The Interior: Stained Glass
It’s hard to decide which element is the most striking aspect of the Cathedral’s interior: the stained glass windows, the soaring Gothic arches, or the small chapel of St. Joan of Arc (well, this last one is my favorite…but only by a little).
Sadly, just a few of the stained glass windows in Rheims are original 13th century creations. Up until the First World War, there were thirty-six original medieval stained glass panels in the nave (central aisle) but only four of them survived the bombings (didn’t they think to take them down?)
The magnificent rose window in the north transept (the arms of a cross-shaped building) is also original, and it is truly stunning. Medieval stained glass work is another instance where you shake your head and wonder how they actually accomplished such perfection in art. The many other stained glass windows are indescribably beautiful.
Of the modern windows, several stand out. Of the modern windows, several stand out. Three windows in the center chapel behind the sanctuary manifest the lush and striking hues of the famous stained glass artist, Marc Chagall (installed in 1974). They pour forth cascades of radiant color into the darkened spaces and dazzle the eye.
My favorite stained glass creations by far, though, are the three windows dedicated to Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk who created champagne! In case you didn’t know, the city of Rheims is the capital of the Champagne Region in northern France, so there’s quite a bit of local pride in these windows.
The Interior: Gothic Arches
When you walk into the Cathedral, again, you cannot help but feel overawed by the soaring architecture which takes your breath away from the very first moment you look up. It’s as if you just found yourself in a forest of elegantly carved stone redwoods which converge in a canopy 150 feet above you. The pointed arches, as they’re called, are another magnificent Gothic creation meant to resemble praying hands pointed upward so that the worshipper would always have his eyes and his heart raised to heaven in prayer.
A radical silence pervades the environment and is not enforced by priests or monks standing over you. It’s more a question of not being able to speak when you are so busy being overwhelmed looking up into all those sacred windows and forms of grace. The gentle splendor of sheer reverence envelops your soul there.
There is one view, however, you must drink in when you go there. If you stand at the back of the cathedral in one of the side aisles and look toward the front door, you will see a brilliant cascade as the lower gothic arches of the side aisle lead your eye in a kind of telescoping manner down the rows of columns to the rose window in the front portal. Only when your church is 455 feet long can you achieve this effect! It’s just magic.
The overall experience of Rheims is grace-filled. On my trip there, I remember entering the cathedral at the moment the massive ten-ton carillon bell in the south tower began to ring for the Noon Angelus. There had just been a ceremony with incense the hour before, and the midday sun was gently coursing through the stained glass windows. In short, all my senses became instantly enlivened and my soul entranced as I looked around and up, and my heart was raised in prayer – exactly as the medieval architects had intended.
The Interior: Joan of Arc
The best aspect of Rheims for me was knowing that Joan of Arc herself had once walked those same aisles and stood in those same hallowed halls looking around and up like me. There used to be a marker in the sanctuary designating the exact spot where Joan stood in full regalia holding her war banner during the coronation of Charles VII, but – alas! – centuries of renovations (and carelessness) have wiped out the memory of the precise location.
Going around the sanctuary toward the back and to the left, you will find the side chapel dedicated to France’s heroine, which is crowned by three modern stained glass windows today. That humble, silent space displays a statue of a petite female figure standing (at the coronation) enrapt as it were in the spiritual grace of having completed her mission to get the king crowned at Rheims (which occurred on July 17th of 1429).
Behind her image, on the wall, is a replica of the 12-foot battle standard she carried thundering into battle as the chosen warrior princess of the French kingdom – and of God’s kingdom above all.
Views of Magnificence
My only regret back then is that I could not stay and dwell longer with her on that moment of victory. (The Feast of Epiphany is the traditional date of Joan’s birthday, so her life and greatest victory are fitting subjects for our contemplation.) My only regret at this moment is that a short newsletter cannot do justice to the experience of the Cathedral of a thousand statues.
To compensate for these limitations, I invite you to take a moment to view the short video of France’s third most famous cathedral, Notre-Dame de Rheims (often called “the other Notre Dame” in deference to the more famous Notre Dames in Paris and Chartres) Our Lady was well-honored in Medieval France indeed.
The modern visual arts will give you a view of that glory that you can only really understand by going there to experience the Cathedral of Kings and Angels firsthand.
Cathédrale de Reims (duration, 4:14)
[Note: This article is a reproduction of the Sacred Windows Email Newsletter of 1/8/23, so it does not end with the regular Soul Work section. Please visit our Newsletter Archives.]
Photo Credits: All Wikimedia unless otherwise noted. Feature (Fab5669); Façade (Clelie Mascaret); Interior Nave (Mattana); Main Street (Johan Bakker); Smiling Angel (Elena Tatiana Chis); Portals (Mattana); Gallery (Fab5669); Sculptures (Tony Bowden); Windows: (Vassil 1), (Fab5669 3), (Ad Meskens 2 & 4), (Bastenbas 5); Side Aisle (Johan Bakker); Joan of Arc (Flickr).