A window to heaven: 800 years of Metz cathedral

In her series on the cultural history of France, art historian Julia Faiers explores Metz cathedral’s turbulent and illuminating past

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This year sees the cathedral of St Etienne in Metz celebrate its 800th birthday. Since the first stone was laid in 1220, this magnificent edifice has battled fire, war, annexation, and now in its anniversary year, a pandemic.

Although the nationwide lockdown in spring curtailed some of its ambitious party plans, as I write this the celebrations are back in full swing, with light shows, tours and exhibitions among some of the highlights.

A dramatic and shape-shifting history

It might not be realistic to talk of a building’s resilience, as cathedrals are created - and destroyed - by people, but the cathedral of St Etienne deserves to enjoy this milestone birthday more than most considering its dramatic and shape-shifting history.

The structure has seen many changes over the centuries, and has morphed into an entirely different church from its inception in the thirteenth century. Only Fools and Horses fans might think of it as the ‘Trigger’s broom’ of cathedrals. As well as receiving several new portal facades, it even absorbed an earlier church, Notre-Dame-la-Ronde, into its ground plan.

Now in the Moselle department in the Grand Est region, formerly in the Lorraine, the town has been variously French, Prussian and German in the modern era.

Up until the French Revolution, Metz was one of three bishoprics, along with Verdun and Toul, in the archdiocese of Trier, which became part of the German Empire in 1871. When Metz cathedral was built, however, our contemporary notions of nationhood simply did not exist, and so did not play a role in shaping its medieval religious art and architecture. Nationalist politics only began to exert an influence from the nineteenth century, when modifications to the cathedral served to promote the agendas of Prussian and German forces.

Devastating fire events punctuate the town and cathedral’s history, with a certain Attila burning the Gallo-Roman city of Divodurum to the ground in 451. Writing of the disaster around a hundred years later, the bishop and historian Gregory of Tours declared the only building left standing was the church housing the shrine of St Etienne, (the site of the future cathedral).

The next major conflagration to re-draw Metz’s cityscape came in the nineteenth century, shortly after the German annexation of 1871. On 7 May, 1877, Emperor Wilhelm I made his grand entry into the city of Metz for the first time since the annexation. In their enthusiasm to welcome him, German municipal workers climbed on the cathedral roof to let off fireworks. This rousing civic gesture was swiftly followed by a fire which destroyed the church’s medieval timber-structure roof. News of the disaster spread quickly around the world, but not everyone accepted this official story.

Queen Sophie of the Netherlands wrote in a letter from The Hague the morning after the event: ‘At Metz they put fire to the cathedral, that the bells might not ring for the German conqueror.’ According to my research, Queen Sophie is the only person to float this radical theory, so it should be treated with caution! Whether arson or accident, the cathedral acquired a new, taller, copper roof within five years.

‘The Lantern of God’

For good reason Metz cathedral is frequently called ‘La lanterne du Bon Dieu’ or ‘The Lantern of God’ due to its 6,500 square metres of stained-glass windows. A fascinating book called ‘The Americans in the Great War’, published in 1919 by Michelin in memory of ‘the Michelin workmen and employees who died gloriously for their country’, describes Metz cathedral: ‘it is no exaggeration to say that the whole building seems to be one immense window.’

Sadly not all those windows were to survive the destructive force of Second World War bombs. The west facade retains some of Hermann von Münster’s beautiful fourteenth-century glass, and visitors can still admire the fifteenth- century windows made by Théobald of Lixheim in the north transept facade and the Renaissance designs of Valentin Bousch in the south transept facade.

Metz cathedral in the twenty-first century is remarkable for its homogenous inclusion of contemporary stained glass by some of the greats of modern art.

Visitors tend to head straight for the Chagall windows in the north transept arm and north gallery of the ambulatory, but modern art fans will not want to miss the incredible works by other lesser- known twentieth-century artists such as Jacques Villon, the older brother of Marcel Duchamp, who created designs for five bays of the chapel of the Holy Sacrament in 1957, including a kaleidoscopic interpretation of the Crucifixion.

Metz is among the top ten most-visited cathedrals in France, yet remains relatively unknown to international visitors, surely because it has yet to be awarded Unesco heritage status. Perhaps in this milestone year, the cathedral’s best 800th birthday present would be a new wave of visitors willing to return home and spread the word of its dazzling beauty.

Five facts about Metz cathedral

  • The cathedral is dedicated to St Etienne, known in English as St Stephen.
  • At 41 metres tall, the cathedral is the third highest in France after Beauvais and Amiens.
  • In the third century a monstrous dragon called Graoully lived in the ruins of the old Roman amphitheatre with a band of ferocious serpents. The dragon apparently devoured twelve Messins (people of Metz) every morning until St Clement came to the rescue by drowning the beasts in the river Seille. A wonderful sketch of a dragon in a fifteenth-century manuscript in the town’s municipal library proves the legend lived on, while the dragon and the town’s saviour, St Clement, were immortalised in stone in the cathedral’s nineteenth century neo-Gothic portal.
  • The British artist J.M.W. Turner drew the cathedral when he visited Metz in August 1824. He sketched the west end, the monumental neo-classical portal designed by Jacques-François Blondel in the eighteenth century, and the facade with Hermann von Münster’s fourteenth century rose window. Turner’s travel sketchbook is held in Tate Britain’s Prints and Drawings Room.
  • The cathedral’s 800th birthday celebrations continue until June 2021. Visit their website for details of the programme.
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