Cover image for The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral By Meredith Parsons Lillich

The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral

Meredith Parsons Lillich


$77.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03777-6

364 pages
9" × 10"
100 color/158 b&w illustrations

The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral

Meredith Parsons Lillich

“In this spectacular book—the fruit of profound research—Meredith Lillich rescues the stained glass of Reims Cathedral from obscurity. With careful scrutiny of the remains and always mindful of the limitations of the evidence, Lillich coaxes the glass to reveal its remarkable secrets. The result is a stunning evocation of the history of the thirteenth century, including the nature and extent of episcopal power in the period, the concern with heresy, and the splendor and ambition of the French monarchy. This book has no rivals and hardly any equals.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Dubbed the Cathedral of France and first church of French Christendom, the Gothic cathedral of Reims was the coronation site of more than two dozen French kings—and a target of German bombardment in World War I. Before 1914 its medieval stained glass had enjoyed the fame of Chartres and Bourges. The first extensive study focusing on the stained glass of this preeminent cathedral, The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral offers a groundbreaking analysis of its glazing program. Through unique insights into the clerical agenda and its influence over a building devoted to the coronation of the French monarchy, Lillich considers the stained glass in the context of building chronology, political events, and artistic movements to present a completely new understanding of the stained glass of Reims.
“In this spectacular book—the fruit of profound research—Meredith Lillich rescues the stained glass of Reims Cathedral from obscurity. With careful scrutiny of the remains and always mindful of the limitations of the evidence, Lillich coaxes the glass to reveal its remarkable secrets. The result is a stunning evocation of the history of the thirteenth century, including the nature and extent of episcopal power in the period, the concern with heresy, and the splendor and ambition of the French monarchy. This book has no rivals and hardly any equals.”
“A masterly analysis of the stained glass of Reims Cathedral, until now a largely neglected stepchild of the cathedral’s sculptural decoration. Style is not overlooked, and the different phases of glazing are dated, but Meredith Lillich’s aim is to present a convincing case for the iconography of the clerestory windows, reflecting the uses of the areas of the cathedral below them: chevet, the apostolic succession of the archbishops of Reims and their suffragans; transept, the chapter and its offices; nave, the coronation site. This is done with many a well-turned phrase, buttressed with extensive documentation and full-color illustrations of the glass.”
“Wittily and compellingly written, meticulously and imaginatively researched, and lavishly illustrated, Meredith Lillich's The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral is an impressive achievement. She situates the glass in the liturgical, historical, and political context of the coronation cathedral of France, studying its origins and the many vicissitudes experienced by the precious pieces that have survived. Focusing on the glass, Lillich provides a host of insights into and observations about the church that houses the windows, the individuals who created and preserve them, and the monarchs who traveled to Reims to receive their crowns within the church's precincts.”
“The cathedral of Reims is a vital element of French medieval political and ecclesiastical history as well as a much-studied monument for its architecture and sculpture. Renovations, natural and human disasters, and equally problematic restoration campaigns have obstructed a competent overview of its windows. Meredith Lillich has been engaged in the study of Reims for many years, and this publication emerges as the definitive volume on the glazing.”
“This is, flat out, a great book, one destined to be both a classic in medieval studies and a model for future scholars. Meredith Parsons Lillich has accomplished a ‘scholarly miracle’: an excellent, comprehensive, readable analysis of the many complex, sophisticated, and multivalent programs of stained glass in the upper (clerestory) windows at Reims Cathedral, arguably the most important Gothic cathedral in France. This superb book goes a long way toward filling one of the largest ‘black holes’ in our knowledge of thirteenth-century Gothic art.”
“Meredith Lillich is a preeminent specialist in the study of French Gothic stained glass. During a distinguished academic career as a legendary teacher of art history, she has published spectacular studies of stained glass that have become models of art-historical interpretation for generations of students and scholars. But her book on Reims is particularly special. She explores the cathedral’s curiously understudied windows from a variety of perspectives—from the stylistic habits and design tendencies of the artists who produced them to the messages they conveyed to the audiences who initially viewed them. The elaborate programs of the upper-story glazing emerge as carefully crafted visual dialogues around the bold moral concerns of the Church and its claim to power during the thirteenth century; they balance broad ecclesiastical agendas with focused local meanings related to the role of this archiepiscopal see as an administrative hub and as the coronation site for the kings of France. Lillich writes with clarity, insight, and verve, her language embodying her affection and enthusiasm for this major medium of medieval painting and the dedicated human beings who created the windows and devised their meanings. This is a book to be cherished by all who are interested in cathedrals, stained-glass windows, and the rich Gothic culture that brought them into being.”
“Lillich is refreshingly practical in her view of the unfolding of the glass and of the discourses of power and division which have dominated some recent discussions of Rheims. Lillich is a contextualist when she needs to be, but above all she brings to this study the experience and relaxed assurance of a lifetime’s work, and patiently pulls together the information in a way that helps the reader. Arranged as an east-west exposition of the glass, her monograph contains all the technical material that will satisfy specialists in regard to reordering, reuse (including pre-1210 glass from the previous church), damage and conservation. She works methodically through to the glazing of the west front. This book is thoroughly documented, clearly written and makes the very best of an exceptionally demanding subject.”
“This book is fundamental reading for all scholars of the glazing programme at Reims cathedral.”
The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral offers an unparalleled and exceptional analysis of an insufficiently explored glazing program of immense artistic richness. Lillich’s book, supported by a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, is compellingly written, meticulously researched, and enriched with extensive documentation and full-color illustrations of the glass. . . . Intended for both specialists and nonspecialists, the book is easy to read and will interest not only art historians, but also anyone passionate about medieval architecture.”
“It is a genuine pleasure to read The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral, for one is in the company of an art historian who not only knows and loves her trade, but whose breadth of knowledge ranges from medieval foldstools to ferculum Salomonis; from heraldry to royal fashion; and from angelic symphonic instruments to bishops’ seals.”
“Thèse, synthèse, hypothèse. Ces trois mots peuvent résumer l’impression que donne ce livre. Érudition brillante, fruit d’un travail mûri, mise au point en grande partie définitive sur un vaste sujet qui était bien mal connu et propositions parfois hardies, qui auront le mérite de faire réagir et encore progresser la recherche.

Meredith Parsons Lillich is Professor Emerita of Art at Syracuse University.


List of Illustrations


1. Un Peu d’Histoire

2. The Rosaces of the Chevet

3. The Lancets of the Chevet

4. The Transepts: Grisailles, Roses, and Belles Verrières

5. The Rosaces of the Nave

6. The Lancets of the Nave

7. The Glazing of the West Facade

Coda: Comparanda

Appendix 1: Heresy in Champagne

Appendix 2: Genealogy of Archbishop Henri de Braine

Appendix 3: Ogive Glass of Bays 100–104

Appendix 4: The “Spanish Connection”: Legends of the Apostle James, Translations by Pierre de Beauvais, and the Family of Archbishop Henri de Braine

Appendix 5: Pierre de Beauvais and the Bestiary

Appendix 6: King Solomon in Bed (Song of Songs 3:7–8)

Appendix 7: Lectulus and Ferculum (Song of Songs 3:7, 9)

Appendix 8: Two Seraphim Attributed to Reims in U.S. Collections


Selected Bibliography



When Gioachino Rossini premiered his opera giocosa Il viaggio a Reims on June 19, 1825, King Charles X—for whom he had composed it—had been anointed and crowned for exactly three weeks. Charles’s sacre in the Gothic cathedral of Reims was the final coronation seen there in a long series begun, as was the structure, in the thirteenth century. The interior of 1825 remained scarcely altered until the First World War (see figs. 1–2). And following the extensive repairs necessitated by that war, visitors still acclaim Reims cathedral’s dazzling combination of lucidity, opulence, and grandeur.

The visitor to Reims first responds to the soaring height, what Whitney Stoddard called “the bigness of scale.” Reims is taller—and narrower—than Chartres. The breathtaking verticality is held in repose by the horizontal accents of the sculpted capitals and the triforium, as well as by the insistent linear grid of colonnettes and stringcourses (fig. 3). Regularity and consistency in the detailing impart clarity, elegance, and rhythm to the dynamic vertical thrust. The traceried windows are the most original element in this impressive interior. Two rows of windows, the aisle bays below and the clerestories above, all but eliminate wall surface. Each of these arched wall openings has tracery dividing it into paired lancets surmounted by a six-lobed rosette, the interstices between these elements also pierced for glazing. The repetitive doublet-and-rose design binds floor to high vault, while the enhanced dimensions of the clerestories—around fourteen meters tall —contribute lightness to the rising space. This is a book about what other contributions these windows make.

Only the high windows are studiable. Well before 1825—by the mid–eighteenth century—the aisle bays had been stripped of their glazing, and no description exists of their subjects or even of formats. That is, we do not know whether the lower windows contained medallions, resembling Chartres or Bourges, or if any of them held grisailles combined with larger figures, as in the axial chapel of Auxerre. Until 1914 the clerestories and the great rose windows survived in some form or reconstruction, and observers made notes and drawings of them. The glass that survived the war, and what was remade thereafter, benefited from the cataloging project of the French Corpus Vitrearum, published in Recensement IV in 1992. The Recensement’s very useful bay-numbering system has been adopted in this book (see fig. 4).

The heavy international publicity attendant upon the extensive restorations of the 1920s–30s discouraged scholarly interest in the stained glass of Reims. The brief overview provided in Hans Reinhardt’s monograph of 1963 (see my bibliography), based though it was upon the repaired glazing, long remained unchallenged. The government archives left by Henri Deneux, architect of the repairs, have gradually become more accessible. In 1988—fifty years after the completion of his work—an appreciation was mounted in the form of an exhibition at Reims accompanied by a publication, Rebâtir Reims: La collection photographique Henri Deneux 1870/1938, edited by Isabelle Balsamo et al. And in 1995 one of Deneux’s descendants donated to the Bibliothèque municipale de Reims a precious collection of fifty autochrome photographs detailing the windows, made following the initial bombardments of 1914. As Sylvie Balcon-Berry has made clear, these pioneer color images—while not all sharp or legible—nonetheless allow us to establish the precision and accuracy of the postwar restorations. They are particularly valuable for the nave, where repairs were abandoned for the twelve bays most severely ruined (Bays 130 through 141). Only the clerestories in the four easternmost nave bays now contain stained glass; the blankglazing filling the remainder is a stark reminder of what has been lost.

The accuracy of the restorations was possible because the glazier Jacques Simon had at his disposal the collection of full-scale tracings and drawings assembled over decades by his grandfather Pierre and his father Paul Simon, previously in charge of the cathedral glass. Begun in 1848, these frottis were made directly from the surface of the glass. Paul Simon published several in 1911 (see my bibliography); a few more exist in copies in the Bibliothèque municipale de Reims. These fragile and unwieldy documents have remained in private ownership. I join my voice to those of Balcon-Berry and Peter Kurmann in hoping that the means will be found to inventory, digitalize, and preserve them. A volume on Reims cathedral under the auspices of the French Corpus Vitrearum would then be possible.

This book has a different purpose, sustained by the resources noted above as well as by careful reassessment of the evidence left by nineteenth-century witnesses. The subject programs of the Reims glass are the primary focus here, and they are considerably more complex and sophisticated than has been recognized. Their careful investigation is coordinated with current scholarship in the liturgy, historical documentation, physical environment of the cathedral close, archeology, and recent dendrochronology, with the goal of advancing our understanding of this great enterprise: the who, when, why, and how of it.

Chapter 1 provides an entry to these perspectives. Because the cathedral’s subject programs are set forth in the rosaces crowning the lancets, chapter 2 discusses the iconographic importance and uniqueness of the apostles cycles in the chevet rosaces. They are the most complete ensemble since the mosaics of San Marco and emphasize the themes of Faith and Charity opposing Heresy and Avarice. Chapter 3 follows with the iconography and sequential production of the chevet lancets, the arguments based on program, timing of patronage, and style. The circle of archbishop and suffragan bishops in these lancets proclaims the themes of apostolic succession and the power of Ecclesia to combat the sins of disbelief and disobedience. Chapter 4 opens with the glazing of the transepts in grisaille, framing the high altar there. The north rose presents themes concerning the sinfulness of rebellion against God (and the clergy), while the lost south rose countered with the ultimate triumph of Ecclesia (and the clergy) at the end of time. This chapter concludes with an investigation of the images later inserted into the transept grisailles of Bay 118. I hypothesize that they are remnants of glazing added to the Romanesque west facade about 1220 and then redeployed to Bay 118 above the repositioned baptismal font when the nave was extended and a new facade designed.

Chapter 5 investigates the iconography of the nave rosaces, based on the ritual of the coronation ceremony and various writings of the influential Carolingian archbishop Hincmar. Chapter 6 continues the examination of the nave bays and the theme of the distinctive power of Reims to anoint and crown the French kings, articulated by Hincmar. The nave program initially was planned to reach the Romanesque facade (see figs. 3, 160, 161); study of the later, western nave extension is challenging in the absence of remade designs there. Chapter 7 discusses the glazing of the west rose, integrating the coronation of the Virgin with French coronation ceremonials. The lancets beneath the rose, dated around 1290, project a (royal) layperson’s donation. Such lay patronage is otherwise unknown among extant windows. And a coda briefly undertakes a comparison of the Reims glazing with that of monuments of comparable stature.

The chronology I provide is, if anything, straightforward and moves from east to west:

Belles verrières (now in Bay 118): ca. 1220

—Bay 100: 1227–30

—Bays 101 and 102: 1231–33

—Bays 104 and 105 (and irons of Bay 106 rosace?): 1233–34

 Hiatus in the work (canons in exile): November 1234–January 1237

—Bays 105 and 106: 1237–mid-1238

—Bay 108: mid-1238–mid-1240

—Bay 107: after July 1240

—Bays 109 and 110 (and some transept grisailles?): July 1240–September 1241

—North and south roses: ca. 1241–45

—Bays 121 through 126: ca. 1245–55

—Bays 127 through 130: ca. 1255–70

—Bays 131 through 140: ca. 1275–85

—West facade gallery: ca. 1290

—West rose: 1290s

These dates were not dictated by any of the timetables proposed for the structure or the sculptural programs, though I have noted those hypotheses where they coincide. Reims has been called “une vraie forteresse du gothique classique conservé.” Its glazing, extending throughout most of the thirteenth century, seems to affirm this judgment—no band windows, no heraldry, no soaring canopies. But conservatism implies tradition, “the disposition and tendency to preserve what is established; opposition to change” (Webster’s). It is hardly the appropriate term for stained-glass programs that have few comparanda either before or after.

A fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation made it possible for me to write this book. Research began in 1990, though I collected materials even earlier. Since then a sea of friends, strangers, and partners in crime have come to my aid. It was also in 1990 that I purchased my favorite guidebook, in a café across from the cathedral: À la découverte des secrets de Reims, authored by the ten-to-eleven-year-old students of the École primaire Mazarin. Their interview with Madame la Cathédrale includes the question, “Avez-vous quelque chose de coloré pour faire plus gai?” to which she replies: “Entrez, venez voir mes vêtements bordés de rubis, d’émeraudes, de saphirs, de diamants qui m’illuminent et que les hommes ont appelé des vitraux.” Venez, entrez . . .

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