Some works of art or artifacts may surprise you and leave you stunned. In other words, you can take a cursory look at something that seems mildly interesting and assume you’ve more or less figured it out. For example, the gargoyles of Reims with their mouths filled with molten lead…
The art of survival
So you have found yourself in a French city Reims. Reading the previous sentence, your ‘inner voice’ may have pronounced the name of the town as something like ‘Reems’. Take a lesson: The French pronounce the town’s name as something more like ‘Rrraants.’ Now is the time to tune into that inner voice of yours as you read about… Reims. And more specifically about Notre-Dame de Reims, otherwise known as Our Lady of Reims or simply Reims Cathedral. (Do you understand triple time now?).
Built in the High Gothic style, Reims Cathedral took its (more or less) current form between 1211 and 1345. But some sort of Catholic church has existed on the site since at least 496, the year the first French was crowned there King Clovis. Since then, all French coronations have taken place in Reims Cathedral: yes, all 31 of them, including that of King Charles X in 1825 – with various revolutions and republican outbursts along the way.
The cathedral is huge, topped by two bell towers that rise 81 meters or 266 feet into the sky: the modern equivalent of a 26-story building. The next time you’re downtown, take the elevator up to the twenty-sixth floor and come to the window that looks out and down. And then imagine the visual impression that the cathedral in Reims must have had when it reached those dizzying heights back in 1345.
A visually striking exterior design aspect of Gothic cathedrals is typically the abundance of stone grotesques and gargoyles protruding outward from the walls. They may look pretty much the same to the casual observer, but the fantastical grotesques are decorative, while the gargoyles are actually cathedral roof drains that throw rainwater away from their open mouths. When viewed up close, these channels carved into the upper stone surfaces of the gargoyles are quite obvious – but they cannot be seen as people looking up from the ground. When you see a gargoyle in action on a rainy day, the water falling from the gargoyle’s open mouth seems to appear and fall as if by magic.
Here the story of the gargoyle takes a strange turn. During the First World War, the cathedral in Reims suffered about 400 direct and deliberate hits from German artillery shells. In September 1914, a large fire broke out, melting the lead sheet and covering on the roof. On this occasion, instead of water, the gargoyles drained rivers of molten lead. When the fire subsided, a gargoyle like the one in the picture (among several others) was found in the ruins, with molten lead now solidified in its channel and mouth.
When you see this artefact on display in the Tau Palace next to the cathedral, you can imagine that it simply shows how the gargoyle functions as an elevated water drainage channel. Goal no. You realize that the molten and now solid lead has been fixed in place since the fateful events of September 1914. It is a moment in your life that is absolutely stunning.
After the destruction in the First World War, Reims Cathedral was painstakingly restored in the High Gothic style. It reopened in 1938 – just in time for another German invasion in 1940. However, World War II in France was a ‘blitzkrieg’ or ‘lightning war’ of rapid military mobility and this time the cathedral was spared any significant damage.
Reims is called the ‘unofficial capital’ of the Champagne region. It is a title that the nearby town of Epernay is fiercely fighting for. The truth is that both cities have their own incredible charms and each one is worth your attention.
Brad Allan, author and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…