We have written much about the damages done to churches by war, in particular the destruction of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims in World War I. One of the most famous photographs of that war was taken as an artillery shell exploded on the cathedral on September 20, 1914.
The town of Reims was nearly leveled in the conflict, especially during the closing stages of the war during the intensive artillery shelling that inflicted the worst damage to Notre Dame. At this time, the nearby 11th century basilica dedicated to Saint Remi, in use as a hospital since the Napoleonic Wars, was badly damaged as well.
It would take nearly 40 years of meticulous labor under the direction of architect Henri Deneux to restore Saint Remi to its medieval splendor. Deneux worked simultaneously to restore the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims, the église Saint-Jacques de Reims, and the Basilique Saint Remi. For his efforts, he was awarded the chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1927.
The basilica dedicated to Saint Remi is an integral part of the central theme of the creation of the state of France. In AD 496 Clovis I, the King of the Salian Franks, desperately needed a victory over his enemies, the confederation of Germanic tribes from the Upper Rhine known as the Alemanni. During the course of the Battle of Tolbiac, the King was dismayed at the deaths of so many of his warriors and prayed to the God of his Christian wife, Clotilde, for victory. He vowed to convert to Christianity if his forces were victorious. After his victory at the Battle of Tolbiac, the Alemanni formed part of the Frankish dominions and Clovis was baptized in Reims by Saint Remigius, known in France as Saint Rémi, on the site of the current basilica.
At his death, the venerated Remigius was buried on site where he baptised Clovis. The small oratory dedicated to Saint Christophe that sheltered his tomb became a renowned site of pilgrimage and in the late 8th century a monastery for a community of Benedictines was built here. In 852 a new church was constructed, but it was torn down in 1000 to build a larger, grander church. This work began in 1007 and was consecrated by Pope Leon IX in 1049. Work continued for two centuries and eventually the church was finished with an 11th century Romanesque nave and transepts and a massive 12th century Gothic choir.
The church is constructed on the basilica plan with a nave, two side aisles, transepts, an apse with radiating chapels, and a choir surrounded by an ambulatory. Saint Remi is enormous, 120 meters long and 58 meters wide. The nave ceiling is 28 meters high. In the nave elevation, we see the arcades with their rounded arches and the tribune level surmounted by the clerestory windows. The fine quadripartite vaulting covering the nave is a product of a 16th century reconstruction.
Despite the fact that the church took so long to construct and resulted in a combination of Romanesque and Gothic elements, the result is exceptionally harmonious, much like the same combination found at Mary Magdalene’s basilica in Vézelay. Sartell Prentice’s description of that church is applicable here as well: “… twilight beneath the groin vault of the Romanesque nave; midday in the Gothic apse”.
The original Romanesque choir was fairly small and was rebuilt in the Gothic style in the late 12th century in order to create a grander space for the tomb of Saint Remi. This central choir surrounded by an ambulatory was necessary to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to venerate the relics of Saint Remi.
At the center of the enormous four level choir is the tomb of Saint Remi containing his relics. The tomb we see today was created in 1847 to replace the 16th century version that was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1793. The new tomb incorporated sculptures from the original, which were somehow not destroyed. There was a scene of the baptism of Clovis and a series of statues of the 14th century ecclesiastical peers who assisted in the coronation of the Kings of France at the Cathedral: The Archbishop of Reims, the Bishop of Laon who held the Sainte Ampoule, the Bishop of Beauvais who carried the royal mantle, the Bishop of Langres who held the scepter, the Bishop of Chalons who carried the ring, and the Bishop of Noyon who carried the King’s baldric.
Most of the stained glass windows are from the 17th and 20th centuries, but there are a few above the tomb that have survived from the 12th century. We can see those panels embedded in the newer glass in the tribune level.
Saint Remi is one of my favorite churches in France, remarkable for its elegance and harmony, despite the violence perpetrated over the ages. Sometimes I get so upset over the destructions done to these churches. In my mind, they are emblematic of the best in human striving and we seem to be able to destroy them without a second thought. But then again, perhaps we would not have the opportunity to witness the greatness of men such as Henri Deneux who dedicated himself to bringing them back to life.
Hanging in the crossing is a large chandelier with 96 candles that pays homage to Saint Rémi, who died at the age of 96. It is only fitting that the restorer of Saint Remi, Henri Deneux, also died at that advanced age, and for some of us, the chandelier is a reminder of his accomplishments as well. His true memorial, however, is the great church that we see on the site of Remigius’ baptism of the first Christian king of France.
Location: 49.243094° 4.042122°