The jolly village de Noël has just sprung up again at the foot of the cathedral in Reims; pretty with the illuminations and little chalets but pretty uninspiring for me these days, I have to admit with a certain regret. The whole commercial aspect has finally crushed the magic out of Christmas for me, and this frenetic spending spree seems to start earlier and earlier each year. It was therefore not so surprising that a small exhibition in Le musée Le Vergeur caught my attention far more...
Having sustained catastrophic damage at the outset of the First World War, Reims cathedral became the symbol of the suffering of the entire French nation in this war "to end all wars". In the following years of hostilities, the vision of the devastated cathedral, along with countless other images of war-ravaged sculpture and architecture haunted the population. Yet from portraying these passive victims of war-time brutality, the images went on to play an active role in the denunciation of such atrocities and their perpretators. As the title of the exhibition highlights, French art and artists signed up for the war; 'Le Patrimoine s'en va-t-en guerre'.
Reims had been invaded by German soldiers in the early autumn of 1914 and the grandiose Gothic cathedral that towered over the city received its first humiliating blow. Notre-Dame de Reims that had been the illustrious site for the coronation of the kings of France for over 700 hundred years was suddenly used as an infirmary and for storing hay.
When it was hit by enemy artillery shells on the 19th September 1914, the ensuing fire spread rapidly throughout the cathedral which had literally been transformed into a tinderbox. Such was the intensity of the blaze that the molten lead from the Medieval roofing flowed down from the mouths of the gargoyles in what must have been cataclysmic scenes.
In Belgium, the destruction of the centuries-old library in 1914 was referred to as the 'crime of Louvain', an outrage on a parallel with that of Reims, itself an act of barbary against humanity, culture heritage and religion. The image of these martyred monuments was taken up as a powerful weapon of propaganda against Germany.
The remois artist Adrien Sénéchal (1896-1974) produced the work L’Art en Deuil (Art in Mourning) in 1914, having witnessed first-hand the fire at the cathedral. He was one of many artists, writers and intellectuals who denounced the German onslaught led by Emperor William II.
The image of the Kultur Krupp, seen here in a lithography by Albert Robida (1848-1926), was used to present the virtual obliteration of Reims and other towns and cities, by the enemy - the cruel, imperial eagle. Clutching onto the treasures of French heritage with its murderous talons, it reigns proud over the scenes of desolation, like the most nightmarish gargoyle made flesh, brandishing its flag in honour of the might of the arms manufacturer, Krupp.
Over the following years, Reims was the target of intense fighting with the majority of the city buildings finally destroyed and the cathedral left a ruin, with its windows largely burnt and blown out and the roof lost to fire and shelling.
One of the most poignant victims of the damage to Reims cathedral was sculpture of Saint Nicaise, the Ange au Sourire
and when he fell, shattered, it seemed to symbolize the demise of the entire monument and all that it stood for.
In May 1915 an exhibition was held at the Trocadéro in Paris, displaying works brought together by the Musée de la Sculpture Comparée
. The casts of sculpture, some dating back to the Middle Ages and all damaged and/or lost in the present day, were shown to the public.
The director of the museum, Camille Enlart, selected pieces that left the visitor in no doubt of the anti-teuton sentiment that was highlighted in the most dramatic way in this 'war of images'.
The collection was set out in chronological order, following the various affronts and hostilities committed by the Germanic peoples over the centuries, from the barbarian invasion up to more recent events with the France-Prussian war of 1870 and the Great War itself.
The two casts of original mid-15th century busts that had once looked down from the doorway in the chancellery of Strasburg before destruction in the siege of the city by Prussian troops, were defiantly labelled as 'Busts destroyed by the Germans i870'.
Copies of the four console heads from the cloth hall of the city of Ypres in Belgium that were destroyed in 1914 by enemy fire were likewise clearly labelled.
Fortunately, moulds had been taken of the scuplted wooden heads by the atelier for the royal history museums in the late 19th century. How many works of art were not so 'lucky' as these and disappeared with no remaining trace?
In from late 1916, another exhibition took place, two years after the first that had deplored the loss of art and architecture, symbols of culture and civilisation, to 'German vandalism'.
This second exhibition 'Oeuvres d'Art Mutilées ou Provenant des Régions Dévastées par l'Ennemi'
was held in the Petit Palais in Paris and showed the full horror of the brutality of war and its widespread repercussions. There was certainly less need for labels to spell anything out to the visitors this time...
The poignant images of churches and their symbolic decoration burnt and broken seem to underline the overwhelming suffering and incomprehension of soldiers and citizens alike.
Today, we have History and hindsight to help us try to fathom past wars - albeit the bare facts alone for how could anyone track the full depths of such inhumanity in human terms ? What could people have understood back then in the four long years of the Great War ? They must have asked themselves how any God could allow this carnage to happen to their flesh and blood and how anyone could allow it to happen in the face of Faith, directed at their God and their places of worship.
The decapitated Madonna of the Pièta from a church in the Marne region seems to reflect the unbearable loss and mourning of thousands of other mothers, regardless their nationality. The inconceivable had become a war-time reality from which no one would escape without lasting wounds and scars.
When the fragmented remains of the statue of the Christian martyr Tarcisius were shown, the parallel with the shattered bodies of the soldiers on the Front was immediately drawn. The expression of suffering is complete yet there is a sad serenity - similar to the one seen in the Madonna statue from a church in the Somme.
With her skull literally bound with wire, she represents all disfigured battle victims - whatever the war - maimed mentally and physically and yet held together by whatever means...
The same could be said of the cathedral here in Reims, and indeed the Musée Le Vergeur and the fact that they have not only survived but are resplendent today is surely something to celebrate... The exhibition will continue until the first days of 2022 and is well worth a visit in its remarkable setting.