The Cathedral of
The Chartres Cathedral is
probably the finest example of French Gothic architecture and
said by some to be the most beautiful cathedral in France.
The Chartres Cathedral is a milestone in the
development of Western architecture because it employs all the
structural elements of the new Gothic architecture:
the pointed arch; the rib-and-panel vault; and, most
significantly, the flying buttress.
The cathedral is also celebrated for its
many stained-glass windows and sculptures. Because most of its
12th-and 13th-century stained glass and sculpture survives,
Chartres Cathedral is one of the most completely surviving
Choir screen and ambulatory -
photo by Steve
Its spiritual intensity is heightened by the
fact that no direct light enters the building. All the light is filtered through stained
glass, so that the whole experience of visiting the Chartres Cathedral seems out of this
The interior of the Chartres cathedral is remarkable. The nave, wider than that
of any other cathedral in France (52 feet, or 16 meters), is in the purest 13th-century ogival
In its center is a maze, the only one still intact in France, with 320 yards
(290 meters) of winding passages, which the faithful used to follow on their knees.
The warm glow of the light inside the cathedral results from the incomparably
beautiful stained-glass windows, which date mostly from the 14th century.
The Chartres Cathedral was built following a
fire that largely destroyed the previous church in 1194, the
new choir being complete by 1221 and the whole building
consecrated in 1260 as one of the most compelling
expressions of the strength and poetry of medieval
The city of Chartres owed its prosperity to
its bishop and chapter, who had established four annual
trade fairs on the feasts of the Virgin Mary, to whom the
cathedral was dedicated - her Nativity, Annunciation,
Purification and Assumption. T
he choice was colored by the claim of the
cathedral to possess the robe that Mary wore when giving
birth to Christ.
photo by Steve
A piece of oriental silk given to Chartres
in about 876 by Emperor Charles the Bald, its preservation in the fire of 1194 was regarded as
miraculous. It still survives to this day in the Treasury.
What was new and thrilling architecturally about Chartres Cathedral was the
clerestory, the upper area of the wall supported on the arcades, which took the form of a huge
glass casket in which the architecture merely serves as a frame for the stained glass filling
the two rows of enormous windows.
To provide stability for the daring construction, immense flying buttresses were
used in an unprecedented way.
photo by bghull
The glass, made around
1200-1235, follows a uniform style, with figures in the upper panels related to the legends of
saints, and in the lower panels representing the trade guilds and corporations who paid for
them. Further donations for the glass and sculpture came from the nobility and gentry of the
Ile de France.
Chartres Cathedral ranks as a triple masterpiece. Equally superb are its
architecture and sculpture, survivors of two major fires and numerous wars and revolutions.
Its last narrow escape from total destruction occurred on a warm June night in
1836, when an unexplained fire destroyed the roof timbers and melted the lead.The timbers over
the nave were replaced by an iron structure and then roofed over with copper.
The cathedral school at Chartres had been a famous centre of learning under the
bishop St Fulbert (960-1028).
This didactic tone was later expressed in the programme selected for the glass
and the sculpture, which was evidently the product of much learning. It unfolded a vision
of the role of the church in world history that was promoted by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216)
when the temporal power of the papacy was at its height.
The programme was given expression in the
sculpture on the Royal Portal of 1150-1175, on the west front, and on the two immense
transepts that were added on the north and south sides.
Each is a miniature pilgrimage church, with a traditional west front with three
portals and porches where figure sculpture stresses the mission of the church to teach and
The north portal, containing more than 700 figures, shows the antecedents of
Christ, the south the era of the church.
Chartres has become the focus of a new type of pilgrimage dedicated to the
preservation of the Latin Mass, which, following the Second Vatican Council, was replaced in
1969 by the graceless new liturgy. Thousands of pilgrims travel to it on foot, saying the
rosary, to hear the timeless words of the old Mass in this darkly glowing interior.
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