims, more fortunate than many of its companions, appears not to have
suffered from the iconoclasts of the Revolution; I noticed no absent
heads nor broken noses.”

The rose windows of the transepts are exceedingly lovely, and attention
should be paid to the design of the buttresses, and the very remarkable
gargoyles. One of the towers contains an enormous bell. In the exterior
of the south transept are several good statues.

An immense nave stretches for nearly five hundred feet. This part of the
edifice was repeatedly extended to make space for the great crowds that
attended the imposing coronation ceremonies. Around the choir are
several chapels. In numerous niches and corners are statues of interest.
“The long sweep of the nave, from the threshold to the point where the
coloured light-shafts of the choir lose themselves in the grey distance,
is a triumph of perpendicular perspective,” writes Mr Henry James.

Perhaps the greatest treasures preserved in Notre Dame are the
tapestries. There are pieces representing the life of the Virgin, while
several depict scenes in the life of Christ. The Canticles form the
subject of other examples. Two pieces of Gobelins, after designs by
Raphael, represent the life of St Paul. These tapestries are
exceptionally fine specimens of this art.

During the coronation celebrations, the sovereigns occupied the
archbishop’s palace, which is close to the cathedral. The building was
begun about 1499. In the museum of the palace is the famous cenotaph of
Jovinius, adorned with sculpture. A large hall contains portraits of
kings.

Among the churches of importance in Rheims are St Jacques, St André, and
St Thomas. The Church of St Rémi, named after the great bishop, dates
from the eleventh century. During the Revolution this church was
terribly damaged; many of the splendid relics and statues were
destroyed, and but a few images were spared.

The tomb of St Rémi is modern, except the images that decorate it. There
are some rich tapestries in the church. The doorway of the south
transept is handsome, and there are beautiful windows of an early date.
The cloister of the abbey is now enclosed by a hotel. In the seventeenth
century the present Town Hall was erected. It contains a gallery of
paintings and a museum.

The chief Roman monument in the town is the great arch of triumph, the
Porte de Mars. This structure was probably erected by Agrippa on the
occasion of the opening of the highways leading to the city. Near to the
arch stood a temple of Mars. The Gate of Mars is over a hundred feet
long, and over forty feet high. There are several figures under the
archways. Parts of a Roman pavement are near the triumphal arch. These
are the only memorials of Roman times, but it may be noted that the
gates of the city still retain their original names.