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The Queen of Cathedrals

Willibald Sauerländer, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer
sauerlander_2-032212.jpg
Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive
The vault of the nave of Reims Cathedral

From the outset, the renewal of ecclesiastical architecture in the French crown lands was linked to images of the monarchy and its commemoration. In the ancient abbeys, the graves of the Merovingian and Carolingian kings were renovated. Statues of kings were installed at the church porches. These monumental royal memorials reached their high point under Philip II (1165–1223) when a gallery of twenty-eight kings was installed across the façade of the Cathedral of Paris.

The same idea was taken up by the builders of the Cathedral of Reims. Here, the monarchs are not arrayed side by side; instead they appear as imposing individual statues of varying format and physiognomy. They are moving witnesses to the consecration of the French king. There is no consensus about whether they represent biblical kings or the monarchs of France, but in a deeper sense, it doesn’t matter. Each one is a king, anointed by a priest, be it David by Samuel or Clovis by Rémi.

And again, the image of the royal consecration appears on the exterior of the cathedral as well, on its façade, where the structure appears even more magnificent. Down below, at the main entrance, Mary is being crowned as the patron of the cathedral and the statues invite the faithful to the great Marian holidays, from the Feast of the Annunciation to Candlemas. But up above, the façade is crowned by a gallery of kings. In the middle is the baptism of Clovis, the ultimate image of the symbiosis of church and crown represented by the Queen of Cathedrals.

I should say, finally, how moved I am as a German to be permitted to speak in this place on the occasion of its eight hundredth anniversary. Not quite a hundred years ago, it was German shells fired by our fathers and grandfathers that set fire to and devastated Notre-Dame de Reims. In September 1914, a blow was struck at the heart of France. Among the smashed sculptures found lying before its portals was the grievously damaged face of the famous smiling angel. In the midst of the mourning, the phrase “the smile of Reims” was born and the image of the wounded smiling angel unleashed a cry of outrage around the world.

But looking at the image now, almost a hundred years later, with the cathedral’s wounds healed, this head seems more a promise of happiness, just as it once stood at the porch and promised the martyr Nicasius the bliss of Paradise. This promise of happiness has outlived the destruction and pain, triumphed over outrage and hatred, so that today a German can be a “Friend of the Cathedral of Reims” and celebrate its beauty. For that I am humbly grateful, still a bit awed, but above all happy from the bottom of my heart.

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