Why Chartres is important (1) It is generally considered to be the finest example of Gothic architecture in France. (2) It was built in the incredibly short time of 25 years. (3) Its "Chartres blue" stained glass is unique in Europe. (4) It remains a symbol of French popular piety in the Middle Ages — somewhat as Canterbury does for the English.
How Chartres came to be built Chartres follows the pattern of medieval cathedrals in an important respect: the building we see today is only the latest of a series of buildings constructed on the site. The foundations below go back to earlier cathedrals. The reason for this: the earliest religious buildings in Europe were made of wood. Fires and warfare often destroyed them. Newer buildings, made of stone, were built on the same spot, utilizing the earlier foundations. Hence, Europe's great cathedrals are often "piggybacked" on previous cathedrals.
In the case of Chartres, however, several special factors enter in, and we will deal with each in turn.
Chartres as a pagan religious center Long before Christianity came to France, the people practiced pagan cults, administered by a priest-caste known as Druids. At Chartres, the cult worshipped the "Mother-Goddess", a symbol of fertility. (Remember that Chartres is surrounded by rich agricultural land.) A primitive temple stood where the cathedral does today. Inside the temple was a sacred well, where spirits dwelt. (The well can be seen today in the crypt of the cathedral.) Then the Romans came, and enlarged the temple. Pagan worship continued until the coming of Christianity.
Chartres as a center of Christian worship When Christianity spread through France, the custom of venerating a female figure at Chartres continued, only now it was the Virgin Mary. (It was thought that the pagans must have had a foreknowledge of Christianity in worshipping the Mother-Goddess.) The original wooden statue to the Mother-Goddess now became a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it was placed in the crypt of the cathedral. Thus it came to be known as "Our Lady Underground." It was this statue that became the object of popular pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. People of all kinds — nobles, soldiers, peasants, even kings paid their respects to "Our Lady Underground," and this accounts for the tremendous popularity of Chartres as a religious center in medieval France. During the French Revolution, the statue was destroyed. A new one was made in 1857 — and that's the one you can see in the crypt today.
The building of the present cathedral In 1194, the earlier cathedral was burned down — except for the towers and front facade, and so a new one had to be built. This one would be built to last. The building became a community enterprise, in which everyone pitched in. In spite of the feudal class-divisions, everyone — from noble, shopkeeper, to peasant — had a hand. That is why it took only 25 years to complete the work. Another factor: no burials were allowed in the cathedral, and so precious time was not lost in building elaborate tombs.
Why this short building-time is significant Not only does it reveal the deep piety of the people and their emotional attachment to Chartres, but the short building-time resulted in an architectural homogeneity which is rare in European cathedrals. Its style is pure 13th century Gothic from one end to the other. Most European cathedrals were built over hundreds of years — e.g., Notre Dame in Paris, which took 200 years. The result was that one end of the building would be in a style different from the other. But at Chartres, a unit of style prevails.
Features outside the cathedral The front facade shows many examples of early Gothic sculpture. Remember that this facade was part of the earlier building, and thus the style is a bit more primitive. The faces of the saints shown are real — they were taken from living nobility, who were often used as sculptural models. Contrast the vivid facial features with the stiff and lifeless bodies: this is one of Chartres' most interesting features. Over the front portal is Christ (in the center) surrounded by Apostles. The two towers in front are unequal; that's because the elaborate masonry was added to the left-hand tower during the Renaissance. The medieval mind didn't have the same attachment to classical symmetry that we do. They saw nothing unusual about mis-matched towers. Walk around the outside of the cathedral (possibly after looking around inside), and you'll notice the wheel-shaped flying buttresses, a unique feature of Chartres.
Features inside the cathedral Walk about a third of the way down the nave, then turn back. The rose window at Chartres is outstanding. It is called the "rose" window for two reasons: (1) it is shaped like a rose, and (2) the rose was one of the symbols of the Virgin Mary, to whom this window was always dedicated. About halfway up the nave, in the center aisle, is a maze-diagram in the floor, formed of black stones. This was used by pilgrims, who would crawl through it on their knees as an act of penance. At the Choir, turn right, then left again and walk around the ambulatory (the walkway going around the back of the altar). At the start of the ambulatory is the most famous of the stained-glass windows, showing the "Chartres blue" — a shade of blue which the most modern methods cannot duplicate. Here, you'll notice that the floor slopes strangely; it was built that way intentionally to carry off the water that was swished over the floor every morning. Why? Because pilgrims coming to Chartres had no other place to sleep but in the cathedral itself — right on the floor. So many of them were packed in that the floor had to be washed down every day. This is an example of the teeming activity that took place in and around this (and any) medieval cathedral. Stalls were set up against the outside walls; grocers displayed their wares; beggars asked for alms; peddlers and cutpurses took advantage of the crowds; sellers of religious trinkets and fake relics were everywhere. From the ambulatory you can see the huge sculpture around the altar; this is not Gothic but Baroque, and actually conflicts with the major style of the interior. On the other side of the altar (the left side, as you face the altar) is a statue with banks of candles around it. This is not the replica of Our Lady Underground, but another statue; usually there are crowds around it.
How to reach the crypt If there's time left (say, another half-hour at least) and you want to see the crypt, you must obtain tickets at the little shop outside, near the south transept. Tours go every hour, usually on the half-hour, and the guide gives a commentary in French. Sights include the old well, the replica of Our Lady Underground, ancient frescoes from the earlier buildings, the original foundations, and several small chapels (very austere) which radiate out 180 degrees from a central point which is directly under the altar.
(COURIER: Do not encourage people to try to see the crypt. This often produces annoying delays. If teachers are consistently asking you about it, go straight to the little shop and find out when the next tour is. If the time is convenient - o.k. If not, do not lose time here, you have a lunch stop coming up to which you must get on time).
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