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Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims), begun 1211, Reims, France. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Steven] We're in the square in the city of Reims in France looking at one of the great Gothic cathedrals. - [Beth] Everything seems to reach heavenward. - [Steven] It's pierced everywhere. - [Beth] As we look at it, it hardly feels like stone, it has a weightlessness. - [Steven] This is a characteristic of the High Gothic period. - [Beth] We're not far from Paris, and in fact the great Gothic and High Gothic churches form a circle around Paris. - [Steven] This period in the 12th and 13th centuries was a period in which France was not the nation as we now know it. The Capetian monarchy, the king of France, was in control only of the Ile-de-France, the area that surrounds Paris. Beyond that, other feudal barons, lords, controlled large areas. - [Beth] But it's during exactly this Gothic period that the Capetian monarchs expand their territory, and increase their power. And one of the ways they do that is by cathedral building. - [Steven] A building like this doesn't spring out of nothing. This is based on centuries of experimentation that we can see especially in great Romanesque churches in the years after the turn of the millennia. - [Beth] The desire to build roofing out of stone that we see being in the Romanesque reaches a kind of perfection during the Gothic. It's these developments in things like flying buttresses and in the Groin Vault that allow the Gothic builder to build so tall, so high, to pierce the walls in the way that he does to allow light to enter the building. - [Steven] But all of that is in the service of the spiritual, to use light symbolically to create a space that is meant to represent heaven on earth. - [Beth] Typically for both Romanesque and Gothic churches we have a west front which has three entrances. Generally, that reflects the interior of the church. - [Steven] And these are called, portals. And they reflect the interior because the central doors enter into the widest part of building, the nave. And each of the side doors open up into the side aisles. - [Beth] Beginning in the Romanesque period, we begin to see figures on either side of the doorway and above the doorway in a space called the tympanum. The figures on either side, they're called jamb figures. - [Steven] Because they're attached to the door jams. And then surrounding the tympanum, almost like amplification of the shape, are archivolts. These radiate out and here they create closed porches. - [Beth] They're quite deep. They create this funnel that draws the visitor in. Now here at Reims, instead of sculpture, we have stained glass in the tympanum. The sculpture that we would expect to see in the tympanum, is now above that in the gabled spaces above the achivolts. - [Steven] Now just above the rose window in this central portal, there's another even larger rose. - [Beth] At this cathedral in particular, the artists have achieved an amazing thing with the stained glass windows. They've reduced that stone that holds the glass in place to very fine tracery. It seems miraculous that that glass is being held in place. - [Steven] And glass has even been added around the rose itself. And solid stone in earlier churches has here been opened up to allow even more light in. On either side of the rose window are two enormous towers, pierced throughout so that light pours through them and they seem delicate. - [Beth] And then we have another feature which is typical of Gothic churches, in this case it's located above the rose window, and this is called the Gallery of Kings. Here we have a row of Old Testament kings who are understood as the ancestors of Christ. According to the New Testament, Christ traced his lineage back to the house of King David. - [Steven] This is called the tree of Jesse and that refers back to Jesse the father of King David. But in this particular church at the center of the Gallery of Kings, we see the baptism of King Clovis, the man who begins the ancient Merovingian Dynasty, a dynasty that the more modern kings of France would have looked back to. - [Beth] What happened at Clovis's baptism was a miracle. The oil required to anoint him during the coronation ceremony was miraculously received by the Bishop from a dove sent by God. - [Steven] That legend is important because this is the Cathedral where the coronation ceremonies took place, where the kings of France received their divine inspiration, their divine power. - [Beth] So let's go take a closer look at the central doorway. What strikes me most of all as we approach any of these the three doorways is how animated the jam figures are. They tilt their heads, they move their bodies. Many of them look down at us. It feels as if they're alive, and if we imagine that they were once painted, that would have enhanced their realism to any visitor walking through these portals. - [Steven] But if they were real, they were giants. These are large sculptures. - [Beth] Significantly larger than life-size. - [Steven] We've walked into the central portal and we're looking at the jam figures that are on the right side. We have two scenes. On the left is the Annunciation, we see the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. The Annunciation is the moment when the Archangel Gabriel visits Mary with the news that she will bear Christ. - [Beth] And on the right we see a scene known as the Visitation when Mary's cousin Elizabeth visits. They are both pregnant, Elizabeth is pregnant with Saint John the Baptist. And of course Mary is pregnant with the Christ child. - [Steven] When you look at these two pairs of sculptures, you can see that they were carved at different times and in very different styles. - [Beth] This is a big undertaking to build a cathedral. Not only would you have to have many masons who are cutting and carving stone, but also many sculptors who are working likely coming from different workshops in the region. And so it makes sense that you might have sculptures that are stylistically different. And here at Reims especially, we know that sculptures were moved from different locations on the building. And so it's not quite as coherent as we might see at another Gothic church, like Amiens, for example. - [Steven] Well, look at the figures on the right. They look so classical. They're wearing drapery that at first glance seems as if it could come from ancient Rome. - [Beth] Right, and that's what we mean by classical-looking back to the cultures of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And we know that Reims was an important ancient Roman city. There are ancient Roman ruins here that may have been an important source of inspiration for the sculptors who did the scene of the Visitation. - [Steven] So much so that earlier art historians thought for a time that these might actually be antique sculptures from ancient Rome. - [Beth] What makes them look so classical, so ancient Greek or Roman is that clinging drapery. We could think back to the sculptures on the Parthenon for example. - [Steven] And like those ancient Greek sculptures we see attention to the bodies below the drapery. When we look at Mary, we see her right knee projecting out, a traditional way of representing the body that we call contrapposto where her weight is largely on her left leg in this case. - [Beth] However one of the tips that tells us this is not classical, but is in fact Gothic, is that that sway in her hip that forms an S curve in her body is exaggerated. And that's something we do see quite often in high Gothic sculpture. - [Steven] This is a characteristic that was considered quite elegant and part of the courtly culture especially of 12th and 13th century France. - [Beth] In early Gothic sculpture when we had jam figures, there was a very close association between the figures and the columns behind them. But here the figures seem to almost have nothing to do with the columns behind them. They're very independent. The figures interact with one another. There's a sense of freedom from the architecture, so that we almost read these as freestanding sculptures. - [Steven] Lets take a look at the Annunciation. It's not just that this pair contrast with the classicism of the Visitation, but the figures are different from each other. - [Beth] And so we seem to have actually these two pairs of sculptures, the hands of three different sculptors. Compared to the figures around her, Mary seems very simple. She might hark back to an earlier Gothic style. Her drapery is primarily these lines that fall straight down toward her feet. We have very little sense of a body underneath that drapery. - [Steven] She reminds us of the more columnar figures at Chartres. although she has more mass, she has more solidity, she's more of this world. - [Beth] But look at how kindly her face appears, gentle, generous. Mary is understood as an intercessor as someone who intercedes between human beings and the divine. As someone who appeal to Christ and help ensure our place in heaven. - [Steven] And that is beautifully represented by the angel to her left. This is Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will bear Christ. And in this case the angel is represented with anatomy that seems otherworldly. The head is quite small, the body is lyrical, the carving is incredibly delicate, and Mary seems earthly in comparison. - [Beth] He is very elongated, a very thin graceful neck. The way he pulls up his drapery seems like a very refined member of the court in Paris. Art historians believe this is the latest of these four figures. - [Steven] The original paint, the original polychromy is still visible. This is a reminder that all of these figures would have been brightly-painted. - [Beth] That lovely angelic smile, that other worldly smile. The puffing of the skin around the eyes, the delicate curls of the hair. These are features that we see in other sculptures from this time period. - [Steven] And that we can see in other jam figures on this church. If we turn around to the left side of the central portal, we see especially the figure known as Joseph carved in a style that is very similar to the angel. - [Beth] And last but not least, we have a figure in the center as we look toward the doorway, this is called the trumeau which supports the lintel. And here we see a very atypically Gothic sculpture of Mary holding the Christ child, supporting him on her hips with that sway of drapery. - [Steven] And as a reminder that this church was closely associated with the Capetian monarchy, she wears a large crown. So there is this immediate association between temporal and divine power. - [Beth] And as we stand in this doorway about to walk into the church, I'm reminded of the medieval visitors who would have looked up and seen figures that they were familiar with. They would have heard sermons about these figures. They were have heard chants and songs. And in many ways these figures were alive for them as we enter the church. - [Steven] We've entered into the cathedral. We've walked past the nave to the side aisle. And we're looking now across at the interior elevation. - [Beth] This is a very typical elevation for a Gothic cathedral. We have the nave arcade, the row of arches that we see on either side of the nave, and we notice that they're pointed which is a very typical feature of Gothic architecture. And then above that we see a triforium. - [Steven] Now above that is the clerestory, these soaring windows. In this case two very tall lancet windows. And above the lancets, a small lobed window that looks like a small rose. - [Beth] Sometimes called an oculus. And here even in the spaces between the lancets, even there we have glass. So this idea of opening up as much of the walls as possible to the glass, now that's a really difficult feat when you have a stone vaulted ceiling. - [Steven] Which weighs a tremendous amount, and which exerts tremendous pressure downward and out and all that needs to be supported. Part of the brilliance of the Gothic is the understanding that that weight can be born not entirely inside the church with massive piers, but much of that weight can be drawn outside and supported by flying buttresses that allow for light to come into the church unobstructed. - [Beth] If we go back to the Romanesque, those stone vaulted ceilings were carried by these massive heavy walls. And along with the flying buttress that allows Gothic architects to open up the walls to allow for this light is the use of the ribbed groin vault. - [Steven] Let's start at the bottom. We have large piers visually made lighter by the addition of these engaged columns, what are called colonnettes, that rise delicately up and that continue the entire length of the elevation, all the way up to the center of the vaulting. A groin vault is the intersection of two barrel vaults. The Romanesque was in love with the idea of taking a Roman arch and extending it in space to create a barrel vault. But what happens when you intersect at 90 degrees, two barrel vaults? You get a curved X shape that's known as a groin vault. - [Beth] One of the benefits of the groin vault is that it allows the weight to come down on two points, instead of continuous walls, and that allows one to open up the space. - [Steven] In this case, the vaulting is four-part. And at the intersection of those four parts, we have ribbing that was an important architectural innovation that allows for much of the work of holding up the building to be taken by that ribbing rather than the webbing in between. Gothic architects often used a type of stone that was lighter for that in-between space. - [Beth] And as we look down the aisle at the ribbing, we see this lovely pattern creating linear decoration. - [Steven] The linear is seen everywhere in the interior, but we also have it interrupted by beautiful decorative passages that are foliate, that is that show foliage, leaves. We see it at the top of columns. And we also see it separating some of the sculpture on the interior west wall. The fact that architecture is purposefully using light as a symbolic expression of the divine is quite extraordinary. Light can pass through glass. It is magical substance. And here architects are weaving it into the very fabric of the building. - [Beth] To give us a sense of the heavenly. One of the things that distinguishes this cathedral from others from this period is that we're missing so much of the original stained glass. This city was heavily bombed during World War I and the cathedral sustained real damage that took decades to rebuild. - [Steven] That's most evident in the destruction of some of the sculpture on the exterior of the building, but also in the loss of the original glass in the clerestory, in the nave. What the destruction of World War I afforded the church was the opportunity though for modern artists, most notably Mark Chagall, to create new windows for the church. And we see a set of gorgeous lancet windows in the axial chapel, the back most chapel in the church. - [Beth] We've walked back down toward the west end toward the entrance, and we're immediately faced by this unusual and fabulously beautiful sculpted wall. We're looking at dozens of figures in small niches that surround the rose window. - [Steven] And this screen frames each of the three portals. And it's interesting to note that the subjects that are represented on the interior west front, reflect the subjects on the exterior portals. - [Beth] One can imagine the king after the coronation ceremony, after the King is imbued with divine power, turning around to process out of this doorway and looking at the very scenes we're looking at today. - [Steven] And two of the most prominent niches, just to the right of the main portal, reflect the relationship between the church and the king. We have two Old Testament figures, Melchizedek and Abraham. - [Beth] Both are dressed in the garb of the Middle Ages, so we might not immediately recognize Abraham because he's dressed as a knight. - [Steven] And although Melchizedek and Abraham were kings, here in his knightly garb, Abraham represents the monarchy. - [Beth] And to his left, Melchizedek from the Old Testament who is both a king and a priest and he's administering bread and wine to Abraham. - [Steven] And it's a reminder that in the 12th and 13th centuries, in fact for the entire medieval period, there is a complex relationship between the church and the king, between spiritual and temporal power. - [Beth] You have a king coming here to be anointed, to be crowned as king-- - By the church. - [Beth] By the Archbishop. So there's that sense in which the Archbishop is empowering the king. On the other hand, the king once he's anointed during the coronation ceremony becomes God's vehicle on earth to protect and care for his kingdom. So you do have this almost coequal powers during the Middle Ages. Here I think exemplified by the pair of figures of Melchizedek and Abraham. - [Steven] Melchizedek reaches towards Abraham. Abraham, his hands together in prayer, bends forward towards Melchizedek and it's almost as if the architectural frame that surrounds each disappears. - [Beth] And yet, we're drawn to that beautiful foliage pattern that surrounds each of these niches. A reminder of how important the natural world was becoming during the Gothic period. This is a time of renewed interest in the philosophy of Aristotle, but also renewed interest in nature. - [Steven] Make no mistake, this is not the Renaissance, but there are focused moments of naturalism in medieval sculpture and we see that here in the representation of the oak, of some of the vines, as a framing motif. - [Beth] All of this in the service of understanding the world, the universe that God created for us, and the vehicle of the church for our salvation. - [Steven] The church is still breathtaking. One can only imagine how miraculous it must've seemed to somebody in the 13th century.