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The cathedral clock and carillon

The Rheims Cathedral clock and carillon form an inseparable part of the liturgical life overseen by the cathedral chapter. Today they ring out once more thanks to the patronage of Winegrowers and Champagne Houses, whose support was rewarded on 5 December 1988 with those long awaited first chimes.

The astronomical clock

Records indicate the presence of a chiming clock in the cathedral since the 14th Century. The present clock is more recent (15th Century) and was not in place before the 17th Century. On a pastoral tour of the Ardennes in April 1645, the archbishop of Rheims Léonor d’Etampes de Valençay, accompanied by several canons, stopped at the Chartreuse du Mont-Dieu. It was there that he discovered this handsome clock, which was unused because the monks did not have the means to repair it. The Rheims chapter accordingly acquired it for the sum of 1,000 pounds. Its arrival in our town drew the attention of many curious onlookers.

Following rudimentary restoration, a deal was struck on 20 March 1668 with the locksmith Jean Leblanc for the installation of a new mechanism. A price of 300 pounds was paid for the three movements required, for the minutes, the chimes and the phases of the moon. The canon who oversaw the works was François Maucroix (canon from 1646 to 1708), friend of La Fontaine and many other poets of somewhat unorthodox persuasion. Did he really like to hear this clock at matins? The following lines suggest otherewise:

Beautiful canoness/Of Saint-Augustin/ You rise too early./ A little laziness/Is good for the complexion.

The clock worked well for more than a century. In 1775, the year of the anointing of Louis XVI, the clocksmith Homs repaired it for 500 pounds.

Having survived the Revolution, the clock then underwent a transformation in 1873 when Auguste-Lucien Vérité, creator of the extraordinary astronomical clock in his home town of Beauvais, was commissioned to replace the entire mechanism of the clock and its carillon.

The old mechanism was dismantled and transferred to the lofts of the Hôpital Saint-Marcoul, from where it disappeared in the First World War. The clock was largely spared by the conflict: in the spring of 1918, the replacement mechanism and principal wooden parts were moved to a safe place, leaving behind only the supports and the two flat sides. The case was repaired for the celebrations of 1938 and a modern mechanism, with electrically-powered weights, was created by Ungerer of Strasbourg, which also undertook the repairs of 1988 (with a mechanism henceforth independent of the carillon).

The people of Strasbourg are connoisseurs in matters astronomical, and our clock is an astronomical clock. Above the dial, the phases of the moon are signalled by a moving sphere, half painted midnight blue and studded with stars, half silver with the image of a face. The lunar year determines the liturgical year: Easter is always celebrated on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after the spring equinox, which in turn sets the start of Lent and the dates of Ascension and Pentecost — all-important in the life of the Church.

The clock casing features ornate, three-lobed and four-lobed motifs, surmounted with gables surrounded by small steeples, in the Gothic Rayonnant style (height, 11m33; width, 3m33).

The carillon and its mechanism

Music rings out day and night at the cathedral, on every hour and every half hour, as the carillon fills the air with its sacred chimes. Before the striking of the hour, just as a heavily ornamented entrance announces a cathedral or a shining colonnade precedes a palace, so every division of the hour is sounded by the silvered tinkling of little bells.

Thus wrote French archeologist Didron in the Chronique de Champagne of 1838.
Since then, the restless insomniacs of our community have silenced the carillon at night. But in daytime, thanks to the patronage of the Winegrowers and Champagne Houses who restored its voice, the carillon continues to tell us that time belongs to God, reminding us through its tunes of the liturgical calendar and calling the faithful of Rheims to prayer in the cathedral.

In the 17th Century according to Canon Coquault, there was an inside carillon, probably linked to the clock itself, which is thought to have been moved c.1750 and relocated outside where there was otherwise just one bell (named Jacquette and used to sound the hour and signal the opening and closing of the cloister doors). In 1754, a new bell was cast for the hours, named Jeanne-Françoise after Jean-François Rogier, the lieutenant des habitants. A loud bell with a diameter of 1m33, it could be heard right to the outskirts of town, like the half-hour bell, which was smaller but with a sound that really carried. Other small bells made up a carillon installed in the south tower above the big bells, with the weights hung between the buttresses. After a project to transfer the carillon to the angel bell tower was abandoned, it was installed in 1772, at a cost of more than 4,000 pounds, at the intersection of the transept, in place of a fleur de lys that had never been replaced after the fire of 1481. The large bell today is once again crowned by a ball of lead probably originally intended to display a fleur de lys. The Revolution destroyed these symbols of the Ancien Regime but spared the carillon, while no doubt changing its repertoire ... Nineteenth Century restoration centered on the linking of the carillon mechanism to the inner clock system, as executed by Vérité in 1873.
The carillon did not survive the catastrophe of 19 September 1914 but thanks to the generosity of John Rockefeller and the ingenuity of the Ungerer clocksmiths, an exact replica rings out today.
The great bell that strikes the hour has kept the name Jeanne-Françoise and is only slightly smaller than its predecessor (weight 1,200kg with a diameter of 1m20). It chimes in the key of e, like its little sister Clotilde (0.68m, 200kg) that strikes the half-hour but is pitched an octave higher.

Discover our site devoted to Rheims cathedral: le champagne sacre des rois de France.