For centuries, medieval cathedrals on both sides of the channel have endured damage and destruction because of religious and civil wars. The survival of Reims Cathedral, celebrating its 800th anniversary this year, is nothing short of miraculous – for which its restorers should be applauded .
Gavin Stamp, Tuesday, 1st February 2011
Next to the west front of Reims Cathedral – perhaps the most glorious display of Gothic architecture and sculpture in France – there is an electronic hoarding which announces the daily countdown to its 800th birthday later this year. Its predecessor having been damaged by a fire, the present cathedral was begun on 6 May 1211 under the direction of Jean d’Orbais. It took 80 years to complete, slow by French standards – Chartres took a mere 25 years – but fast in English terms. It took so long because the building was expensive: large, and richly treated with the sculpture that embellishes its great portals. Reims, after all, was the great royal cathedral in which the kings of France were crowned and anointed.
Medieval cathedrals do not usually have such precise birthdays, and certainly not in England where they are often the products of long and confusing building campaigns. The exception is Salisbury Cathedral, for which we know the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Poore on 28 April 1220 after the town was moved down from Old Sarum to a new site; apart from the glorious spire, it was then built continuously to a reasonably consistent plan over the following 60 years. The great cathedrals of northern France are wonders of architectural rationalism, with a precisely proportioned balance of verticals and horizontals laid out on a coherent, unified plan and those high vaults and serried arcades supported by external ranks of flying buttresses. They are calculated essays in structural unity, so different from the deliberately irregular exterior of, say, Salisbury with its several projecting transepts, where, as Nikolaus Pevsner put it, ‘on a virgin site the designer could do exactly what he thought best, and the outcome differs in every respect from the French ideal of Chartres, Reims and Amiens’.
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