The Chartres Cathedral is undeniably amongst the most beautiful cathedrals in the World and certainly amongst the most interesting, architecturally and historically. The cathedral, as we see it today, was mostly built in the early 13th century and has changed very little since then. It has been standing proudly and dominating the city landscape for over 800 years. That is pretty amazing on its own.
The Chartres Cathedral is World famous, not just for being very big and very old, but rather for some slightly more interesting things, with probably on top of the list:
- Its 2 very distinctive and different towers
- Its labyrinth
- The Sancta Camisa (the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ’s birth)
- Being amongst the first UNESCO World Heritage sites
- Its medieval stained glass. Read on and you’ll understand why they are so special.
A touch of History
The current Cathedral was built on the remains on at least 4 other cathedrals or churches. The first cathedral was probably built during the 4th century and was destroyed during the 8th century. Build, destroy, rebuild, destroy again… so is history. Very little remains of the former cathedrals. Of the Carolingian church, a gloomy semicircular chamber located directly below the apse, can be seen when visiting the crypt.
Talking about the crypt, which is the largest one in France: it isn’t really a crypt! It is the remain of the 11th century cathedral. The actual one has been built on top of it. This is something we learned during our visit, which is surprisingly not really consistant with the information you can find online.
This might be linked to the fact that several theories exist about the construction of the cathedral as numerous scholars, architects and historians have studied it, without always agreeing on their specific findings.
A portan fit for a King? Indeed… Henry IV couldn’t go to Reims to be coronated so on 27 February 1594, he was made King of France in Chartres Cathedral.
A touch of Architecture
The Chartres Cathedral was mostly built between 1194 and 1220, an astonishingly short period of time, for such a monument. This greatly helped the architecture unity of the cathedral. One specific characteristic of the construction is that the nave was built first, contrary to the usual construction process where the choir and transept were finished and used first, while the nave and south portal were finished last.
This might be linked to the fact that the previous cathedral had been destroyed and the construction started amongst rubbles, as well as the fact that South portal, which was built earlier, between 1134 & 1160, for the former cathedral, was still standing.
Some renovation took place in the 18th century, giving for example a more neo-classic look to the choir.
The screen around the choir. Jehan de Beauce – 17-18th century
The Assumption Statue adorning the Altar
Recent renovations took place as well, giving rise to a huge controversy. No doubt that things don’t change that much in this register!!
The Chartres Cathedral Towers
So distinctive! So contrasting! Why? Simply because they were not built at the same time. The South spire was built between 1142 and 1170 (yes before the rest of the Cathedral, congratulation for following!) The North tower gothic top part was built in the early 16th century, after the destruction by fire of the existing tower.
The famous sundial angel above and the clock house below
The Cathedral was to have more towers, 9 in total, above the transept and around the choir. These did not come to life as it was fairly usual to change plans along the construction.
Quite frankly, it is easy to miss. When walking in the Cathedral, your sight is drawn to the height and the choir, not to the ground. Plus, the labyrinth is partially hidden underneath the chairs for most part of the year (chairs are usually removed on Fridays from Lent to All Saint’s Day so from March to 1st Nov).
Such labyrinth was built around 1200 and still attracts pilgrims today, who come to walk around it, while praying and meditating.
The Cathedral has always been a place of pilgrimage. Before the labyrinth, the ‘Well of the Strong Saints‘ (located in the crypt), where it is believed that christians were drowned, was the object of devotion.
Later, people were coming (and are still coming) to see the Sancta Camisa, which is believed to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to the Christ.
The Chartres Cathedral Stained Glass
Most stained glasses that can be seen today in the Cathedral dates from the first half of the 13th century. 3 of them dates from the 12th century. This is amazing! Approximately 152 of the original 176 stained glass windows survived 800 years of war, destruction and pollution.
One amazing story lies in the fact that during WWII, the stained glass windows were removed by the people of Chartres and hidden away. Chartres suffered tremendous damage from bombing, and although the Cathedral was never bombed, thanks to an American Army officer who challenged the order to destroy it, the glasses would have not survived the surrounding destruction.
It wasn’t the first time either, that the people of Chartres protected their cathedral and this seems like a great lesson of what people can do, when they do it together.
As mentionnes above, the crypt is what remains from the former cathedral from the 11th century (the Bishop Fulbert’s cathedral).
The floorpan of the actual cathedral is the same above as below, meaning pillars of the above cathedral rest on the fondation of the pillars of the former roman cathedral, which has, as one consequence, an exceptionally large nave for a gothic cathedral.
Smaller chapels were added to crypt to support the smaller chapels added to the above cathedrals.
12th Century fresco in the crypt
The Lubinus Cript, the lowest part of the crypt and the only remains of the Carolingian church, is located directly below the apse and specifically below the majestic statue of the Assumption adorning the altar. Because of this, the walls and pillars were reinforced in the 18th century to ensure the appropriate support, and therefore leaving very little of the original structure.
View of the Clerestory on the South facade
The North Portal
Flying Buttresses overload!
Coming back to Chartres has been on my BID list for a long time. It may sounds weird, I’m French after all and, all things considered, it’s not that far from where I live. But for some reasons, it just didn’t happen before. A few weeks back, on our road trip to Brittany, we finally made it to Chartres and it was such a treat! Well, you saw it, so by now, you are hopefully convinced it is worth your time!!
The technical bits:
Chartres is only 80km from Paris (50 miles). A bargain!!
Guided visits of the Cathedral and or the crypt are organized almost daily.
The Crypt can only be visited with a guide, although you could also see part of it, if attending a service.
You can go up the North tower to get an incredible view other the city. 300 stairs await you!
The Chartres Cathedral, is a place of worship, please dress accordingly and visit respectfully.
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There is much more to say about the Chartres Cathedral. If you want to learn more, you can check out this 2 books.
The first one was written about a renown expert. The second goes beyond and gives insight on sacred geometry, hidden messages and legends… Very different but both quite interesting!
(both are affiliated links. You know the drill)