[4] REIMS - Power and the Heavenly Order: Choir Stained Glass

Bibliography for Power and the Heavenly Order: Choir Stained Glass 

Abou-El-Haj, Barbara, “Program and Power in the Glass of Reims,” in Radical Art History. An International Anthology, ed. Wolfgang Kersten (Zurich, 1997), 22-33 and 226-33. Click to download

Lillich, Meredith P., The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011).

Stained glass was installed in the high choir of Reims Cathedral by 1241, in the years following the local rebellion, restoration of order, and exertion of clerical control in the city [see Section I, pt. 3]. Abou-El-Haj argues that he high choir glass put forward a precise, spiritualized response to the events and the defeat of the commune, not surprising because, between Archbishop Henry of Braine’s consecration in 1227 and his death in 1240 (by which time the east end glass had been designed and set), the critical issue for Reims’s chapter was the restoration of a stable seigneurial town following two insurrections. 

Barbara Abou-El-Haj provides careful descriptions and analyses of the iconography in the high choir glass in her article, “Program and Power in the Glass of Reims.” Since she published that study Meredith Lillich wrote a book that is the last word on the glass of Reims (see bibliography). Please consider the “Program and Power” article in relation to Lillich’s work and the remarks that follow.

There are anomalies in the stained glass program of the Reims high choir. Here, ten suffragans appear, when in fact there were eleven. These figures could have been distributed evenly, but instead were compressed into eight sets of windows by dividing bay 105 between the church of Amiens and the bishop of Senlis. The unnamed church and bishop of bays 107 and 108 are sometimes identified as Arras and Cambrai to complete the series. The twelve apostles, on the other hand, were increased to twenty figures, a radical emphasis upon apostolic succession. 

As Abou-El-Haj sees it, such anomalies are no more striking than those of the unmatched portals retrofit to the north transept [See the articles referenced in Section I, pt. 3B]. She contends that they have been assessed from the same passive, paradigmatic position: as formal modifications in design or decoration, otherwise lacking significance. Yet, Abou-El-Haj maintains that the local context of communal rebellions and exiled clergy are suggestive for the expansive depiction of restored episcopal authority that, she holds, took precedence over aesthetic considerations. 

Arranged in a series according to the early medieval iconography for found in the Book of Revelation (1:4, 2, 3), the images of suffragen cathedrals invoke the communities of the seven churches of Asia Minor called to penance by John in preparation for the Second Coming. Six angels sound trumpets (Matt. 24:31; Rev. 1:20-3:20) above cathedral facades. In this apocalyptic context Archbishop Henry of Braine, together with the imposing, frontal angel carrying a large cross (usually identified as archiepiscopal but lacking a double bar), leads the community of bishops, bearing the sign that will precede the appearance of Christ at the end of time (Matt. 24:30). This equation appropriate to the archbishop’s spiritual prerogative to loose sinners in penitence or bind them in anathema, the condition in which they will face the Last Judgment portrayed on the sculpted tympanum of the left portal on the north transept façade. 

Abou-El-Haj further contends that this arrangement is appropriate to the liturgical equation between the prelate and the crucifix above him, and to his celebration as a type for Christ leading the Palm Sunday procession at Easter that reenacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Altogether, the assembly stands for a final, global reckoning, targeting the rebellious town as well as the bishops who are called to diocesan obedience. This is a vision of control and decorum, something Henry could hardly have counted on from his suffragans, whom Pope Gregory had urged without success to come to the aid of their archbishop against his “cives remenses.” 

Yet, Abou-El-Haj observes, it was not by spiritual threats alone that this fantasy of transcendent authority and metropolitan order was projected. The suffragan churches are not merely the timeless and serene abstractions of our art books, but diocesan cathedrals under the authority of Reims, identified by inscriptions and by the precise correspondences with built counterparts described above. Their political potency relies upon those correlations. Their limited ensemble of elements – symmetrical Western towers, rose windows, glazed loggia-arcades and impressive portals – are configured into perfectly coherent architectural images, shining with saturated colors – vivid red, blue, yellow and green – key to their visual impact. The seamless integration of these architectural emblems evokes an equally seamless spiritual authority portrayed in the face of continuing hostility in the town. A persistent potential for violence on the ground drove this precision in the adornment of the cathedral.

In closing, states Abou-El-Haj, the suffragans of the Reims high choir glass are arranged in the order stipulated at the Council of Saint-Quentin in 1231, which launched the inquisition into usury in the ecclesiastical province of Reims, which in turn prompted the burghers to attack the dean and his the canons and Henry’s fortress. The scheme was intensified into an apocalyptic specter directed at the communards and at the suffragans. The cathedrals, the unique feature of the glass, are the same suffragan churches of the archdiocese in which representative groups of burghers were ordered in 1237 and again in 1240 to perform multiple public penances, in the first instance on feasts that typologically associated Henry with Christ, with whom he is aligned on the glass, and with his venerated predecessor, Saint Remi: Easter, Pentecost, and the Feast of Saint Remi when reparation installments were due. 

Actions amplified the meaning of the glass. Spiritual humiliations, coordinated with huge reparations, 10,000 pounds Paris, satisfied the conflict in the absolute favor of the archbishop and his chapter. The multiple penances imposed on the rebels in 1236 and again in 1238 would have been intended not only to punish the burghers but also to repair Henry’s prestige among his suffragans. Considerable effort went into representing the suffragan cathedrals, sites of these penitential rituals, where metropolitan authority could be repaired in images if not in reality. The array of high choir glass presented an enduring realm of spiritual authority within the cushion of east-end images that insulated the chapter from its implacably hostile town and the archbishop from his uncooperative suffragans and suzerain. What the ensemble of high choir glass may have lacked in perfection of its scheme, it more than made up in its imposing, authoritarian, and reassuring design.


  1. Abou-El-Haj argues that the monumental stained glass images of the Reims archbishop encircled by his suffragens presented an image of ecclesiastical order that, in the wake of urban rebellions, would have been reassuring to cathedral clerics. How might other interpretive communities have responded to these images? Must one only speculate about reception by multiple audiences or are there texts or other evidence that could fill out our understanding – in the Middle Ages and into the modern era?
  2. As a narrative that runs counter to Abou-El-Haj’s interpretation, the images in the high choir glass of Reims might be understood to tell a story of the celebration of the new Gothic – or “modern” – building style. How might such an understanding be coordinated with Abou-El-Haj’s assessment?