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germans in france -

reims cathedral

Reims cathedral stained glass broken by German shelling

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This page is a subsidiary page to Germans in France, which has a section on the German shelling of Reims cathedral.

reims cathedral of Notre Dame Saint-Jacques
the smile of reims
le beau dieu
locating the statues
david and goliath
the labyrinth of reims cathedral
 background facts 
end notes

Reims cathedral of Notre Dame Saint-Jacques

Reims cathedral was regarded as one of the most important buildings in Christendom, listed at times as one of the seven wonders of the world, with great cultural significance in the history of France, where at least twenty-four of its kings were crowned.

One of the longest cathedrals in France at nearly 140 metres, Reims cathedral was used for the great pageants of state. Despite the tremendous battering this cathedral received from German shelling, the integrity of the main structure of the building survived, an incredible compliment to the builders seven centuries earlier.

The damage and destruction to Rheims cathedral, described as its martyrdom, occured principally in September 1914, April 1917 and July 1918.

On 19th September 1914, German incendiary shells set fire to various parts of the building: the roof was burnt, though the vaulting escaped injury. The pillaring and statues by the side doors were destroyed. The western rose window and other glass were destroyed. Scaffolding around the north tower burnt, causing statues to crumble and the Smile of Reims statue to be decapitated.

In 1915 and 1916, the cathedral was struck by a hundred shells, but the worst bombardments came on four days and nights in April 1917. At one point, for seven hours continuously, the Germans fired 12-inch, 14-inch and 15-inch shells at a rate of twelve an hour, causing terrible havoc. Shells are gun-launched bombs of various types, including incendiary and gas.

The roof vaulting succumbed in bombardments during 1918, with damage done to the towers.

Marker at abelard.org

From With three armies on and behind the western front, 1918 by Arthur Stanley Riggs (1879-1952).

“there has been idle talk in both France and America about restoring the cathedral [Reims] [...]”

The author then waxes lyrical about how it cannot and should not be done. The restoration of Reims cathedral has been done, albeit in its vandalised state. Remember the book was written in 1918.

The large top-roof of Reims cathedral. To the left: before WW1; to the right: after the fires caused by incendiary bombs.
The large top-roof of Rheims cathedral. To the left: before WW1; to the right: after the fires caused by incendiary bombs.

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the 6th bridge at Rouen: Pont Gustave Flaubert,
new vertical lift bridge

Ile de France, Paris: in the context of Abelard and of French cathedrals

France’s western isles: Ile de Ré

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Marianne - a French national symbol, with French definitive stamps

the calendar of the French Revolution

beheaded small statues to the right of the Smile of Reims

la belle époque

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the Citroën 2CV:
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The damage was not more serious because the Cathedral architect and the Department of Historic Monuments took protective measures. As early as 1915, the doorways of the western façade were protected with beams and banks of sandbags, while the Treasure, paintings and tapestries were removed and placed in safety. From 1916, masonry protections were placed around some of the more valuable statues. Fallen fragments of carvings and sculpture were carefully collected, ready for future restoration. Thus, was the debris of the head of the “Smile of Reims” saved.

At the beginning of 1918, it was found possible to save the remains of the window stained-glass, as well as other still intact glass-work. The salvage was difficult as scaffolding would have given the Germans further excuses for bombardments. Instead, a small body of Paris firemen and two glaziers were employed. During foggy weather and before daybreak, they climbed up to the iron framework of the windows and accomplished their work with remarkable courage and skill.

The Smile of Reims

The Smile of Reims stamp, issued in March 1930
The Smile of Reims stamp, issued in March 1930

Thus is named one of the amazingly sculpted statues that line the doorways to the cathedral on its West facade. The happy face is renowned, though sometimes confused with another statue called the Smiling Angel that stands not far away.

The Smile of Reims is the angel alongside Saint Nicaise closest to the doorway, located at the north side of the north portal of the west facade.
The Smiling Angel is the Angel of the Annunciation - the Archangel Gabriel - standing beside Mary, ‘Our Lady’. These are to be seen on the south side of the central portal of the west facade.

Left: the Smiling Angel. Right: the Smile of Reims after restoration
Left: the Smile of Reims after restoration
Right: the Smiling Angel.

During the French Revolution, the heads were knocked off the small statues lining the doorways of the West facade [illustrated just on the left]. However, the Revolutionaries couldn’t bring themselves to smash the Smile of Reims.

Not so for the invading Germans in 1914.

Reims was occupied by Germans on 4 september 1914. German shelling was relentless. For instance, between 14 and 19 September, the town of Reims was hit by up to 2,000 shells with 170 people being killed. The cathedral was hit by between two to three hundred shells during WW1. (It is hard to find accurate bombing and shelling numbers.)

“At about 15:00 on 19th September, a shell went through the wooden scaffolding surrounding the north tower. The shell exploded about halfway up and set the scaffolding on fire. Under the great heat, half the rose window shattered, sparks spread to the interior of the building and spread to straw beds laid out inside for German wounded. At the same time, the oak roof caught fire. The lead sheets covering the roof started to boil, so a fine rain of lead fell into the interior of the cathedral. On the exterior were veritable streams of lead running under the vaults and out of the mouths of the gargoyles. It was no longer possible to contain the fire. During the night, the Rémois [inhabitants of Reims], beaten or furious, saw their cathedral consumed.

“The efforts were in vain against this terrible blaze. Abbés Thinot and Landrieux tried without success to pull away the heavy beams of the scaffolding. In the town, the rescue services were overwhelmed and powerless. The nearest fire station had been destroyed by bombing, and firemen were dealing with blazes throughout the town, in particular in the Wool Quarter, and the water pipes had burst.

“This fire surprised those watching because of its rapid progress. The first factor enabling this was a violent wind. Then the staircase of the north tower provided a strong draft which fanned the inferno of the scaffolding. Finally, the cathedral stonework included a wide variety of combustibles: straw strewn in the naves, chairs heaped in the choir, the lateral columns [tambours] of the main door (the columns had come from the old St Nicaise basilica).”
[translated from Naissance d’un mythe: L’Ange au Sourire de Reims by Yann Harlaut, Editions Dominique Guéniot]

Fire weakened the fabric of the statues on the porches of the west facade, which started crumbling. But one statue in particular suffered a shocking blow.

It was Abbé Thinot who collected the twenty-odd pieces of the head of the Smile of Reims, smashed by a falling beam from wooden scaffolding, and then itself falling over four metres. The scaffolding around the north tower had been set on fire by the German shelling on the night of 19th September 1914. The remains of the head were put in the cellar of the Archbishop, to be found again more than a year later on 30th November 1915. After the war had ended, with the help of a casting preserved in the Museum of French Monuments, the head was pieced together and returned to its angel in the West portal on 13th February 1926.

The Smile of Reims, on the right, before and after the bombing and fire on 19th September 1914
The Smile of Reims , on the right of the pictures, both before and after the bombing and fire on 19th September 1914
The statue on the left is of Saint Nicaise, who was martyred by being partially decapitated


Le beau dieu

Another important statue in Reims cathedral is that of Jesus, known as the Beau Dieu, the beautiful or fair god. This also was decapitated, in 1915. The statue had to wait until 2004 for the patronage of Claude Taittinger to enable Leandro Berra, an Argentine sculptor, to restore the damaged statue’s head using a block of Courville stone, the same stone used by the thirteenth century builders of Reims Cathedral.

the Beau Dieu statue, before the war and after German bombing.
the Beau Dieu, before the war and after German bombing.

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locating the statues

And where are each of these statues to be found on the cathedral’s exterior?

Plan of Reims cathedral, marking statues mentioned

The Smile of Reims is located on the north side of the north portal of the west facade.

The Smiling Angel is found on the south side of the central portal on the west facade, part of the Annunciation group.

The Beau Dieu is on the central dividing pillar of the east portal of the north facade - the portal of the Last Judgment. This is a blind portal, long walled up.


david and goliath

I read about the carving of the story of David and Goliath at Reims, but could not immediately locate it on the exterior of the cathedral. Eventually, I found it way way up on the west facade, above the rose window. It is very difficult to see any detail without a telescope. After much searching, I found a pre-World War One photograph where the carving appears. Below is an enhanced version. Note the shadows from the deeply carved relief.

Showing David and Goliath far above the main porch  of the west facade on Reims cathedral
Far above the main porch of the west facade on Reims cathedral,
showing David sling a stone at Goliath [on right]
and beheading Goliath [on left]

The photograph below shows the effects of the German bombardments. Even to this day, the statued frieze has not been repaired - out of sight, out of mind. The Goliath on the right has now been removed and put in the cathedral museum in the Palais de Tau. The balustrade above has been repaired.

The Friends of the Cathedral are trying to raise money to restore the Great Rose and surrounding statuary. If any visitor to Reims Cathedral can take a good photograph of its present state, perhaps they will let abelard.org use a copy.

The same facade after the World War One bombardments
The same facade after the World War One bombardments. Source: http://www.culture.gouv.fr
The Goliath statue on the right has since been removed to the cathedral museum

the labyrinth of reims cathedral

The Labyrinth of Reims was built before the coronation of Philip the Fair [Philippe le Bel], celebrated 6th January 1286, the work being directed by Bernard de Soissons.

In the eighteenth century, children and ‘idlers’amused themselves by following the lines of the labyrinth, crisscrossing in every direction. The clergy, in particular a certain Canon Jacquemart, disturbed by this game, decided to remedy the situation, in 1778 or 79, by removing the labyrinth. An over-generous canon provided a thousand pounds and the destruction completed without it being thought to save the slightest piece of this precious monument.

Fortunately, at the end of the previous century, Jacques Cellier had made a detailed sketch of the labyrinth [placed in a manuscript collection of the National Library, it was also reproduced in several archaeology works] but without details of the legends accompanying the effigies. However, there were two records made of those.

Pierre Cocquault, canon of Reims who died in 1645, recorded the legends, in his manuscript memoirs [a copy was put in the Reims town library]. The other recording of the legends was taken at the time of the destruction, being published in a local daily paper, Affiches rémoises dated 28 June 1779. Although the legends to the labyrinths were deteriorating even in Cocquault’s time, these two records together provide enough information to know who the effigies represent.

Sketch of Reims cathedral labyrinth by Jacques Cellier, 17c

In the centre is Archbishop Aubry de Humbert who laid the first stone of the cathedral in 1211. The four smaller figures are the first four masters of works [maître d’oeuvre]. Entering from the main west door:

  • At bottom right: Bernard of Soissons, maître d’oeuvre for 35 years, drawing a circle with a compass, because he ‘opened the O’ - the west rose window.
  • At bottom left: Gauche [Lefties] of Reims, master during eight years, who ‘opened’ the arches and doors. He held a pair of dividers.
  • At top right: Jean d’Orbits who worked on the nave and apse, which was finished in 1241. He held a compass, one of whose points rests on a design.
  • At top left: Jean Le Loup, master during sixteen years, who also worked on the doors. He held a very large square.

The labyrinth was certainly completed before the start of the 14th century, as it does not include another of the early maître d’oeuvre, Robert de Coccyx, who died in 1311.

Labyrinths are still to be seen in the French cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, Reims, St. Quentin, Sens, Saint-Omer and Toulouse (15th century).

Cathedrals were places of light and activity, a place for townspeople to meet. They even had markets held in the huge space of the nave. However, from the 18th century, the puritanical fashions lead to the heart and life being kicked out of the cathedrals, so they were no longer child or fun friendly.

related document:
cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France illustrated

Marker at abelard.org

For the eight-hundredth anniversary of the cathedral’s construction, the French Post Office - La Poste - has issued a block of stamps with medieval glass from Reims [below], while a series of modern stained glass windows have been installed in the cathedral.

800th anniversary stamp block for Reims cathedral
800th anniversary stamp block for Reims cathedral

Background facts

Reims Reims coat of arms

approximate population : 196,565
average altitude/elevation : 83 m
cathedral dimensions
• exterior length : 149 m
• interior length : 138 m
• nave width : 14.65 m
• nave height : 38 m


The cathedral of Reims, the story of a German crime
by the Right Reverend Monseigneur Maurice Landrieux, Bishop of Dijon
translated by Ernest E. Williams
The cathedral of Reims, the story of a German crime by M. Landrieux

Regan Paul Trench, Trubner Co. Ltd, London
hbk, 1920

The cathedral of Reims, the story of a German crime by M. Landrieux

The gothic stained glass of Reims cathedral
by Meriedith Parsons Lillich

Flashboys by Michael Lewis

Pennsylvania State University Press, hbk, 2011

ISBN-10: 0271037776
ISBN-13: 978-0271037776

$47.96 [amazon.com]
£49.50 [amazon.co.uk]

A recent and excellent historical survey of the stained glass of Reims cathedral.

Marker at abelard.org

Some reference keywords/tags:
cathedrale,france,germany,1870,1914,1940,invasion,occupation,cathedrale,Reims,Rheims,Emile Brunet,Canada,St Gervais,St Protais,Smile of Reims,Smiling Angel,l'Ange,le Sourire de Reims,

end notes

  1. It was only in the early 11th century that Reims became the normal cathedral for coronations of kings. Clovis, founder of the kingdom of the Francs - the future France - was baptised at Reims in about 495 - the site was later incorporated into the cathedral nave. Almost all the kings of France were crowned at Reims from Louis I the Pious [816] right up to Louis Philippe [1830].

    Kings crowned elsewhere were Pépin le Bref (crowned at both Soissons in 752 and St Denis in 754), Louis VI le Gros (crowned at Orleans in 1108), and Henry IV (crowned at Chartres in 1594).

  2. The price of this stamp included a 3.50 franc surtax to raise money for the restoration of Reims cathedral. Probably for this reason, not many of the stamps were sold and it is now scarce.

    A more recent Smile of Reims stamp was issued in 1970:
    Smile of Reims stamp, 1970

  3. Commonly, specialists, when looking at the western (or any other) facade, refer to the south portal on that facade as the left portal. That is, describing it as viewed from the inside of the church. On the other hand, most people will tend to think of the church or cathedral from the outside and refer to the same south portal of the west front as the righthand portal.

    Likewise, when viewing two statues alongside each other, people will refer to ‘the statue on the left’ or ‘the statue on the right’. This is also unclear because it is not certain whether what is being referred to is the statue on the viewer’s lefthand side, or a statue to the left hand of another statue.

    Hence, I prefer to refer positioning in terms of north, south, east and west. This is greatly simplified because virtually all cathedrals and churches are oriented east-west.

  4. Emile Mâle, in his work The religious art of the 13th century in France [L’Art religieux au XIIIe siècle en France] published in 1898, noted that at Reims, “Saint Nicaise, the top of his skull removed, marches with heroic serenity between two angels who smile at him” [p.362].

    There is often confusion as to whether there is one or more Saint Nicaise, or which one is which. As you can see on the left of both pictures, Saint Nicaise has the top of his head missing. Now this, I believe, is deliberate, not damage.

    Saint Nicaise is one of the saints/martyrs who had his head chopped off and then, as was common in those days, picked it up and strolled into the nearest town, perhaps performing a few miracles along the way, and maybe on into his tomb. These saints are known by academics as cephalophores [head-carriers]. Saint Nicaise was a very special cephalophore because only the top part of his head was chopped off.

    There is another, or is it the same, Saint Nicaise who having rather naively and foolishly welcomed in the Vandals, who attached him to a cart wheel before finishing him off. The Rouelle of Saint Nicaise was a round stone dais that marked the place where he was martyred, now replaced by a plaque.
  5. German shells during the first world war included 12-in., 14-in. and 15-in shells.
    shell diameter range
    12 inch/30 cm 6-7 miles
    14 inch/35 cm 30 miles
    15 inch/ 38 cm 24-26 miles
    A 14-inch shell would weigh approximately 850lbs/390kg.

    These are fired from huge guns, whether cannon or mortars/howitzers. They had originally been mounted of battleships. On land, some were then mounted on trains, able to absorb the heavy recoil by the gun carriage rolling about 100 yards along the line.

  6. From The Holy Bible: King James Version, the First Book of Samuel, otherwise called, the First Book of the Kings
    Chapter 17

    David Kills Goliath

    1. Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and were gathered together at Shochoh, which belongeth to Judah, and pitched between Shochoh and Aze'kah, in Ephes–dam'mim.
    2. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched by the valley of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines.
    3. And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them.
    4. And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goli'ath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. [The earliest texts apparently say four cubits and a span, that is nearly 7 feet tall. Later writers, enhancing the story, upped his height to nearly 10 feet tall.]
    5. And he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
    6. And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
    7. And the staff of his spear was like a weaver's beam; and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
    8. And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me.
    9. If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.
    10. And the Philistine said, I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.
    11. When Saul and all Israel heard those words of the Philistine, they were dismayed, and greatly afraid.
    12. Now David was the son of that Eph'rathite of Beth–lehem–judah, whose name was Jesse; and he had eight sons: and the man went among men for an old man in the days of Saul.
    13. And the three eldest sons of Jesse went and followed Saul to the battle: and the names of his three sons that went to the battle were Eli'ab the firstborn, and next unto him Abin'adab, and the third Shammah.
    14. And David was the youngest: and the three eldest followed Saul.
    15. But David went and returned from Saul to feed his father's sheep at Bethlehem.
    16. And the Philistine drew near morning and evening, and presented himself forty days.
    17. And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp to thy brethren;
    18. and carry these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge.
    19. Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines.
    20. And David rose up early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took, and went, as Jesse had commanded him; and he came to the trench, as the host was going forth to the fight, and shouted for the battle.
    21. For Israel and the Philistines had put the battle in array, army against army.
    22. And David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage, and ran into the army, and came and saluted his brethren.
    23. And as he talked with them, behold, there came up the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goli'ath by name, out of the armies of the Philistines, and spake according to the same words: and David heard them.
    24. And all the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him, and were sore afraid.
    25. And the men of Israel said, Have ye seen this man that is come up? surely to defy Israel is he come up: and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father's house free in Israel.
    26. And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?
    27. And the people answered him after this manner, saying, So shall it be done to the man that killeth him.
    28. And Eli'ab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eli'ab's anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.
    29. And David said, What have I now done? Is there not a cause?
    30. And he turned from him toward another, and spake after the same manner: and the people answered him again after the former manner.
    31. And when the words were heard which David spake, they rehearsed them before Saul: and he sent for him.
    32. And David said to Saul, Let no man's heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine.
    33. And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.
    34. And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock:
    35. and I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.
    36. Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.
    37. David said moreover, The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the LORD be with thee.
    38. And Saul armed David with his armor, and he put a helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail.
    39. And David girded his sword upon his armor, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.
    40. And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.
    41. And the Philistine came on and drew near unto David; and the man that bare the shield went before him.
    42. And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.
    43. And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.
    44. And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field.
    45. Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.
    46. This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.
    47. And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give you into our hands.
    48. And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.
    49. And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.
    50. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.
    51. Therefore David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.

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