from the book 'the Book of France' edited by Winifred Stephens 1915
'The Ghost of a Cathedral'
by Pierre Loti
Translated by Sir Sidney Colvin
In Reims

from a British newsmagazine
for original French text see: La Basilique-Fantôme


I had directed my army motor-car to make a two-hours' detour on the return from a military errand in order that I might see our wonderful, legend-haunted French Cathedral-see it and bid it farewell before it should be fallen and crumbled to pieces past hope.

The October morning was foggy and cold. The leaves in the vineyards were black- brown with autumn and wet with rain, so that the hill slopes of Champagne, deserted that day, seemed all clothed in a sort of coat of glistening tan. Our road had taken us also through a forest, where we had to keep our eyes open and weapons ready in case of meeting marauding parties of Uhlans. And at last we had discerned, far off in the mist, the huge form of a church towering with all its height above a patch of reddish squares which could only be roofs of houses: this was evidently the thing we were seeking.

The entrance to Rheims. Defences of every kind, stone barricades, trenches, spiked railings, sentries with fixed bayonets. To gain admission, our military uniform and paraphernalia are not enough; we have to parley and give the pass-word.

The town being very large and to me unknown, I inquire the way to the Cathedral, for it is no longer in sight: its tall grey mass, whose outlines from a distance dominated everything as a giant's castle might dominate the homes of dwarfs, appeared to have squatted down as if to hide itself. "The way to the Cathedral?-first straight ahead," we are told, "then a turn to the left, then one to the right," etc. And so the car makes its way into streets full of people. Numbers of soldiers, regiments on the march, files of ambulance carriages; but also plenty of ordinary passers-by, seeming no more anxious than if nothing at all was happening; even plenty of women dressed in their best and walking prayer-book in hand, for the day is Sunday.

At a corner where four streets meet there we find a group gathered outside a house with the marks of fresh scratches on its walls. A shell had fallen there a little while before, fired without object or excuse. Merely a brutal little jest on the part of the enemy, as much as to say, "We're there, you know": merely a bit of sport, a fancy to kill a few people, choosing Sunday morning for the game because then there are more of them in the streets. But indeed the town seems to have got thoroughly used to living under the scrutiny of ferocious field-glasses and the fire of savages ambushed on the slopes of the neighbouring hills. The passers-by only stop for a minute to look at the wall and notice the marks left by fragments of shells, and then go on quietly to finish their Sunday walk. This time it was some women and little girls whom the enemy's pretty jest had laid out in pools of their own blood. So people tell us and then seem to think no more about it, as though in times like these it were a matter of no account at all.

By this time the quarter is getting deserted; the houses are shut and a funereal silence prevails; and there, at the end of a street, appear the great grey doors, the lofty pointed arches, with their marvellous carvings, and above them the lofty towers. Not a sound, not a living soul on the public square where the ghost of the great church still towers enthroned: only an icy wind blowing under a dense murky sky.

Yes, the Cathedral of Rheims still holds its place, but almost, it would seem, by miracle, and so riddled and rent that you feel it ready to collapse at the slightest shock: it impresses you like a kind of huge mummy, still upright and majestic, but threatening to fall into ashes at a breath. The ground is heaped with precious fragments of what it once was. The ruin has been hastily fenced in with a solid barrier of white wood, within which its sacred dust is piled in mounds: bits of carved bosses, splinters of painted glass, heads of angels, folded hands of male or female saints. . . . From top to bottom of the left-hand tower the calcined stone has taken on a strange colour of roasted flesh, and the images of saints, still stationed in rows above the cornices, have been as it were flayed by the fire; they have lost their faces and fingers, but with their human shapes, which they still keep, seem like rows of corpses wrapped in a kind of reddish cere-cloths through which their outlines show vague and blunted.

We walk, without meeting a soul, round the place where the Cathedral stands, fragile, ghostly, but still admirably beautiful, and find the barrier which fences it off everywhere solidly closed. As to the ancient episcopal palace adjoining it, where the kings of France were wont to come for rest on coronation day, it is now nothing more than a ruin, windowless, roofless, and everywhere licked and blackened by the tongue of fire.

What an incomparable jewel it was, this church of Rheims, more beautiful even than Notre Dame of Paris, airier and more lace-like, more soaring with its columns as slender as reeds, so slender and frail that it is amazing how they could hold firm: a marvel of our French religious art, a master-piece conceived and created in its mystical purity by the faith of our ancestors before there had come to us from Italy, to materialise and spoil everything, that load of heavy sensual conceptions which history has agreed to label the Renaissance. . . . Oh to think of the gross and dastardly and brainless brutality of hurling those canisters of scrap-iron in volleys against the fretwork, delicate as lace, which for centuries had reared itself proudly and confidently in air, and which so many battles, invasions, and whirlwinds had never dared to touch!

That great closed house yonder, facing the square, should be the residence of the archbishop. I venture to ring at the gate to beg the favour of admission to the Cathedral. His Eminence, I am told, is at mass, but will soon be back, and if I like to wait. . . . While I wait, the priest who receives me tells me how the episcopal palace was burnt. "They sprayed the roofs beforehand with some kind of diabolical fluid; then, when they threw their incendiary bombs on it, the timbers burnt like straw, and you saw jets of green flame shooting out everywhere with a noise like fire-works."

The truth is that the barbarians had premeditated and prepared this sacrilege long beforehand. In spite of their idiotically absurd pretexts, and for all their shameless denials, it was the very heart of ancient France that they were bent on here destroying. It was some superstitious idea which drove them to it, not merely their natural instinct as savages; and they worked fiercely at this particular piece of destruction while in the rest of the town nothing or next to nothing suffered.

"Might it not be possible," I asked, "to try and replace the burnt roof and cover over the stone vaultings quickly, or else they will never stand the coming winter?"

"Obviously," was the reply, "when the first snows come, or the first rains, there is a risk of everything collapsing, and all the more seeing that these calcined stones have lost their power of resistance. But we cannot even make the smallest attempt to protect them as you suggest, for the Germans never take their eyes off us; they keep the Cathedral always at the end of their spyglasses, always the Cathedral, and the moment the figure of a man appears on a pinnacle or inside a tower the shower of shells begins again. No, there is nothing to be done. Under God's providence we must take our chance."

When the archbishop returned he courteously gave me a guide who had the keys of the enclosure, and so at last I gain admission into the ruins of the church: into the great nave, which seems all the loftier and vaster for being stripped bare. It is cold in there, and depressing to tears. What strikes and disconcerts you at first is perhaps that unexpected chill, a chill much more bitter than that of the outer air. Instead of the rather heavy odour which generally hangs about the interior of an ancient church- an odour compounded of so much incense burned there, of emanations from so many coffins blessed and so many human generations congregated there with their sufferings and their prayers-instead of that, a damp and icy wind comes rustling in through all the crevices of the walls, through all the breaches in the windows and holes in the vaulted arches. Those vaults high aloft, broken here and there by the passage of shells- you lift your eyes at once instinctively to gaze at them, you feel your sight inevitably drawn towards them by the upward spring of all those columns, slender as reeds, which soar in sheaves and clusters to sustain them. They are wonderful, these vaults with their exquisitely graceful flying curves, which seem to have been conceived in order not to interrupt the upward flight of human prayers or baulk the vision of human eyes uplifted in search of heaven. You never tire of keeping your head thrown back to gaze at them, those sacred vaultings doomed presently to fall in ruin; and then, besides, you see up there, far up and away, the long, almost aerial series of pointed arches from above which the vaultings spring, arches repeating each other indefinitely from one end to the other of the nave and restful to follow in their long receding perspective,-such, in spite of their complicated cutting up of the wall surface, is their general effect of harmony. These huge ceilings of stone, in appearance so light and moreover hanging so high aloft, neither shut in nor oppress the spirit: truly one might imagine them enfranchised from all laws of gravity and conditions of matter.

For the rest, it is just as well, in walking under them, to keep your head raised and not notice too carefully what you are walking on. For this pavement, yielding a dreary echo to your tread, has been lately blackened and defiled by contact with the charred flesh of human beings. It is matter of common knowledge how on the day when the church was set in flames it was full of German wounded laid on couches of straw; how the straw took fire and the scene became one of horror such as Dante might have dreamed; how all these creatures, their raw wounds scorching in the flames, dragged themselves shrieking on their bleeding stumps to try and reach the doors, which were too narrow for the crush. Of common knowledge it is also how the stretcher-bearers, both priests and nuns, heroically risked their lives amid the falling shells in the attempt to save these unhappy brutes, whom it had never occurred to their own German brothers to try and spare. Nevertheless they could not succeed in saving all, and there remained some who were consumed by fire in the nave, leaving loathsome blotches on the sacred pavement where processions of kings and queens had once trained solemnly their ermine cloaks to the sound of the grand organ and of plain-song.

"Look," said my guide, as he showed me a great hole in one of the side aisles, "that was done by a shell they dropped on us yesterday evening. And now come and see the miracle." And with that he took me into the choir, where the statue of Joan of Arc, preserved, one would say, by some special grace, still stands intact with its looks of gentle ecstasy.

The most irreparable disaster is that of those great stained windows composed by the mysterious artists of the thirteenth century in their devout dreams and meditations, and depicting men and women saints assembled by the hundred with their translucent draperies and luminous aureoles. There again the great bundles of German scrap-iron came stupidly volleying and crashing. Masterpieces that no one can reproduce showered down their fragments never to be sorted again, their wonderful golds and reds and blues of which the secret has been lost, upon the pavement stones. Gone for ever those rainbow transparencies, gone for ever those companies of saints with the charm of their simple attitudes and pale, ecstatic little faces. Those innumerable precious cuttings of painted glass, which in the course of ages had acquired an iridescence like that of opals, lie strewn on the ground, and shattered as they are still gleam there like gems.

Within the Cathedral there is silence to-day, as in the deserted public place outside: there is silence as of death within these walls which had vibrated so long to the voices of organs and the old ritual chants of France. The chill moaning of the wind is the only semblance of music heard there on this Sunday morning, and when from time to time it rises higher you hear also something like a dropping of the lightest pearls: it is the final, irrecoverable flaking down of the last fragments of the beautiful thirteenth-century windows which had kept their place.

A whole magnificent cycle of our history had in this sanctuary seemed still to live, with a life immaterial indeed yet almost terrestrial and real. By this sacrilege it has been suddenly plunged into the deepest gulf of things which have passed away and of which even the memory will perish before long. The great barbarism has passed over the place, the modern barbarism from beyond the Rhine, a thousand times worse than any that was of old, inasmuch as it is stolidly and outrageously self- satisfied, and consequently radical, incurable, final, -and destined, if it is not crushed, to darken the world with the night of a sinister eclipse.

That Joan of Arc in the choir-strange it is, truly, that amid all the disarray she should still be standing there, serene, intact, immaculate, without so much as a single scratch upon her robe.

Pierre Loti,
Translated by Sir Sidney Colvin
for original French text see: La Basilique-Fantôme

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