Two of the most important religious (as well as tourist centers) in France, are the Cathedral of Chartres and the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. American Don LaGrave, a visitor to both, compares the differences
Chartres Cathedral in Eure-et Loire, is a high Gothic masterpiece while Mont-Saint-Michel combines both Norman and Gothic architecture. Chartres was begun in 1140. Mont Saint Michel has its origins much earlier in 700. Chartres has always been a religious center, while Mont-Saint-Michel served first as a monument to Saint Michael then as a fort to defend Normandy from British attackers, then as a prison. Mont-Saint-Michel was all but abandoned but had a resurgence in 1874 and became a UNESCO Heritage site in 1979.
The high ground where Chartres was constructed allows it to be seen from more than 20 km away. Mont-Saint-Michel is perched on an island in the Manche department, rising above the meadows along the shore. The gleaming statue of St. Michel is 560 feet above the sea, a commanding presence over the plain below.
The towers of Chartres Cathedral rise above the city. The first, completed in 1160, is 349 feet high. The second rises 377 feet and was completed in the 16th century. The Chathedral has been recently cleaned and restored and looks very grand. It came close to becoming a pile of rubble in 1944. The Allied armies were certain that the German army had been using the elevation of Chartres to monitor their movement. Ordered to destroy Chartres, a German officer purposely ignored the command. An American Colonel and his aide investigated Chartres, and finding no sign of Germans, further saved it from the destruction by the allies.
The nave of the church is 400 feet long and 53 feet wide. Flying buttresses, a form of buttress composed of an arch extending from the upper portion of a wall, open the sides of the cathedral. More than 167 stained glass windows are installed. The north side depicts the history of the Old Testament while the south side depicts the New Testament. The carvings are stunning; and you can walk the labyrinth, symbolizing the road to salvation, on the floor of the Nave (generally on Fridays from 10 am to 5pm from end February to 1 November).
From April to January, the cathedral is lit as part of the city’s Chartres en Lumières show.
Mont-Saint-Michel is in a bay close to the mouth of the Couesnon river which is famous for the 50 foot difference between high and low tides of the bay. The island became significant when Mont Tombe became Mont Saint Michel, the warrior revered by Norse invaders who invaded what became Normandy. Bishop Aubert of nearby Avranches had visions in the year 708 that Saint Michel instructed that ta cathedral should be erected on Mont Tombe. The island passed between Norman and Bretagne control over the years and resisted British invasion during the Hundred Years War. In the 18th century it became a prison, nicknamed “The Bastille on the Sea.” It was closed in 1824 and Benedictine priests restarted services.
The Abbey during the day is thronged with day trippers. At night it has a very different feel. A great treat is to walk the ramparts on a moonlit night with beautiful views across the tidal flats. The clockwise unguided circulation in the Abbey prevents crowding on busy holidays. You can take all the time you want to examine the labyrinth of passages through the Abbey before you exit. Be sure to visit Bishop Aubert’s chapel which was a German lookout to watch across the bay during WWII. If the tide is out, enjoy a picnic snack out on the flats for a very different perspective.Religious experience
Both buildings offer a different religious experience. Chartres tells the story of Christianity in its windows, sculpture, alters and alcoves. It is part of a living town of 60,000. Mont-Saint-Michel is a pedestrianised town, with a population of fewer than 50. Both have daily religious services. Chartres has chairs for service while Mont-Saint-Michel is almost empty of furniture.
By Don LaGrave, Boston, MA