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Bound by history

June 24, 2011

A German designed the set of stained-glass windows that are being unveiled on Saturday to mark Reims Cathedral's 800th anniversary. The church, where kings were once crowned, was at the heart of post-war reconciliation.

A stained-glass window at Reims Cathedral
Imi Knoebel was chosen to design the new windowsImage: Faber

The history of Reims Cathedral actually began around 700 years before Archbishop Aubry de Humbert laid the first stone for the foundation of the current church in 1211. Around the year 500 the king of the Franks, Clovis I, was baptized by Bishop Remigius in Reims, making him the first Catholic leader in the Western world. Many regard this as the moment that France was born. Almost all of France's kings were crowned in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region - 25 of them in the current cathedral. The last coronation to be held there was in 1825. This royal tradition is one reason that the sparkling wine from this region is still seen as the epitome of luxury, even though there are wines from other regions that fetch far higher prices than champagne.

A bloody history

Reims Cathedral from the outside
The cathedral stands on the site of an earlier churchImage: picture alliance / Arco Images GmbH

Reims was the target of a German military attack three times over the past 150 years: in 1870-71, as well as in World War I and World War II. In Germany, when people mention conflict and history, what usually comes to mind is the Nazi era, the mass murder of Jews, the atrocities committed during World War II, which was started by Adolf Hitler. For most French people, though, World War I remains “la grande guerre,” the Great War, to which numerous monuments are dedicated. In no other region is this more apparent than in Champagne, which saw the hardest and most sustained fighting. By the end of World War I in 1918 more than half of the population had lost their lives. In the department of Aine two thirds of the population were killed, and 85 percent of the city of Reims was destroyed.

The heart of France

The interior of the cathedral
The windows date from the 13th to the 20th centuryImage: Bruyere

Reims Cathedral was severely damaged by the Germans in World War I.

"It was clearly seen as a symbol of national history," said Patrick Demouy, a historian at the University of Reims who is also a native of the city. An organization dedicated to the preservation of the famous building, "La Societe des Amis de la Cathedrale," was founded during World War I. The main task of this organization is to raise money to fund the maintenance and ongoing renovation of the cathedral and its 2,300 sculptures. In the early years, most of the financial support came from overseas. The Rockefeller family's foundation financed the construction of a new roof truss. They were aware of the fact that this would help expedite the rest of the restoration work.

"It's thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation that the church was saved," said Bernard Poret, the president of the Friends of the Cathedral.

A place of reconciliation

West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French Preisdent Charles de Gaulle during a service in Reims Cathedral in 1962.
Adenauer and de Gaulle sealed reconcilation by attending Mass togetherImage: AP

After World War II (the Germans signed the Instrument of Surrender in Reims), German and French politicians worked to achieve reconciliation between their two peoples. The most important single event in this effort was a meeting between French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on July 8, 1962. The two leaders attended a service and prayed together in Reims Cathedral. They also publicly stated their determination to achieve reconciliation between their two countries. The 1960s was a decade that saw an increase in public interest in culture and the arts, particularly in France, leading to the creation of a separate ministry of culture. One of its plans was to get artists involved in the reconstruction of the cathedral. In 1974, the painter Marc Chagall was commissioned to design three stained-glass windows for the church.

To mark the cathedral's 800th anniversary - and the 50th anniversary of the friendship between Germany and France - it was deemed appropriate to have a German artist design a stained-glass window. At first, Gerhard Richter, a world-renowned artist was chosen, but his designs were heavily criticized by some decision makers in Reims and he subsequently pulled out. Shortly afterwards, another internationally well-known German painter was chosen. Imi Knoebel studied under Josef Beuys at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and is internationally recognized, even if he isn't quite as famous as Richter.

Criticism and praise

Knoebel's stained-glass windows also met with criticism from people like the cathedral's priest, Abbe Jean-Marie Guerlain. Although he supported in principle the idea of choosing a German, he didn't pull any punches in his assessment of Knoebel's work. Imi Knoebel's windows are made up of a large number of small pieces of glass in the prime colors, red, yellow and blue. This purity of color strikes Guerlain and others as hard or even brutal. The sharp edges on the pieces of glass serve to magnify this effect. The priest also noted that the designs were devoid of any religious meaning, which is not the case in all the other windows, including those designed by Chagall.

Stained-glass windows designed by Imi Knoebel
Knoebel's windows feature exclusively primary colorsImage: Faber

Ainne Faivre of the city of Reims's cultural department, on the other hand, sees the intensive colors of Knoebel's windows as complementing Chagall's low-key approach. The historian Patrick Demouy declined to pass judgement, but did note that works of modern art often take time to gain acceptance.

"Chagall's windows also split public opinion when they were installed here in 1974. In the meantime, Chagall has become something of a classic, because his portrayals are very figurative and full of traditional symbolism," Demouy said.

In his own words

As for the opinion of the artist himself, he doesn't give interviews but he did provide a statement:

"The primordial chromatic language of the cathedral should rise up and create a symbiosis between old and new. The color provides quality, weight and balance. It has not only color value but also luminous density," the statement said.

Author: Günther Birkenstock / pfd
Editor: Susan Houlton