A gift from the gods

Beneath the relatively new rose window in Reims Cathedral that I wrote about yesterday are three large lancet windows, presumably also quite new, but not deliberately modern looking, at least, not compared to some other even more modern windows in this same cathedral.

The south transept rose window of Reims cathedral and the three lancet windows below

The south transept rose window of Reims cathedral and the three lancet windows below

From a distance, they look very pretty and very colourful.  They also look very busy, and there is no obvious theme or imagery that jumps out at first glance, you have to look very closely to figure out what is going on in them.

There are people with wings and haloes blowing trumpets and several people with just haloes looking saintly and making blessing gestures, but this is not a religious theme – at least not in a conventional sense.   Reims is the centre of the champagne-producing region of France, so these three large and complex windows are a celebration of the main industry in the area: wine making.  In the central rectangles of each lancet is the whole production story: workers tending the vines, picking and crushing the grapes, making barrels and bottles, and so on.  In the narrow rectangles down the sides of each lancet, all the wine producing areas of the Marne are listed and illustrated, Rosnay, Trigney, Avize, Dormans, Vertus, and many others.  (click the picture to enlarge it for the details)

 A closer view of the three lancet windows of Reims cathedral (I moved them a little closer together to show them all at once)

A closer view of the three lancet windows of Reims cathedral (I moved them a little closer together to show them all at once)

At the top of the central lancet there are two angels heaving to turn a wine press, while below there is another bewinged and haloed creature praising the red fluid coming out of the bottom of the press.

Closer view of the top of the central lancet in Reims cathedral south transept

Closer view of the top of the central lancet in Reims cathedral south transept

This whole tripartite window seems to be saying that wine is a gift from the gods.  I can relate to that.

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Reims South Transept Rose Window

Have you got the impression yet that I’m very fond of rose windows?  An earlier post looked at the mostly original 13th century North Transept Rose Window in Reims Cathedral, and here is its twin, the South Transept Rose Window.

The structural form, the size and shape of both windows, is identical, but that is the only aspect of them that is the same.  They LOOK very similar at first glance, similar in age and style and type of imagery, but I’m disappointed to discover that this one is not original at all, it is a modern replacement.  The original 13th century south transept pair to the very old one in the north transept blew out in a storm in 1580.  It was rebuilt the following year, although perhaps not faithfully to the original design, but that matters little now because that whole window was destroyed in the First World War, anyway.  This replacement window was installed in 1937.

The window shows Christ in majesty in the centre, surrounded by 12 panels of worshipping angels, then the twelve apostles in roundels in the outer ring.  I imagine the theme and its realisation follows that of its predecessor fairly closely, but how similar this is to the original design I don’t know.

If you weren’t told this was not a 13th century original, I think you’d have to be an expert to be able to tell, because this is still a very beautiful window.

The rose window from the south transept of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

The rose window from the south transept of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

The central roundel from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

The central roundel from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

Some outer panels from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

Some outer panels from the south transept rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France

Notre-Dame de Reims

As soon as you turn into Rue Libergier in Reims, France, heading east, you can see the unmistakeable shape of the Cathedral of Our Lady facing you at the other end of the street.

Reims cathedral from the other end of Rue Limbirgier

This is not my photo, unfortunately.  I captured this from Google Maps Street View. I was at the wheel when I encountered this sight, and could not use a camera.

But as the great building gradually gets closer, you begin to realise a) that Rue Libergier is a much longer street than you first thought it was, and b) Notre-Dame Cathedral is much bigger than it first appears to be.

Approaching Notre-Dame Reims from Rue Libergier

Approaching Notre-Dame Reims from Rue Libergier.  This is my picture, taken at traffic lights, just as they turned green.

Reims is not a big city.  Although it’s the biggest urban centre in the Champagne-producing area to the north east of Paris,  it has a population of less than 200,000, so this great cathedral still dominates its surrounds like few of its peers are able to do any more.  This one has not been hemmed in and dwarfed by modern steel and glass and concrete office blocks.

Eventually, you have to abandon your car and approach the cathedral across its broad forecourt on foot, and it just keeps on getting bigger and bigger.

The facade of the mighty Notre-Dame cathedral at Reims

The facade of the mighty Notre-Dame cathedral at Reims

The three massive porticos fill your vision, encrusted with sculptures, beautifully proportioned, and you begin to realise why it was that all but one of the kings of France chose to be crowned here in Reims. This is a truly impressive gothic cathedral.

The porticos at the main entrance to Reims Cathedral

The porticos at the main entrance to Reims Cathedral

And then you look up.  What a thrill!  ‘Awesome’ is not a word I use very often, but some significant awe was definitely felt by me that day.  No picture can ever hope to capture the feeling of being one of those tiny, puny, people, standing in front of this extraordinary building.

As you look, from quite close up, at this gorgeous cathedral, it's impossible to see it all at once, but the rich details and the proportions of the whole structure work beautifully together.

As you look, from quite close up, at this gorgeous cathedral, it’s impossible to see it all at once, but the rich details and the proportions of the whole structure work beautifully together.

It’s also hard to grasp that it was people no bigger than those ant-like figures at the bottom of this image who built this building more than 700 years ago.  By hand.  Astonishing.

Another lovely rose window

I do like rose windows.  So here’s another one.

This one is at the end of the north transept in Reims cathedral, in northern France, and it tells the story of Adam and Eve.  In the 13th century, most people couldn’t read, and they wouldn’t have had access to any books, anyway.  All Bibles in those days were owned by the church and in Latin only, so the priests would recount and interpret the stories for their parishioners, and the windows in the church – like comic strips – would retell and reinforce some of the important ones.

The north transept rose window from Reims cathedral, France

The north transept rose window from Reims cathedral, France

In the centre of this window is God the Creator of all, and the Adam and Eve story is told clockwise in the panels radiating out from the Almighty.

Central panel detail showing God the creator of all

Central panel detail showing God the creator of all

At the 12 o’clock position, the story begins, with God creating the first people.  At 1 o’clock, we see Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  The other panels show other parts of the story, sons Cain and Abel, Cain slaying Abel, and so on, although the sequence doesn’t chronologically follow the Genesis story.  For instance, in the 10 o’clock panel, below left, we can see Adam and Eve with the serpent, and then at 11 o’clock eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, yet their banishment from the garden for doing this occurs in the 8 o’clock panel.

Top three panels, showing scenes from the story of Adam and Eve

Top three panels, showing scenes from the story of Adam and Eve

This window was made between 1231 and 1241, and it’s possible that when the panels were removed for restoration in the 17th century they were replaced in the wrong order, but somehow that seems unlikely.  It may be that the story of Adam and Eve was so familiar that narrative sequencing was not that important  in recognising the content of the images.  Has anyone got a better explanation?