- Reading the Reverse Façade of Reims Cathedral. Royalty and Ritual in Thirteenth-Century France by Donna L. Sadler
In Reading the Reverse Façade of Reims Cathedral, Donna L. Sadler provides a detailed study of what has long been recognized as one of the most beautiful works from the second half of the thirteenth century. Yet it has received little scholarly attention. Sadler assesses the reverse façade both in relation to the sculptural program of the cathedral and other visual programs associated with [End Page 328] the royal court of Louis IX. Through an analysis of the sculpture in relation to the cathedral’s role as a coronation church, Sadler draws parallels between the form and content of the verso sculpture and the bishopric’s political role as king-maker. One of the main points of the book is that the subject matter depicted sculpturally at the reverse façade “promoted interdependence between ecclesiastical and royal arms of power” (12). Sadler notes that the decoration of a Gothic cathedral such as Reims was by no means a monolithic program, but a collection of multiple meanings for many audiences. She identifies the reverse façade program as a primer in moral behavior that had value for a wide spectrum of audiences ranging from kings to tavern owners.
The book begins by addressing the history of the cathedral, its architectural antecedents, and the sculpture’s iconography. Significantly, Sadler explores how the storied past of Reims continued to inspire the sculptural program of the cathedral. Noting that the cathedral’s iconographic program is encyclopedic in scope, Sadler determines that there is an emphasis on the theme of coronation in the celestial and terrestrial realms. Christ is the main subject of Reims Cathedral, and as the site of the king’s coronation, the cathedral’s sculpture highlighted the king’s co-regency with Christ. Sadler argues that through the iconography of the cathedral the archbishops of Reims forged an alliance between throne and altar, and “fostered the notion that the ecclesiastical blessing at Reims was simply required for royal power” (20). By juxtaposing images of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, images of Old Testament kings and biblical heroes, and images of the baptism of Clovis and a gallery of kings, the sculptural program emphasized the mission of the French ruler to establish the Christian kingdom on earth as a necessary prelude to the Second Coming.
Sadler goes on to explore the iconography of the sumptuously carved reverse façade as a complement to the overall program of the cathedral in the book’s second chapter. She notes that although the verso supplements the story told on the west façade, it also stands on its own. The story of the Virgin and John the Baptist is depicted with particular emphasis on the moments when their lives intersect with the life of Christ. Sadler argues that the sculpted figures of John the Baptist and Melchisedek, which are depicted performing priestly duties, underlined the significance of the archbishops of Reims in the role of king-making. She identifies the sculpture as functioning as a “sophisticated piece of ecclesiastical pedagogy directed to the neophyte king” (69). The overall iconographic program of the cathedral underscored the presence of Christ in the generation of spiritual and temporal power, and the sculpture on the reverse façade provided the king lessons in kingship.
One of the most compelling arguments that Sadler makes is in the next chapter, in which she argues that the reverse façade of Reims should be considered through the lens of the Mirror of Princes and the game of chess, both of which were used to instruct kings in the ways of royal behavior. She notes that Hincmar of Reims considered sculpted Old Testament kings and their prophets as exempla for the newly anointed king. Building upon her earlier observation that the archbishops of Reims actively promoted their importance in the coronation ceremony, she considers the crucial role that Hincmar played in aligning...