Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Rémi and Palace of Tau, Reims
By virtue of the outstanding handling of new architectural techniques in the 13th century and the harmonious marriage of architecture and sculpted decoration, Notre-Dame Cathedral at Reims is a masterpiece of Gothic art. The perfection of the architecture and the sculptural ensemble of the cathedral were such that numerous later edifices were influenced by it, particularly in regions of Germany. The former abbey still has its beautiful 9th-century nave, in which lie the remains of Archbishop Saint Rémi (440-533). The former archiepiscopal palace known as the Tau Palace, which played an important role in religious ceremonies, was almost entirely rebuilt in the 17th century.
The cathedral, the Archiepiscopal Palace, and the old Abbey of Saint-Rémi are directly linked to the history of the French monarchy, and hence to that of France in general. These places were part of the coronation ceremony, the result of a perfect balance between Church and State that made the French monarchy a political model throughout Europe until modern times.
Of great importance in the early days of Christianity in Gaul, Reims had a number of archbishops who were major figures in the Roman Catholic Church, canonized after their death. This was the case for the most famous among them, Rémi (440-533) the archbishop who baptized Clovis and instituted the Holy Anointing of Kings. The ceremony was fully established in the 12th century, and after that time almost all French sovereigns were consecrated at Reims. For the Royal Anointing, which took place in the town's cathedral, the Ampulla containing the Chrism, or holy oil, was brought from the Abbey of Saint-Rémi. Rémi, who died in 533, was buried in St Christopher's chapel, which was replaced in the 11th-12th centuries by a Benedictine abbey church.
The monastic buildings date from the 12th-13th centuries, but were extensively remodelled during the 17th century. However, some very interesting medieval parts were conserved. The present cathedral, built on the site of the Carolingian church which was destroyed by fire, is one of the great French cathedrals of the 13th century. Along with the cathedrals of Chartres and Amiens, it is at the summit of the classical Gothic style. At Reims all the innovations introduced at Chartres may be found, except that the builders of Reims, perhaps conscious of erecting the church for the coronation of the kings of France, enhanced the structural elements with greater lightness and made more openings in the walls to allow a maximum of light to filter through the stained glass and illuminate the sacred space. Nowhere is sculpture so prevalent on a Gothic facade than it is at Reims.
More than simple ornamentation, the sculpture of Reims Cathedral is an integral part of the architectural composition. Reflecting both Île-de-France traditions and the minor arts of the Champagne region, the sculpture possesses a monumental character and a grace inspired by the silver- or goldsmith's art. While the smiling figures on the west facade are very famous, the sumptuousness of the composition of the Crowning of the Virgin (above the central portal) or the grave antique nobility of other figures such as Elizabeth in the composition depicting the Visitation should not be overlooked.
The old archiepiscopal palace was both the Episcopal See and an important step in the coronation ceremony, the banquet being held there. It was almost completely rebuilt by Robert de Cotte on the behest of Archbishop Le Tellier. The beautiful 18th-century Palatine chapel and the 15th-century banqueting hall were kept intact.