The Queen of Cathedrals

Willibald Sauerländer, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer
sauerlander_1-032212.jpg
Château de Versailles/Bridgeman Art Library
The procession of King Louis XV after his coronation at Reims Cathedral in 1722; painting by Pierre-Denis Martin, 1724

This essay is based on a talk given in the Reims Cathedral on its eight hundredth anniversary in 2011.

The France of the ancien régime had sites of sacred commemoration—above all in cathedrals and abbeys—where the monarchy and the church entered into a ritual alliance of immense symbolic significance. The monarchy received consecration from the church while the church secured protection from the monarchy. No other country in medieval Europe enjoyed a comparable symbiosis of crown and altar. By contrast, in the Holy Roman Empire, the Investiture Controversy set the power of the emperor to appoint bishops against the principle that the church should not be subject to secular interference. In England, Thomas à Becket was martyred in 1170 in the struggle between king and church. It was only in the France of the Capetian kings starting in the late tenth century that peace reigned between the monarchy and the church hierarchy, and it was largely this peace that allowed the beauty and magnificence of the cathedrals in the French crown lands to flourish.

The first site of sacred commemoration was the royal abbey of Saint-Denis. It stood outside the gates of Paris, the town that in the twelfth century was becoming established as the capital. The abbey church had served the kings of France as a burial place since the days of the Merovingian Dagobert I (circa 603–639). Here, the rulers slept at the feet of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, whom the Middle Ages regarded as a disciple of the Apostle Paul. In the thirteenth century, in the days of Saint Louis (1226–1270), a lacy Gothic basilica was erected over their graves, arranged by dynasty. One of the great achievements of medieval French architecture in both its churches and its castles was the representation of sovereign state power as ceremony. Enshrined at Saint-Denis was the Oriflamme, the battle standard of the French kings, and the royal insignia were kept in its treasury.

The French crown’s second site of sacred commemoration was the Cathedral of Reims. There, on Christmas Day in 498 AD, Clovis, king of the Franks, was baptized by Rémi, the archbishop of Reims, who according to a later legend anointed him with oil brought by a dove from heaven. It was the miraculous birth of the Christian kingdom of France. Almost all the kings of France up to the Revolution would be crowned in the Cathedral of Reims and anointed with heavenly oil from the inexhaustible sacred phial.

That oil was kept at the grave of Rémi in the Abbey of Saint-Rémi outside the city gates, and on coronation day, the abbot would hand it over to the archbishop at the threshold of the cathedral. Because of this unique privilege, Reims Cathedral, whose eight hundredth anniversary was celebrated this past year, became the queen …

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