The Rheims Cathedral has served as the coronation church for the kings of France from its beginnings. In 498, King Clovis of the Franks was baptized in an earlier church here by St. Remi himself, thus allowing Francia to be a Christian country. This baptism functioned as a coronation. Later in 816, the Carolingians first introduced the coronation ceremony in imitation of the anointing of David by Samuel. This happened when Louis the Pious chose the town of Rheims as an appropriate place to receive the imperial crown so as to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor for whom he was named - (C)LOVIS. He thus secured the historical continuity of the monarchy.
The earliest of the four churches on this site, St. Nicasius in the Vth Century, actually incorporated the Roman baths that preceded it into the Baptistery. This was a simple Basilican plan church. In the IX Century, the Archbishops Ebbon and Hincmar rebuilt the church in a Latin cross plan. Samson enlarged and altered its appearance and size in the XIIth Century into the third church by lengthening the church with a new west facade and a new apsidal choir. This burned in 1210 when a major fire destroyed the town center on May 6th. One year later to the day, Archbishop Aubrey de Humbert laid the cornerstone for what is the present day church.
No less than four mason-architects were involved in the design of the cathedral: Jean d’Orbay (choir and transepts) up to 1228, Jean leLoup (the west front which rivals that of Amiens) up to 1244, Gaucher de Reims (the nave from the transept to the west front) up to 1252, and Bernard de Soissons up to 1287.
The design of the Cathedral is in the Lanceolate style that was pioneered at Chartres, but with much greater refinement and richer ornamentation. Unfortunately, political strife and a disastrous fire in 1516 prevented forever the completion of the full design. The timber falsework had burned, and funds became extremely short. It had been intended in the original design that each of the towers (two on the west, two on the south, two on the north) were to have a lance like spire, similar to that of the southwest tower at Chartres, in their centers with lesser lance like spires surrounding them. The crowning glory was to be a huge lance like spire at the crossing of the transepts and nave. However, the power, harmony and proportions of what is actually constructed is so dominating that one does not sense or feel that anything is missing from the composition of the whole.
The reverse side of the front facade of Rheims (the interior face) is very unusual. Every surface that is not a part of the two rose windows is dedicated to statuary, so much so that the wall seems to dissolve or feel as if it were a screen. This repeats the incredible statuary of the west facade. The two rose windows are considered to be the finest of all Gothic churches. With light from a setting sun, it is a magnificent sight. In fact all of the stained glass of Rheims is a marvel.
The plan of the Cathedral has a very wide nave and even wider choir to accommodate all of the functionaries involved in the coronations. This impression of vast space is defined in the nave by the arcades of clustered piers which support the shallow triforium and soaring intersecting vaults 137 feet above the floor. There are flying buttresses over the single aisles of the nave and the double aisles of the chevet. These buttresses demonstrate the thrust of the vaults and the resolution of the forces into the columns on the exterior with the pinnacles above and the expressive statuary.
The Cathedral was severely damaged, almost totally destroyed, during the First World War. What we see today is an exceptional reconstruction that was paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation.