The Champagne stained-glass window that graces the south transept of Rheims Notre Dame Cathedral was generously sponsored by the Winegrowers and Houses of Champagne.
The lower windows once featured stained glass panels that recounted legends, like a great book of images designed to be read by the faithful. Sadly the Age of Enlightenment proved their undoing. Driven to pinch pennies, the cannons removed the panels in the period 1739-1768, replacing them with clear glass bordered by a few original fragments. That left 3,500m2 of stained glass, only about half of which survived the carnage of World War I.
In the aftermath of the conflict, our American allies sponsored the renovation of the roof while other patrons took charge of restoring the stained glass, focusing embellishment around the lower sections. Jacques Simon installed the small rose window in 1937 for the consecration of the restored cathedral. The Second World War slowed up the work and it was not until 1954 that the Champagne Window was completed. Princess Jean de Caraman-Chimay, grand-daughter of Albert de Mun and president of the Friends of the Cathedral since 1950, poured her energies into reviving business patronage.
She secured the support of the Grandes Marques, the Champagne Houses. Champagne Winegrowers and even their overseas agents. Appealing to Champagne lovers everywhere, donations flowed in from France and a dozen countries beyond.
Opening day was 1 October 1954, the festival of Saint Remi. Guests welcomed by the mayor of Rheims, René Bride, and the archbishop Mgr Marmottin included the Belgian ambassador and a representative of the United States. Lady Jebb, the British ambassador, was accompanied by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, head of the diplomatic corps. Members of the House of Lords and House of Commons flew in on a special plane, with Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh among their number.
No one was better placed than Jacques Simon to execute this stained glass window. The masterpiece created by his forebear Pierre Simon in 1640 is a reminder of that dynasty of glaziers and painters of glass that was established in Rheims in the 17th Century. Before the Revolution, the chapter had nominated the Simon family as "the church’s glass makers" and the records they submitted in the 19th Century proved extremely valuable for the restoration of the windows. In the war, Jacques and his team risked their lives to save all that could be saved from the bombardments.
To create the Champagne Window, Jacques Simon took his inspiration from the corporate institutions of the Middle Ages, blending the work and villages of the Winegrowers and Houses with representations of their saints and biblical scenes. He drew on the symbolism of wine to create a meditation on the Eucharist. The window consists of three lancets ten metres high surmounted by three oculi 2.4 metres in diameter.
In the left-hand window, winegrowers work in the vines watched by St Vincent, their patron saint.
In the centre, they harvest the grapes, which are then made into wine in the right-hand window, supervised by Dom Pérignon, the famous cellar master of Hautvillers, and John the Baptist, patron saint of cellar workers.
Below, supporting industries (bottles, corks ...) add their contribution to the alchemy of the cellars.
On the borders, the winegrowers’ tools (middle) and the churches of 44 Champagne villages (left and right) serve to root the artistic work in the landscape.
Seen from ground level, the window draws the gaze upwards, to the level of the divine: above left, two men toil to carry the grapes of Canaan, image of the prosperity of the Promised Land and symbol of Christ on the cross, Jesus being the bunch of grapes whose blood fills the Church’s chalice.
The mystic wine press takes centre position, Christ crushed as he suffers for our sins and his blood becomes the wine of the eternal kingdom. On the right the symbol of the Eucharist is pursued in the miracle of the Marriage at Cana that unfolds in the three oculi, with the bread and wine surrounding the sacrificial lamb. The fruits of Man’s labour are presented as a sacrificial offering — his labour is the sacrifice he makes to perpetuate the work of creation.
As if by some miracle, the funds raised by the Winegrowers and Houses of Champagne were enough to pay for a second window, which was executed by Jacques’ daughter Brigitte Simon-Marcq in 1961. It is amusing to note that what remained of their funding was devoted to a stained glass window depicting the Water of Life ... In creating this new west window in the southern arm of the transept, the artist took her inspiration from the grey tones of the upper windows. Located at the crossing of the transept and dating from the 13th Century these were no doubt calculated to let just enough light into the sanctuary. The modern interpretation retains the freshness of their gray-blue tones while giving them the dynamism of a river infused with the Breath of God.