The Architectural Scars of War: the Bombardment of the Reims Cathedral

Sketch of the elaborate facade of the Cathedral of Reims, with two towers, huge rose windows, and gothic details.
Cathédrale de Reims, drawing by Adrien Dauzats (1804-1868). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As a Canadian visiting France, I marvel at the age of the built heritage all around me. Stained glass windows in some churches are considered relatively new if they’re from the 1500s and it isn’t unusual to see windows from the 1200s or earlier. A friend of mine used to spend the summers in the south of France in the family “cabin”: a partially collapsed medieval watchtower with a more “modern” 19th century roof. Many think of these historic buildings as somehow “timeless” or untouched, but in many cases they have lived through centuries of turbulent history and it is quite frankly a miracle they’ve survived to the present day to be seen and photographed by the likes of me.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the city of Reims for the first time for the National Association For Interpretation International Conference. (Pronunciation guide: “Reims” rhymes with the French pronunciation of the word “Prince”.) Every day on my way to the conference centre, I walked past the magnificent cathedral. Before I left town, I had a chance to visit the Palais du Tau museum next door, which explored the history of the building and the coronations that were once held there. There were several displays showing some of the Cathedral’s old gargoyles, and I am so glad I didn’t rush right past them.

These gargoyles look like they’re vomiting metal. Why? The massive cathedral in Reims, where generations of French kings were once crowned, was partially destroyed by bombardment during the First World War. The roof collapsed, leaving only the intricate Gothic façade. After the cathedral was hit, the lead roof melted from the heat of the flames. The molten metal flowed down through the gargoyles, which were after all designed to shunt rainwater from that very roof. These remnants are a powerful reminder of the effects of war. I had to stop and gape at them in astonishment after I fully understood what the little info cards next to them were telling me.

Once I got home, I of course felt compelled to look up historical photos from the war. I’d visited the interior of the cathedral before visiting the Palais de Tau, and at the time I’d had no idea of the extent of the damage and the post-war restoration work. It’s disorienting to see the following photographs of a place that I had just visited. The building now looks, to my inexperienced eye, nearly untouched.

 

 

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View of the interior of the Reims Cathedral from the coronation area, 1917. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2570). 
We read about the world wars in books and we see archival footage in documentaries, but in North America the wars feel somewhat removed. However, the signs of war are impossible to ignore in north-eastern France. It may be random post-1950s buildings in an older quarter: signs of post-war rebuilding. Maybe it’s countryside that looks unnaturally landscaped: grassed-over trenches and battlefields. Those older buildings, too, have literal scars. Some places in some other cities, like the Palais de Justice in Rouen, kept the pockmarks from shrapnel and bombardments deliberately as a reminder of the horrors of war. In the case of Reims, they rebuilt a facsimile of the medieval building, though they have new stained glass in 20th century style in some of their windows. That restoration took over a decade and must have been a monumental effort, considering the scale of the damage. Churches and cathedrals are symbols of their communities, and having something like this happen to one must have been a huge blow. I am not surprised that it was the focus of restoration work – but also that this incident remains a point of fascination to people like me even a century later.

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