The Cathedral of Chartres ("Cathedral of Our Lady in Chartres," French: Cathédrale Notre_Dame de Chartres), located in Chartres, about 50 miles from Paris, is considered the finest example in all France of the "high Gothic" style of architecture.
Construction of a new building on the Romanesque foundations was begun in 1145, but a fire in 1194 destroyed all but the west front of the cathedral (and much of the town), so that part is in the "early Gothic" style. The body of the cathedral was rebuilt between 1194 and 1220±, a remarkably short span for medieval cathedrals.
Chartres is a cathedral that inspires superlatives, and there are few architectural historians who have not waxed lyrical about its soaring aisles and delicate carving. These eulogies are richly deserved, for Chartres is truly one of the greatest of all French Gothic cathedrals. From a distance it seems to hover in mid-air above waving fields of corn, and it is only when the visitor draws closer that the city comes into view, clustering around the hill on which the cathedral stands. Its two contrasting spires - one, a 349-foot (105m) plain pyramid dating from the 1140s, and the other a 377-foot (113m) tall early 16th-century Flamboyant spire on top of an older tower - soar upwards over the pale green roof, while all around the outside are complex flying buttresses.
According to legend, since 876 the Cathedral has housed a tunic that had belonged to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Sancta Camisia. The relic had been given to the Cathedral by Charlemagne who received it as a gift during a crusade in Jerusalem. In fact, the relic was a gift from Charles the Bald and it has been asserted that the fabric came from Syria and that it had been woven during the first century AD. For hundreds of years, Chartres has been a very important Marian pilgrimage center and today the faithful still come from the world over to honour the relic.
The existing cathedral at Chartres is another of the French Gothic masterpieces built because fire had destroyed its predecessors. After the first cathedral of any great substance burnt down in 1020 (prior to this, other churches on the site had disappeared in smoke), a glorious new Romanesque basilica, which included a massive crypt, was built under the direction of Bishop Fulbert and later under the direction of Geoffroy de Lèves. However, having survived a fire in 1134 which destroyed much of the rest of the town, disaster struck yet again in the night from the 10th to the 11th of June 1194 when lightning created a blaze that left only the west towers, the façade between them and the crypt.
The people despaired when they believed that their sacred relic, the Sancta Casimia, had perished too. But three days later it was found unharmed in the treasury along with the priests who had taken it there for safety when the fire broke out and locked themselves in behind the iron trapdoors. The cardinal told the people that the survival of the relic was a sign from Mary herself and that another, even more magnificent, cathedral should be built in Chartres.
Rebuilding, with the help of donations from all over France, began almost immediately, using the plans laid out by the first architect, still anonymous, in order to preserve the harmonious aspect of the Cathedral. The enthusiasm for the project was such that the people of the city voluntarily gathered to haul the stone needed from local quarries 5 miles (8km) away.
Work began first on the nave and by 1220 the main structure was complete, with the old crypt, along with the mid-12th-century Royal Portal which had also escaped the fire, incorporated into the new building. The plan is cruciform, with a 427-foot (128m) long nave, and short transepts to the south and north. The east end is rounded with an ambulatory which has have five semi-circular chapels radiating from it. On October 24, 1260 the cathedral was finally dedicated in the presence of King Louis IX and his family.
Even the elegance of the exterior does not prepare the visitor for the wonders that lie within. The spacious nave stands 121 feet (36m) high, and there is an unbroken view from the western end right along to the magnificent dome of the apse in the east. Clustered columns rise dramatically from plain bases to the high pointed arches of the ceiling, directing the eye to the massive clerestory windows in the apse.
Everywhere vivid colour splashes on to the floor from the superb stained glass windows. Dating from the early 13th century, the glass largely escaped harm during the religious wars of the 16th century; it is said to constitute one of the most complete collections of medieval stained glass in the world, despite “modernization” in 1753 when some of it was removed by the clearly well-intentioned but misguided clergy. From the original 186 stained-glass windows, 152 have survived.
On the doors and porches medieval carvings of statues holding swords, crosses, books and trade tools parade around the portals, their expressions as clear today as when first carved 700 years ago.
The Chartres Cathedral was never destroyed nor looted during the French Revolution and the numerous restorations never have altered its glorious beauty. It always stayed the same: the triumph of Gothic art.
The cathedral was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.
- http://www.diocesechartres.com/cathedrale/index.html (in French)
- http://www.discoverfrance.net/France/Cathedrals/Chartres/Notre-Dame_Chartres.shtml (in English)
- http://www.johnjames.com.au/chartres-shorthistory.shtml (in English)