The story goes that in the 13th century, when three great French cathedrals were being built — Notre-Dame de Paris, Notre-Dame de Chartres and Notre-Dame de Reims — the builders of Notre-Dame de Reims, determined to achieve primacy over the other two and perhaps employing a bit of industrial espionage, managed to make their massive edifice just a little bit more massive than the other two. As in, a few extra feet.
If you plumb the history of Reims’s great cathedral, you will come across a lot of tales that start with “the story goes,” or “it is said that” or “legend has it.” I’m pretty sure some of them are not true. But I also know for certain that the most superlative of these tales — the most dramatic and awful and heartbreaking and hopeful — is. To tell it well, though, you need to stroll through the others first, even those that may not be entirely factual.
They start well before the one about its competition with Paris and Chartres, two of the most famous cathedrals in the world. That Notre-Dame de Reims stands out even in such august company says a lot about its awesome proportions and magnificent beauty; it may even be the reason that King Louis IX, who reigned over France while the contest was still underway, decreed that all future French monarchs would have to be anointed at Notre-Dame de Reims. And for half a millennium, they were.
Truth be told, though, a strong case could have been made for Reims (pronounced “Rance,” except you have to kind of swallow the n) even without the measuring sticks, and probably was. It was a major city going back to Roman times, by some accounts the third-largest in the empire, in an era when Paris and Chartres were just small towns. More important, it was a center of commerce between the Romans and various Gallic tribes, and anyone else in the known world who wished to trade with either of them. Some who traveled thousands of miles to do so must have taken advantage of the Roman baths that stood on this spot back then.
As the Romans receded, Christianity tiptoed in, and a church replaced the baths, probably in the early fifth century. Late in that same century, Clovis, a Frankish king who united other Frankish tribes into what we now recognize more or less as France, came to visit. A pagan, he had recently agreed to accept Roman Catholicism, either (depending upon whom you read) to appease his Catholic wife or to strengthen his position against various tribes of Goths beyond his border. Or both. Whatever his reasons, on Christmas Day in 496, he stood in the center of Reims’s small church and was baptized by St. Rémi, bishop of the city; it is said that a dove flew into the chapel bearing a vessel of holy oil in its beak and deposited it in the bishop’s hand. Then Clovis had 2,000 of his followers baptized, too.
And thus was Reims transformed from a regional center of commerce to a powerful symbol for all the people of France. The little church grew into a cathedral, and when it burned down in 1211, work immediately began on a new Notre-Dame de Reims. Its majesty, and King Louis IX’s decree, only elevated Reims’s position in the French psyche. But it is what happened there nearly seven centuries later that renders it unique among the great cathedrals of France and perhaps the world.
When Patrick Gielen, a local historian and tour guide, started telling me about the royal consecrations that took place at the cathedral, I almost got the sense he was there. “People would come here from everywhere,” he said. “First you had the nobles and their staffs coming to participate in the ceremony and the pilgrims coming to see it. Then you had the people who came to sell things or provide services to all those people. And then you had people who came to sell things or provide services to them. It was like a huge carnival.” And it lasted for months, the enormous square in front of the cathedral filled with people day and night. The population of Reims, he said, would grow from 50,000 to 150,000 or 200,000 every time it happened.
It happened 25 times, and though history has not judged most of those occasions as memorable as the revelers regarded them in the moment, there was the time, in 1429, when a dauphin who was about to be anointed King Charles VII was escorted to the cathedral by a teenage girl wearing men’s armor and leading an army. People still talk about that one. (There’s a statue of her across the square; based on what I’ve witnessed, she takes a lot of hits from Frisbees.) In 1825, Charles X decided he would be anointed there, and was. It proved to be a bad decision; perhaps Charles should have heeded the fact that the last king to have celebrated the rites in Notre-Dame de Reims, his older brother Louis XVI, came to an unfortunate end. Some say Charles’s disregard for the optics of the affair fomented dissatisfaction among the populace that culminated in his banishment five years later (albeit with his head intact) and the end of the Bourbon line.
The cathedral, though, suffered no loss of affection or prestige. By then the city surrounding it had developed into a center of culture and the arts, not to mention the position of the unofficial capital of the Champagne region, its substrata riddled with the cellars used in making sparkling wine. But Reims’s status has long been tied to its cathedral, and the cathedral has bestowed its symbolic importance upon the city surrounding it. France seethed when the Prussians took Reims in 1870, made it an administrative capital and looted it relentlessly; and thought it only fitting when the Allies chose it as the place to receive Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945.
But it’s what happened here in between that made Reims, and especially its resplendent cathedral, synonymous with man’s barbarity, and man’s resilience.
After the Germans left Reims in 1871, the French, determined to keep such a thing from ever happening again, built forts around the city. But when the Germans returned in 1914, the troops from those installations were sent to protect Paris, leaving the city vulnerable. The Germans took it on Sept. 4, just a month into the war, and quickly turned the cathedral into a hospital for their troops, covering the floor with straw pallets; but a week later, when the French turned them back at the Marne, the Germans abandoned the city and consolidated their lines on the heights a few miles to the north and east, their big guns pointed at Reims — just defensively, they insisted. “They promised they wouldn’t fire on the cathedral,” Patrick Gielen said with a sigh.
And they didn’t.
For a week.
The first shell hit on Sept. 19, 1914; much of the cathedral was surrounded by temporary pine scaffolding, which caught fire. The blaze spread to the roof, which was oak and lead. The oak burned. The lead melted, poured through cracks in the burning roof, and set the Germans’ straw afire, as well as the wooden pews and anything else combustible. Outside, it streamed through gargoyles and other statuary that adorned the edifice on all sides. Much of the cathedral was badly damaged or destroyed, including the Smiling Angel, the most beloved of the cathedral’s legion of statues; a stone giant standing beside one of the front doors, he’d greeted visitors for more than 600 years, and was, as much as anything else there, a symbol of the place. When the molten lead hit him, his head fell off and broke into pieces on the front steps. Legend has it an abbot scurried out the next day and carried them off for safekeeping.
It was only the beginning. Over the next four years, some 300 German shells hit Notre-Dame de Reims, adding “Boche Kultur” — German civilization, always uttered ironically — to the list of symbols for which the edifice stood, even though, at that point, it was barely standing. A photo of it, taken at the moment of a shell’s impact, became one of the most notorious propaganda images of the war. By Nov. 11, 1918, it wasn’t much more than battered walls, enfeebled buttresses and rubble.
Restoration took a very long time, in part because of the magnitude of the damage, but also, Mr. Gielen explained, because after the war, many French felt “the cathedral should be left as it is, to reflect the suffering they endured.” The city of Reims, he said, had fared no better. Ninety-five percent of it was destroyed; the wartime population shrank from around 50,000 to some 1,500 souls, most of them hiding in Champagne cellars.
But Reims was rebuilt, and so was its cathedral, with help in part from the Rockefeller family. One of the very first projects was the restoration of the Smiling Angel; his return, Mr. Gielen said, “showed that Reims had recovered its smile and its power.” But it was a slow recovery: The cathedral did not open to the public again until 1935. Still, it has never closed since. Mass is celebrated there every Sunday; services are held several times a week. People go there to pray, get married, have their babies baptized. A million a year, the local tourism office told me, come just to see it.
There are no records of how many of those people, who often spend hours looking at the 2,307 statues and sculptures on and in the cathedral, wonder about those — including all the ones that surround the front doors on the inside — that are missing arms or legs or faces or all three; or how many who come to view some of the famous stained glass windows, including a set by Marc Chagall, wonder why most of the soaring windows are just clear glass, when once they were all composed of brightly colored panes dating back to the Middle Ages. Maybe they notice the pockmarks, some the size of basketballs, that cover the walls outside, or that the figure standing next to the Smiling Angel is missing the top of his head (and not smiling). Maybe they know that those stones that are now deep red were once white, until they were baked by a wash of molten lead a century ago. And maybe they don’t.
But I’m guessing few miss the small square stone, set into a spot that was, ages ago, the center of a much smaller church:
ROI DES FRANCS
A few blocks away, next to another open square, you’ll find a small amphitheater of sorts, wide steps leading down to a classical gallery known as the Cryptoportique. The steps are modern. The gallery dates back to the third century, when Reims was known as Durocortorum. Today, it’s a gathering spot where you can hang out and listen to live music. The last time I was there, a very lively Afro-French band had almost everyone dancing.
Eighteen hundred years ago, it was no less lively, although the music that filled the air then was the singsong of merchants and customers haggling. Whether or not there’s a show going on, you’re welcome to make your way through a door on the left side and descend into the ancient marketplace — now mostly underground — and walk around. The stalls are long gone, but the space is just as it was when the Romans built it. Many centuries of dust and dirt conspired to spare it the indignities that German shells wrought upon the nearby cathedral.
I’ve never been down in that place and not been entirely alone there: alone with the stones, and the pillars, and the arches, and the alcoves, and the niches, and the windowsills. Maybe that’s what makes it so much easier for me to imagine that indoor bazaar in its heyday than to envision the cathedral being bombarded, even though the latter happened only a century ago, and I have seen photographs of it.
A map last Sunday with an article about Reims, France, located the city incorrectly. It is about 75 miles west of where it was shown on the map. A corrected map is at nytimes.com/travel.