Updated: May 7
Note: This post was composed the week before the beautiful heart of France, Notre Dame de Paris, burned. I dedicate this to another beauty of the Middle Ages as an homage to Notre Dame de Paris, knowing that the heart of Chartres is ever open to all in its stunning medieval splendor.
I admit that I am not much of a church goer. Communing with nature provides enough miracles for me. However, when I am in France, I go to churches to commune with the beautiful art, soaring architecture, and wonderful ever-present sense of history. While all of the Gothic creations impress me, like Notre Dame de Paris, or the smaller Sainte Chapelle, which was built to be a life-size reliquary and was fitted with some of the most spectacular stained glass ever made, my sentimental favorite is Chartres. I had studied it in now long distant college classes (I actually took art history courses to substitute for courses in religious knowledge). Naturally having studied the building and knowing some of the history from those courses, once I had the chance to visit the actual cathedral, I had to do it.
That chance came for me on my very first visit to France, when my cousin, Estelle, also a painter, and I did a tour of four cities in search of the works of the Old Masters. At my insistence we took a day trip from Paris to visit Chartres. The great cathedral is the centerpiece of the town and of the surrounding area. It was built on high ground so that it stood like a beacon to all those in the nearby countryside and especially to those dear income-producing pilgrims, who would come to Chartres starting in the 12th century to venerate the Sancta Camisa, or the tunic the Virgin Mary supposedly wore when Christ was born. One of the important aspects of attracting the pilgrims was to have a good story. The garment was originally given to the church by Charles the Bald in the 9th century. However, when pilgrimage became the rage in the 1100s, somehow the Sancta Camisa suddenly became the gift of Charlemagne, himself, after he had gotten it on crusade to Jerusalem. Uh hmmm, Charlemagne never made a crusade to Jerusalem, but you get the general idea of what was going on.
Aside from the relic, this cathedral like those all over Europe in those days served many purposes, from religious services to schooling and higher education, to caring for orphans and the sick, to giving financial assistance. The art inside and out stood as a way to relate the tales of the Bible to an illiterate general population. I got to see how that worked in an amusing way. My cousin, through Bible study, had read the stories, so when inside she took to looking at the carvings, she recognized the tales. As she walked about pointing and talking, I noticed that a few people began to follow us to listen to her relate what had been carved in stone. Her wonder at seeing the stories represented in art perhaps matched the wonder of the medieval population who recognized the stories they had heard visually represented in that beautifully carved stone.
Chartres was originally built in Romanesque style. In the 11th century Bishop Fulbert turned the cathedral school into a center of high learning, one of the most famous of the time, and he worked on one of the many reconstructions of the building. Yes, right up to 1194, the cathedral had a number of iterations. However, in 1194, it burned to the ground, inducing the local population to get into a massive building effort. The drive was so intense that the basic structure was rebuilt between 1194 and 1220, giving the building an architectural unity rarely scene. The one outlier is the north tower, which was done in 16th century flamboyant Gothic, because the previous tower had been struck by lightening (hmmm, that is something to ponder). The interior of the church with its fabulous stained glass windows was inaugurated by King Louis IX in 1260.
Then there is the stone work. Actually just the stone itself is amazingly beautiful, which brings me to my next favorite memory of Chartres. My second visit to Chartres was on a hot August day, where after touring the interior, I took my lunch at the outdoor part of La Reine de Saba, a salon de thé on the south side of the cathedral. The café is named for the famous sets of sculptures of Solomon and Sheba, one set on the north side and another on the main entrance. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the stone. It was not just the way the stones looked in the varying sun and shade, but it was also the way that they joined together to create this massive mountain of a building. Philip Ball in his book, Universe of Stone, describes the difficult process of forming the enormous building, and calls it "a triumph of the medieval mind." If you want an accurately researched fiction book filled with all the pride, passion, and politics of 12th century cathedral building, go for Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. For me the whole thing looked like a project of love, which is probably what really held it together until the key stones were set. Certainly that is the feeling I had when I looked at it so long on that hot summer's day.
Of course Chartres is most famous for the wonderful stained glass windows, especially for its color blue, a hue known as Chartres Blue. That glass was the focus of my third trip to Chartres, that one with my art history classmates from Avignon. Our instructor had lived in Chartres and been an official guide there earlier in her life. With her we were able to find out about the stained glass process, still practiced in Chartres, and appreciate all the ways in which that glass influences the total experience of the building. For instance, as the sunlight comes through the windows, the colored glass casts colors onto the stone walls and pillars, adding a touch of fantasy to the unpainted stone. She also showed us secret areas that tourists often miss, like the chapelle that exists underneath the cathedral. It is attended by many for services every Sunday. Also down there is a remnant of an earlier version of the church, a vaulted chamber of about two stories in height, though, of course, underneath the big building. Most tourists do know that there is a crypt there like in most cathedrals. However, Chartres' is the largest every constructed in France, and there are candle light tours of it every Friday evening.
Perhaps what I love the most about Chartres is that it is the beating heart of that community. Its enormous size can cause you to walk quite a ways around it to go from the north side to the south side of the town. However, the locals sometimes respectfully just enter the north entrance of that friendly old building and walk across its center to exit the south doors and go on their way, sometimes with their little shopping carts (caddies) in tow. I even saw a man sitting in a pew with his morning paper, honoring the Virgin Mary and the day's headlines. All this to say that Chartres is the people's cathedral. No better proof of that than what I saw on my second visit as I returned to Paris. In the cathedral I had seen an exquisitely carved sunflower complete with the interior pistils in perfectly aligned sacred geometry. I wondered why such a common thing was given such fine treatment. Then on that train ride, I saw why. I saw field after field of glorious sunflowers. The people who built that church took their cue from the nature around them. They brought their familiar environment right into their cathedral, just one of their many small touches of beauty that make that cathedral truly their own.
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Photos taken by me on my last trip to Chartres.
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© Marjorie Vernelle 2019