August 24, 2021
I have tried to avoid becoming one of “those tourists,” people who march directly from the train to a tourist site, snap lots of photos, and then step directly into traffic without looking. When my opportunity to visit Chartres arrived, I scheduled myself half a day in the town. Unfortunately, my cell phone decided that the morning of my trip was the right time to refuse connection to the mobile network. The “Oui” app from SNCF wouldn’t show my ticket QR code! As a consequence, I slipped back an hour in my departure for Chartres. The train, departing from Montparnasse, took a little more than an hour to cross the distance, but it feels like a bigger difference in environment, since one can live in Paris for months without seeing anything like agricultural land!
I decided to follow Avenue Jehan de Beauce away from the train station rather than walking directly to the cathedral. I was pleased to see that it soon gained a pedestrian-friendly Esplanade de la Résistance on its east side. Its “chemin de memoire” explained several memorials along the path, with maps to attractions like the Fine Arts Museum. The Broken Sword monument was notable for celebrating the life of Jean Moulin (French Resistance) and remembering those lost in the concentration camps of World War II. It appears opposite the Médiathèque L’Apostrophe, housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building from 1926 by Raoul Brandon.
A massive plaza right next to it had picked out “#Chartres” in 3D letters in front of an admirable vista of the city’s cathedral. I stopped instead to photograph Sainte-Foy, an old church of solid composition, even if it were much less impressive in size. During World War II, the crypt of this church was used to protect some of the materials from Chartres Cathedral from bomb strikes.
I wandered for a little while, both because the streets were far from a north-south / east-west grid and because I had some difficulty getting my internal north pointed in the right direction. The plazas and historic buildings seemed to stretch in every direction, and it appeared that business was booming despite the never-ending pandemic. Before too much time had passed, I had circled the cathedral to approach from the south. Given how much larger it is than most other buildings in Chartres, one can generally find it by entering a plaza and looking up.
Encountering Chartres Cathedral
I first heard of Chartres when I was a little boy (and yes, I was small for quite a lot longer than my age-mates). My primary or middle-school teacher was trying to explain medieval times to the class. She showed us a videotape dramatizing the construction of a cathedral as a multi-generational task; almost no people alive to see the cornerstone placed would survive to see the nave completed, let alone the choir, the facade, or the never-ending towers. Chartres began construction in 1145 CE. It wasn’t the earliest of the Gothic churches; that honour usually goes to Basilica of Saint Denis, which completed its Gothic nave and choir during 1135-1144 CE, or the Cathedral of Sens, which broke ground in 1135 CE and had a completed nave in 1164 CE.
Chartres was distinctive in part because of a disaster; a fire in 1194 forced reconstruction of its nave and choir. The key elements of Gothic architecture (pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses) had been established long since through experimentation at places like Saint-Pierre de Montmartre and Saint-Martin-des-Champs. Chartres would integrate these elements for substantial elevation of the structure, integrating a trio of rose windows with enormous clerestory stained-glass and sculptures throughout the church. Chartres Cathedral inaugurated the “High Gothic,” and it has been honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I was quite surprised by the stark contrast between the inside and outside. At present, the exterior wears its 800 years with a combination of crumble and corrode. The inside, however, is light and airy throughout the nave (but again one sees a contrast between transept and nave since the side areas have not completed restoration).
The ongoing restoration has performed its everyday miracle on the wall of sculpture separating the choir from the ambulatory, with just the last scenes from the 17th century life of Jesus still dark while the rest gleams in white.
My interest in Chartres stems from my interest in stained glass; unlike almost every other Catholic Cathedral in France, the original panes are still in place for the great majority of its fantastic collection, and almost all were created in the 12th and 13th centuries CE. One frequently hears that stained glass windows played a role in communicating stories from the Bible to a largely illiterate population. While that is true of Chartres, these beautiful “vitraux” also extend to the lives of saints and even to historical figures. I would not have expected to see Thomas à Becket and Charlemagne featured in their own windows, but there they were! I was also interested to see that the creatures of the zodiac made an appearance, plus four animal heads were grafted to the pulpit.
I loved the little touches that showed that different sectors of the Chartres community had contributed to its construction. I snapped an image of cobblers making shoes in the corner of St. Stephen’s window.
The veneration of Mary is obviously going to feature in a church called Notre Dame, and I loved the famous window in “Chartres Blue” that celebrated her. The 15th century carving of her (see below) was much smaller than I had expected, but its magnificent frame was something special. I did not visit the extensive crypt; I am unsure whether the public is allowed to see the reliquary housing the veil of the virgin that made the site such a draw for pilgrims at the millenium before last. I found a couple treasures at the gift shop, one for me (a mousepad with the pattern of the famous labyrinth from the floor of the cathedral) and another present for my mother-in-law.
Upon exiting the cathedral, I spent some moments at the south porch; I had already seen its interior, with an enchanting set of windows showing prophets perched on prophets’ shoulders. The exterior, however, features a beautifully sculpted depiction of the last judgment. I have decided I rather like this subject for art ever since I first used Hans Memling‘s depiction in a slide for my biomarkers class, using it to explain dichotomous classifiers. In any case, the side of the Chartres sculpture showing those judged unworthy of heaven is delightful, with very naughty-seeming demons dragging their charges to hell. One demon has clasped the ankle of a woman, and her hair trails behind them on their journey. I am convinced that the creativity and whimsy of artists is what sets apart one work of art among others of the same topic.
Why did Chartres manage to retain these priceless windows and sculptures when so many other churches were destroyed in the Revolution (Lady Chapel of St. Germain-des-Pres) or World War I (Rheims Cathedral) or World War II (Rouen Cathedral)? The Historic Monuments Commission / Fine Arts Commission agreed to remove the windows from Chartres Cathedral for remote storage during World War I and World War II (this story is told in more detail in Saving the Light, by Victor A. Pollak). The cathedral itself was greatly endangered in the course of World War II. The American Army resolved to destroy it, believing the cathedral was being used as an observation post by German forces (the town of Chartres had become a logistics center for the Germans occupying France). Colonel Welborn Griffin objected to this order, volunteering to determine whether or not the cathedral was playing a military role. He shines as the hero of Pollak’s book.
Centre International de Vitrail
I decided to visit the Centre de Vitrail, just north of the cathedral, to learn more about the creation and restoration of these images. My attention was arrested at the entrance to the centre by an apparently well cared-for fluffy grey and white cat. I rested my hand nearby, and she stretched her paw out to touch my finger! I stroked her head for a few minutes, and all was right with the world.
Because the museum opened only at 14:00, I popped over to a restaurant for some lunc. While the Centre offers its flossy brochure only in French, the descriptions on the walls are offered in both English and French (just a few are French-only). I particularly appreciated their glossaries of uncommon terms, as they apply to stained glass:
- Silver stain
- Coloured through the Mass
After a while I became aware that the building I was visiting had many of its historical “bones” on display. I could see up into the rafters, and its modern art display in the cellar was staged in a decadent Gothic backdrop, with ribbed vaults throughout. The Centre provides maps for a great many of the Cathedral’s compound windows, so it is a great way to understand the details of a given story told in glass.