Chartres Excursion

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Chartres Excursion

This is a busy and a fairly complicated day but it can be done. You just need to be careful about timings. It involves a lot of driving. There is really no leeway. For descriptions of Chartres and the chateaux and what is entailed in the visits, see the relevant courier notes. The bus may well be booked for 8.00 but, if at all possible, change it to 7.30am in order to allow for traffic getting out of Paris and to offer slightly more time at the various sights. It is motorway most of the way so you pass very little of interest en route. Distances given are always approximate.

7.30am: Depart Paris for Chartres. The road is all motorway A11, about 60 miles. You pass absolutely nothing of built interest but about halfway through the journey you come into the plain of la Beauce, a good opportunity to talk about French agriculture. The spires of Chartres are visible from quite a way off on a clear day. Look out for them. This would be a good time to begin your commentary.

9.30am: Arrive Chartres. Park by the monument to Jean Moulin and walk the group the short walk to the cathedral. As you look at the west front there is a shop on your left on the corner (EF and ACIS stickers in the window) where you can pee for free. You get a commission here. Then walk the group round the cathedral and enter by the main west door. NB There is no time to visit the crypt. If some people wish they should have the time to climb the north tower for the view.

11.00am: Leave Chartres. If you can leave earlier, do so. Take the N154 to join the A10 (l'Aquitaine) towards Orleans. You bypass this city and see nothing of it. Continue towards Blois following parallel to the Loire (though you don't see it). From Chartres to Blois (75 miles) you pass nothing of interest. At Blois you cross the Loire. You will have a distant view of the rooftops and chateau of Blois. Take the D751 and D764 the last 25 miles to Chenonceaux. You will pass by the ruins of the old medieval fortification of Montrichard.

1.30pm: (at the latest) Arrive Chenonceaux. Drop the group off at the restaurant (you will almost certainly be eating at 'Au Gâteau Breton.' Once they are settled in, it is probably wise to walk over to the chateau yourself to buy the tickets (5-7 minutes). After lunch walk together to the chateau. You should have about an hour for the visit.

3.30pm: Depart Chenonceaux for Chambord. Follow the back roads D764 and D52 towards Cheverny for a 5-minute picture stop in front of the gates if you have time. Continue the remaining 15 minutes to Chambord.

4.15pm: Arrive Chambord. If you are running short of time, 45 minutes is really enough for Chambord. (Try not to cut into your time at Chenonceau, which tends to be the crowd pleaser.)

5.15pm: Depart Chambord for Paris, getting back on to the A10 as soon as possible with the intention of arriving back between 7.00 and 7.30pm.


Chartres is a small town, pop. 40,000, that lies in the middle of the vast wheat-growing plain of the Beauce, "grenier de la France." It is about 60 miles southwest of Paris. You can see the cathedral towers from quite a long way off. Your time here will focus entirely on the cathedral. You will not have a guide (unless you have booked someone like Malcolm Miller) so you need to do the tour yourself. You should allow about an hour to visit the cathedral. There is no entrance fee. The main points of interest for the group will be the sculpted figures, the flying buttresses, the stained-glass windows, the labyrinth and the relic of the Virgin's Veil. You should leave time if possible for those who want to climb the north tower for the view (they pay). The loos are next to the tourist office on the main square.

Introduction  This is perhaps the greatest Gothic cathedral of them all (though these notes confess to saying the same thing about Amiens). You have to do it justice in your commentary. You need not hesitate to wax as lyrical as you wish. If the weather is good and the sun is shining the church interior is absolutely breathtaking and will doubtless prove for many one of the highlights of the trip.

In its dimensions Chartres is impressive. Its nave is the widest in France, 53 ft. from pillar to pillar. The vaults reach up to 122 ft. high. The interior is 430 ft. long, only slightly shorter than Amiens, the biggest cathedral in France.

A Bit of History  This was a pre-christian religious site of great importance for the local Gallo-Roman population. It seems that the focus of worship was some sort of mother-goddess if fertility. Chartres' early Christian history is unclear but it is more than likely that this pagan mother-goddess made an easy metamorphosis into the figure of the Virgin Mary during the Christan era. This explains the concentration on the Virgin from Chartres' earliest days, the beginnings of the so-called 'cult of the Virgin Mary.' The first reference to a cathedral here is in the mid C8. What is certain is that Chartres Cathedral as seen today is the fifth Christan sanctuary on this site, built after a devastating fire in 1194. There are remains from the earlier construction - the Portail Royal, the North and South towers and the crypt (at 750 ft. long the largest in France) - but the vast majority of the building dates from between 1194 and approximately1225. This is an astonishingly short time by comparison with most other medieval cathedrals and accounts for the unique uniformity of vision that is presented to the visitor. The energy, money and work necessary for such an achievement in a small town like Chartres can be largely attributed to the cult of the Virgin Mary (see paragraph on the Virgin's Veil). Funds were raised by the kings and queens of France, local corporations and from as far away as England and Spain. Bernard of Clairvaux came here to preach the First Crusade. Henri IV, in a later generation, came here to be crowned (Rheims was at the time in the hands of the enemy.) Throughout the Middle Ages this was one of the great pilgrimage sites of medieval Europe.

Stained Glass  It is difficult to talk authoritatively about individual windows unless you have a particular expertise in stained glass but you can and should make some general remarks. The following notes should come in useful for any cathedral whose outstanding features include stained glass.

Stained glass is very much a French art. There is more stained glass, medieval and modern, in France than in all the other countries of the world put together, a total of 1,000,000 sq. ft. Among the cathedrals, Metz has the most, followed by Rouen and then Chartres with 23,000 sq. feet of stained glass spread over 170 windows. Chartres, uniquely, has windows dating from the early C13 (with the exception of a couple that survived the fire of 1194 and two or three from the C15) that are homogenous in date, provenance and theme. They come from the school of Notre-Dame de Paris. Also unique to Chartres is the famous bleu de Chartres, a luminous cobalt blue colour that has never been reproduced in glass staining. Several themes dominate the subject matter of the glass in Chartres:the upper windows contain over life-sized figures of saints and apostles; the lower windows contain biblical scenes and scenes from the lives of the saints (taken from the 'Golden Legend'). In the bottom panes of many of the windows are representations of activities pertaining to the trade corporations (the forerunners of guilds) responsible for the cost of the windows.

The purpose of stained glass in churches was twofold: pedagogic, dedicated to the instruction of the faithful; and celebratory, in honour of the glory of God. The pedagogic element must be seen in the context of a largely illiterate society for whom the stories depicted in glass were the equivalent of readings from or commentaries upon the Bible and the great religious texts. The celebratory element involved both a sensual response to the sheer visual joy of the work, and a conviction that the church was the City of God on earth, a recreation of heaven in this world. This is easier to understand if, once inside the cathedral, you compare your immediate surroundings to the depiction of the holy Jerusalem in the Revelation of St. John, ch.21, vs.10,11,18,19,20:

10: And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

11: Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone clear as crystal;

18: And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.

19: And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;

20: The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius;the seventh, chrysolyte; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz.

etc., etc,. This was what the artists and artisans in stained glass were trying to recreate. It is worth quoting this passage as you look around you in Chartres.

The Visit  It is of course possible to explain everything before they go in for a visit on their own but if you wish to do a little guiding it is OK here. The following is a suggested glance at the highlights.

The first thing that strikes people about the exterior of the cathedral is the imbalance of the two towers. The north tower is manifestly more decorated than the south tower. The original was destroyed in a fire in 1506 and rebuilt according to the contemporary flamboyant style. The south tower dates from between 1145 and 1170 as does the Portail Royal. This was all that survived the fire of 1194 and constitutes the oldest extant part of the cathedral (along with the crypt). The sculpture of the Portail Royal is one of the great masterpieces of Chartres. The central portal depicts Christ in Glory with evangelists and apostles, the south arch has the Nativity, and the north arch shows the Ascension. Surrounding the doors are elongated figures representing biblical kings and queens. The C13 gallery above the portal depicts 16 kings of Judah, ancestors of the Virgin Mary.

Follow the cathedral round to the left past the equally rich north portal (the Creation) to the archbishop's garden. Here you have the best view of the characteristic double-arched flying buttresses of Chartres. The flying buttress was a French architectural innovation of the late C12 and early C13 that broke new ground in allowing scope for extraordinary construction possibilities. A building the size of Chartres would simply have collapsed outwards, unable to support the weight of the walls and the roof, without the help of these innovative load-bearing structures. The light and beautiful flying buttresses, combined with the cross-ribbed vaulting of the interior, transfer the weight outwards over a far larger area, allowing for greater height in the building and greater window space freed up by the lesser need for heavy load-bearing walls. To an extent, at least, the typical Gothic cathedral, filled with light and with a soaring nave, is the product of these brilliant engineering marvels. Continue round the cathedral until you reach the main facade.

You go in through the west door of the cathedral. Turn immediately to look back at the three west windows and the great rose window above, 43 ft. in exterior diameter, occupying almost the entire width of the nave. The first three were the ones that survived the fire of 1194, along with the famous 'Notre-Dame de la belle Verrière' in the ambulatory next to the south transept. They date from around 1150. The central one shows a Tree of Jesse, the lineage of Christ. The depiction in the rose window is of the Last Judgment. (The other famous rose window, la rose de France, is in the north transept.) Remember that the rose was the symbol of the Virgin Mary.

Continue to the middle of the nave and look to the floor for the Labyrinth. It may be hard to make out beneath the chairs for the congregation. It is 1,000 ft. long, marked out on the floor in coloured stone. This is the only original labyrinth extant in France, though some have been recently restored. Most were destroyed in the last century. (In Rheims, for example, it was removed because little children used to use it as a sort of playground, and the noise just made it impossible to pray.) Nobody really knows precisely how such a labyrinth was used but the idea was probably to trace its path on your knees as a sort of penitence, in substitution for an otherwise impossible pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Perhaps there is also an idea of tracing the journey of man from the profane to the sacred, the Heavenly Jerusalem at the centre of the world.

Follow the south ambulatory round, stopping to glance at the 'Notre-Dame de la belle Verrière' window, often considered the loveliest in the cathedral. Continue round the choir screen facing the three ambulatory chapels. It is worth pointing out the beautiful stonework from early C16 flamboyant Gothic to late renaissance. It took two centuries to complete. There are 200 statues depicting 41 scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin. The choir screen extends over 270 ft.

In the last of the chapels you can go in to see the most famous of Chartres' relics, the Virgin's Veil or la Sainte Chemise. (This used to be housed in the treasury but no longer is.) You need to explain a little about it. This is supposedly a fragment of the veil, or possibly the shirt, worn by the Virgin mary at the birth of Christ. It was sent to Charlemagne as a gift by Empress Irene from Constantinople and given to Chartres by Charles the Bald in 876. All through the Middle Ages it was allegedly responsible for many miracles, including saving the cathedral from destruction at the hands of the Vikings in 911. (The Viking leader Rollo subsequently converted to Christianity.) The veil, of course, survived the fire of 1194, and that fact provided the impetus for the massive rebuilding effort that followed. It was the most venerated of the relics that attracted so many pilgrims to Chartres at the height of the cult of the Virgin Mary. As to its authenticity, that is of course impossible to determine, as well as being something of a redundant exercise. Tests have proven that it dates back to the Ist century AD.

(Incidentally, from the bus parking it's no more than a couple of minutes on foot to the west front of the cathedral. Be sure to point out the monument to Chartres' greatest resident, Jean Moulin, hero of the Resistance. Born in Béziers in the south of France, he became prefect of the dépt. of Eure-et-Loir and later co-founded the French Resistance during WW II. He died, under torture by the Gestapo, in 1943.)


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