Basilica of St. Remi, Reims

The Romanesque Revival is such an important style of architecture in St. Louis, so I jumped at the opportunity to visit the fascinating transitional structure of the Basilica of St. Remi in the cathedral town of Reims (more about that church in the future). The former abbey church, which as its name suggests holds the remains of St. Remi, forms part of a UNESCO world heritage site.

What makes the church so special is that it was built in the Romanesque style, with huge, thick, hulking walls with small windows, but then was later renovated in a rustic, early Gothic style. The Romanesque is often belittled as a “primitive” or “imperfect” style that was replaced by the more “refined” Gothic, and it is interesting to see in one place how the two styles, one classical and the other anticlassical, interact with each other.

The two towers, for example, flanking the front façade, are distinctly Romanesque, small windows on the lower floors betraying their builders’ lack of understanding of structural stability, and they only really open up to the air on the higher levels. Compare with the tower of the former Holy Family in St. Louis.

Likewise, the windows of the nave are small, and some are even blocked up, as the walls are load bearing as they are in the Romanesque, as there was limited understanding of the use of buttressing. But what is so interesting is that Gothic flying buttresses, with stodgy piers, have been added later to direct the force of the weight of the vaulting down into the ground, relieving the pressure on the walls. But the builders must have still been worried, hence the blocked up windows.

Moving inside, we see below that the church is still largely Romanesque in style, with huge piers and round Roman arches (easily viewed in a triumphal arch preserved from the ancient world across town). However, above the round windows of the clerestory (up at the top), we can see that there was a Gothic renovation with groin or cross vaults, which most likely necessitated the addition of the flying buttresses outside.

Compare the rounds windows and the compound arches to churches such as St. Ambrose in St. Louis, though of course the latter is Italian Romanesque, not French.

You can also see how much more refined and careful the stonework is between the earlier Romanesque walls and the Gothic vaulting; it had to be to support the more complex vaulting. Even more intriguingly, Gothic pointed arches were added for additional strength above the rounded Romanesque arches below.

On a smaller scale, the vaulting over the side aisles, flanking the nave–which the central body of the church coming from the Latin word for ship–have been replaced, as well.

The back wall of the nave with the front doors is a hot mess; you can see the arches of the first building campaign, along with a huge supporting column, but it looks like two windows have been filled in in order to support the addition of a Gothic rose window above. And there’s some blind Gothic arches, meaning they’re not open. What is going on with this wall?!

Looking down this transept, which is from Latin “to cut across,” a wholly rebuilt curtain wall is more successful. Since it was built in the Gothic style from the ground up, structurally it works with the elegant rose windows and lancet windows to the left and right.

Overall, the Basilica of St. Remi is a fascinating look into how the Romanesque style transitioned in to the Gothic, and how the former style influenced St. Louis churches.

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