Reims Cathedral, Part I
Posted by gninja on May 28, 2006
Reims Cathedral. A mess. At first glance this massive, looming cathedral is just a melange of, well, a lot. And it is. It's swallowed by its own sculpture, which is crammed into and onto every available exterior surface. The cathedral has attracted scholarly attention since the beginning of the twentieth century, and monographs on it were periodically published up until the 1990s. What's remarkable about the literature on the church is just how unremarkable it is. Documents from the 13th century tell us about the long and controversial progress of the cathedral's construction (from May 6, 1210 to about 1290), and there are ample references to the social upheaval that halted progess in 1233– the towspeople rebelled against the clergy who had been milking construction donations out of them for years. But, with the exception of some apathetic references to this revolt and one article by Barbara Abou-el-Haj, the scholarly literature on Reims has remained boringly focused in matters of chronology. That is to say: which sculptures were carved first and the order in which they were installed on the facade. Boring. Intellectually narrow.
So. After researching the sculpture on Reims Cathedral I noticed that trying to determine the "correct" dates of the sculpture adorning it ignores what would have been important to the medieval viewers of this church. Instead of trying to find some grand, unified, completely organized scheme governing the sculptural program of the church, I chose to work within the framework of medieval artists and designers, who had an exponentially more flexible notion of unity than ours.
In short, I looked to medieval literature for answers. If, as many medieval philosophers and writers claimed, the church could be read as a book, and if preachers treated the church sculpture as visual aids to their sermons, why not compare the church to a piece of contemporaneous literature? So, I did. And, unsurprisingly, it works.
Repetition. Throughout the sculpture of the chruch we see certain figures or themes repeated. Like this:
These are both sculptures of Calixtus, a third century saint, persecuted and martyred by the Romans. But why have two different sculptures of him on the same church? Nothing from the sculpture of Reims tells us why– and certainly, knowing the order in which they were installed doesn't help us. But I would argue that conventions from contemporaneous literature can provide an answer. As with medieval literature, modified redundance (such as a literary refrain that changes slightly with every repetition) served to remind the audience of an important theme or aspect of the story, but also to force them to consider that same theme or aspect from a different perspective. In this case, different significant facets of Calixtus' person and biography are emphasized according to the placement of his effigy.
On the left, Calixtus is surrounded by a cluster of sculptures that champion the place of Reims Cathedral within the history of Christianity. These sculptures combine images from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and current events (for example, portrayals of recent French kings) to decalre that the progress of Christianity throughout time includes its blossoming in France, and not just Rome and the Holy Land.
On the right, we see Calixtus accompanied by a host of other local saints whose relics were housed at Reims. These images comprise a sort of advertisement for Reims Cathedral itself. In flaunting large and imposing statues of the saints whose prized relics Reims hostes, the building itself proclaims its own importance. And in so doing attempts to attract more pilgrims, or, more bluntly, the donations of more pilgrims.
I believe that, without this repetition, these two distinct natures of Calixtus (local saint and representative of Christianity's progression into France) would not be recognized. In the next post, I'll address another literary convention that crops up in the sculpture of this very messy building.