The Story of Notre Dame de Reims
The fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in the spring of 2019 shocked people around the world. Centuries of history, priceless art, and countless religious artifacts were damaged, and without the bravery of the Parisian firefighters, the destruction could have been total. Notre Dame has a long road ahead, but this is not the first time the French people have been faced with such an ambitious restoration project. It's not even the first Notre Dame to be nearly destroyed.
Notre Dame de Reims
In Reims, a stately French city about 90 miles northeast of Paris, the town’s historic center is dominated by one of the most famous and historically significant cathedrals in all of Europe. Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 13th century, was the historical coronation venue for the French monarchy. From its completion in 1275 until the end of the monarchy in 1789, almost all of France’s sovereigns were crowned within its walls. The rest presumably had their parties at Chuck E. Cheese.
The massive gothic cathedral towers over the charming town below. Its gothic façade and famous twin belfries rise nearly as tall as New York’s famed Flatiron Building, and with a floor area greater than 70,000 square feet, the interior is large enough to contain an entire football field. The exterior is adorned with intricate carvings, statuary, and gargoyles, and the stone interior is illuminated with light from exquisite rose widows and stained glass panels, so maybe don’t actually try to play football in there.
World War 1
Though Notre Dame de Reims survived centuries of tumult and upheaval—most notably the French Revolution, during which the cathedral was sacked and many of the royal artifacts were looted or destroyed—it could not escape the devastation of the Great War.
After Germany’s brutal invasion and occupation of Belgium, the Kaiser’s army turned south and began its advance toward Paris. The bucolic French countryside was turned to a smoldering and cratered moonscape, and cities in the country’s northeast were essential logistical hubs for the war effort.
Owing to its proximity to the front lines, Reims sacrificed greatly during the war. Shelling razed much of the historic core, but in an effort to save the cathedral from the bombardment, it was demilitarized and converted into a hospital. Despite valiant resistance, by September of 1914, the city had fallen to the German army. The French quickly reclaimed it, but they could not dislodge the Germans from nearby territory and the shelling of Reims resumed in earnest.
On September 19th, a German artillery round struck the cathedral’s north tower, and a massive fire broke out shortly thereafter. The wooden roof was consumed by the blaze, and the flames grew so hot that they melted the structure’s metal supports and seals. According to famous accounts, the molten metal even poured from the mouths of the gargoyle downspouts, which must have caused even more praying than the cathedral usually inspired.
After the War
Like much of northeastern France, Notre Dame de Reims was in ruins. Rubble and wreckage littered the countryside, and evacuees returned to find their homes and communities reduced to ashes. Even now, more than a century after the armistice, parts of the landscape are still so contaminated by chemical pollution and unexploded ordinance that even those brave enough to consider it are forbidden from living there.
Reconstruction of the cathedral began in 1919, but it would not fully reopen to the public until 1938. Important statues and carvings were painstakingly recreated by the best artists and craftsmen in the world, but many of the lost historical works were impossible to replace. Notre Dame de Reims was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991, and the structural and aesthetic restoration work continues to this day. They’ve clearly still got a long way to go, but hopefully the story of the Notre Dame de Reims gives Parisians some comfort. With just a century of work, the Notre Dame de Paris, too, may be almost restored.