The Cathedral Notre-Dame de Chartres is located some fifty miles southwest of Paris on a small hill overlooking the city of Chartres. The Cathedral and its two mis-matched towers dominate the landscape for 15 miles. As you drive drove closer, you can’t help but begin to understand the extraordinary power that the Cathedral held over people. The surrounding wheat fields create the illusion of the building floating in the air…perhaps a mystical symbol of the power of faith.
The town has a medieval quality: heavy, half-timbered stone houses with high peaked roofs. It winds around and beneath the overwhelming presence of the Cathedral, and its strong religious influence shapes and enriches Chartres and the surrounding communities.
Thousands of visitors explore it each day, photographing and pointing in quiet reverence. The architectural marvel is magnificent. Built over the remains of at least five cathedrals which were sacked and destroyed by fires and wars beginning in the late 4th century, the ‘modern’ construction began in 1145. After a disastrous fire in 1194, the Cathedral was rebuilt and modified over a twenty-six-year time span. Considered by many to be the high point of French Gothic art, it has an expansive nave, entrance portals enhanced with beautiful statue columns from the middle of the 12th century, and the magnificent 12th and 13th century stained-glass windows, all in remarkably good condition. The cathedral is a masterpiece and stands as a lasting tribute to religious faith and power.
The size is impressive: 430 feet long, 153 feet wide, a 54-foot-high nave, and occupies 11,000 square feet of ground space. 176 stained glass windows spread throughout the walls, while thousands of candles illuminate the interior with an ethereal light. The verdigris copper roof glows in the late morning sun.
A dominant presence in the Centre-Val-de-Loire region, the Cathedral is considered by many to be the most intact example of religious architecture and art of the 13th century. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is among the most popular and preserved examples of gothic cathedrals in medieval Western Christianity. It also heavily influenced the art of Middle Age Christianity.
There are three façades, each with three Royal Portals. The most striking is the west façade, built in the mid-12th century. Its Portals are decorated with statue columns, a southern spire, three massive stained-glass windows. Two Gothic towers reach upward, in the minds of the believers, to heaven. The unique form of the nave and choir constructed in 1194 was soon adopted in many cathédrales in the 13th century.
The quality and quantity of the sculptures of the Cathedral; the overall technical and artistic creativity; the reliefs and statuary of the Royal Portail leading to the nave; and the six portals and two porches dating from 1210 at the north and south entrances to the transept, all add to the extraordinary presence.
The stained-glass windows created between 1210 and 1250 and the large roses of the 13th century on the three façades. On the west they detail the Last Judgement. On the north, the Glorification of the Virgin is featured And on the south, the Glorification of Christ and important religious events.
In 1862, the Cathedral became Property of the State, with the Ministry of Culture and Communication funding all restoration projects. It was also designated a Heritage Site of the City of Chartres which created a safeguarding and enhancement plan to protect the surrounding landscape. And in 1979, the cathedral was declared a World Historic Site by UNESCO.
SELECTED AREAS OF INTEREST:
Towers and clock
From a distance, these two uniquely individual Gothic towers really stand out. The north Tower, completed in 1513, replaced a fire-damaged Romanesque Tower. It originally stood two stories high but was elevated higher in later years. The South Tower was finished 1150 and rises to a height of 105 feet, with an octagonal spire. The towers lift the eyes of the faithful through the vaulted roof to heaven above! At the base of the north tower is an artistic surprise encased in a small structure. Built in 1520 by Jean Texier, the twenty-four-hour clock is 18 feet in diameter,
Portals and their sculptures
Three portals lead into the nave from the west and the transepts from the south and north. The richly decorated sculptures present stories from the Bible and religious dogma for both clergy and others. The three portals on the west deal with different parts of the life of Jesus: His Death, Ascension and Incarnation.
Other sculptures show Christ seated on a throne, There are symbols of the four evangelists surround Him: St. Matthew, a winged man; St, Mark, a winged lion; St. Luke, a winged ox; and St. John, a winged eagle.
The remaining portals also have images enhancing significant religious events and figures. Saint Ann, for example, appears above the central portal of the north transept, holding the infant Mary, soon to be the mother of Jesus. On the lintel of the centre portal of the north transept are sculptures of Death and the Assumption of the Virgin. The statues of the north transept portal focus on the Old Testament and events leading to the birth of Christ.
Stained Glass Windows
The 176 windows include tall, pointed lancet windows, round oculi windows and, of course, the three magnificent rose windows. The Western Rose nearly forty feet across, shows the Last Judgement. The North Transept Rose is almost 36 feet across and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And the South Transept Rose also nearly 36 feet across, shows Christ in benediction – his right hand raised – and surrounded by worshiping angels.
Intended for the reception of pilgrims who often slept in the Cathedral, the floor has a slight tilt to allow for easy cleaning each morning. Built after the disastrous fire of 1194, the nave is supported by two rows of pillars alternating between octagonal and round shapes, as well as by flying buttresses against the outside walls. A stature of Mary and her infant Jesus replaced one burned by revolutionaries in the late 18th century.
Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere Windows
Of the 75 images of the Virgin Mary displayed in the Cathedral, these are the most famous. This is due in large part to the striking cobalt blue used in their creation. During the 1194 fire, only the central panel of the Madonna and Child and the three windows over the main door survived. Subsequent restorations in the early 13th and the 19th centuries brought the lost images back to the Cathedral.
The oldest part of the Cathedral is the Saint Lubin Crypt located beneath the choir. Created in the 9th century, it is surrounded by a larger crypt, the u-shaped Saint Fulbert Crypt. Finished in 1025, that crypt is over 750 feet long.
There are many others including Our Lady of the Crypt Chapel supposedly containing a piece of the silk veil of the Virgin Mary. It was donated to the Cathedral in 876 by Charles the Bald, a grandson of Charlemagne. This crypt is one of the most venerated sites in the Cathedral and the focal point for many religious crusades.
Built in 1205, this area is often used by monks for contemplation, it is also walked by pilgrims in religious meditation. It extends for 964 feet – a fifth of a mile – on the stone floor in one direction along a narrow path.
The Grand Organ
Among the oldest in France, the wooden case was constructed in the 14th century, then rebuilt in 1475. Enlarged in 1542, the organ and the case have been classified as unique historic monuments in France since 1840.
The organ is strategically located in the nave at the crossing of the south transept. At over 50 feet above the floor, it provides incredible sound quality throughout the Cathedral. The case is nearly 50 feet high, with the top almost 100 feet above the floor.
The case was rebuilt during the Renaissance, and more recently in 1969 – 1971 to replace and restore its mechanisms and expand the number of keys and functions. After additional work in 1996, the organ now contains 70 stops and more than 4000 pipes. It is, quite simply, a technological and musical masterpiece.
Chartres Light Celebration
The Cathedral and many other buildings in Chartres are artistically lit nightly from early April through early October each year. More than a sound-and-light show, Chartres en lumières is technically sophisticated, artistically rewarding.
NOTE: There is far too much to see and experience in a few hours. Plan on spending at least half a day or more in Chartres to better understand the Cathedral and its beautiful, religious and mystical magic. A truly humbling experience.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA