Located 80 kilometres south west of Paris, Chartres Cathedral is considered as the most representative, complete and best preserved of all Gothic cathedrals of France. The cathedral builders have indeed built in Chartres a unique building in the world, entirely designed according to the architectural style of its time, yet distinguished by its originality: Chartres Cathedral is austere and elegant, vast and rigorous, radiant and balanced, wise and daring. Notre-Dame de Chartres, called the “Acropolis of France” by Rodin in reference to its high aesthetic and spiritual significance, has remained until today the largest French sanctuary devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary.
Since its rapid construction at the beginning of the 13th century, the cathedral dominates the city of Chartres and the plain of the Beauce. This large pilgrimage site has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
History of Chartres Cathedral
The oldest area of the cathedral is located in the crypt: it is a Celtic well about 33.55 metres deep, which is also named “well of Saints-Forts”. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that its water possessed miraculous virtues. The well was filled in and concealed in the middle of the 17th century before being rediscovered and restored in the beginning of the 20th century by René Merlet.
The first cathedral was built around the middle of the 4th century and was named “Aventin Cathedral”, in reference to the first bishop of the city. This sanctuary was destroyed by the Visigothic raids during the sack of the city by Hunald, duke of Aquitaine. A second building was thus built on the site and was in turn burnt by the Viking incursions. The Bishop Gislebert ordered then the construction of a larger cathedral. Of this building remained certain parts of the Saint-Lubin chapel, one of them being the current shrine. However, it was in 876 that the sanctuary started to become an important pilgrimage site when King Charles the Bald, grand-son of Charlemagne, gave the cathedral the holy relic of the “Veil of the Virgin Mary” or “Sancta Camisa”. This cloth, which came from Constantinople, had become the property of Charlemagne who preserved it in Aix-la-Chapelle. According to tradition, this veil was the shirt that Mary wore during the Annunciation.
However, the disasters of Chartres continued one after the other: on August 5, 962, the 3rd cathedral was burnt down during the war between Richard 1st, Duke of Normandy and Thibault le Tricheur, Count of Chartres. Therefore a 4th sanctuary was built, which, to crown it all, was in turn destroyed by the fire in September 1020. Renovations immediately started and the Bishop Fulbert built the lower church in Romanesque style from 1020 to 1024, still visible today. The new Romanesque cathedral was consecrated on October 17, 1037, after Fulbert’s death.
The great fire which destroyed the city of Chartres on September 5, 1134, spared the Romanesque cathedral. However, the religious authorities took advantage of the free space in front of the nave to extend the building.
From 1134 to 1160, the famous current façade of Chartres Cathedral was built, starting with the North Tower. From 1142 to 1160, the remarkable royal portal and the South Tower (nowadays the “old” bell tower) with its spire were added. As to the North Tower, the people called it the “new” bell tower, because it only contained two levels.
Unlike previous fires, the one of June 11, 1194 spared the crypt, the majestic western façade and its towers. Regarding the treasure of the Holy Relic (the Veil of the Virgin), it was believed to be lost before it was found intact: this was interpreted as a miraculous sign, signifying that the Virgin Mary wished for a larger church for her relic.
The renovations coincided with an impressive building momentum, which was not only felt in Chartres. Everywhere in Île de France, the construction sites grew in numbers in order to extend, decorate and restore the old cathedrals in Gothic style: in Paris, Noyon, Saint-Denis, Sens or even in Laon. Architects, carpenters, bricklayers, stone-cutters, sculptors and glassmakers, who worked on the Gothic Cathedral of Chartres, used their experience from working in previous construction sites of Ile de France. The new Gothic building was largely inspired by Soissons Cathedral, the base structure of which is similar.
Due to continuous finances, the reconstruction of the rest of the building was known for its extreme speed. The Bishop of Chartres and its canons could rely on the flourishing agricultural activity of the Beauce, the tax revenues of which were invested in the construction of the cathedral. Moreover, Chartres was an important crossing and stopping point on the Routes of Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James).
The canons started their religious services in the building as early as 1220. In 1230, the builders of the cathedrals finished the laying down of large transept porches that were previously sculpted, and in 1240 the stained glass windows were installed. The solemn consecration of the cathedral occurred on October 17, 1260, in the presence of King Saint-Louis.
The rapidity of work, rather rare at that time, allowed the cathedral to have quite an exceptional architectural consistency. The cathedral had few modifications carried out during the following centuries: from 1325 to 1335, the capitulary room, surmounted by the Saint-Piat chapel and linked to the cathedral by a stone staircase; in 1417, the Vendôme chapel between two buttresses of the nave; in 1506, the spire of the north bell tower; and the sculpted decor of the choir tower (completed in the 18th century).
In 1594, Henri IV was crowned King of France in Chartres Cathedral and not in Reims as per tradition. The cities of Reims and Paris were indeed held by the army of the Catholic League, who put up resistance to the King due to his Protestant background.
During the French Revolution, the treasure was plundered and the lead roof was removed and melted to make cannons. The relic, which was kept in a reliquary of great value, was vandalised. Its jewels were sold and the veil was cut in several pieces before being sold as well.
In 1836, a fire destroyed the old wooden roof structure which was replaced by copper plates. Like in Metz, they remain today one of the unique characteristics of the cathedral.
During the Second World War, the stained glass windows were laid as a precaution from 1939, but fortunately the cathedral was not affected by the bombings.
In 1979, close to eight centuries after its reconstruction, Chartres Cathedral was part of the first French monuments to be registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Today, Notre-Dame de Chartres remains an important pilgrimage site, mainly during the traditional pilgrimage of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté which takes place during the Whitsun weekend every year. This event attracts more than 8 000 pilgrims from the whole world to admire a part of the veil exposed in the ambulatory, of the north side, in one of the apse chapels. Furthermore, this spiritual centre location is reinforced by the Routes of Santiago de Compostela, on which Chartres is a stopping place for pilgrims coming from the north, on the road from Paris to Tours.
The exterior of Chartres Cathedral
The Western Façade
The monumental façade standing to the west is impressive by its soaring height, emphasised by the two high towers that frame it. It is a very important work from the 12th century at the transition between Romanesque and Gothic art. It reflects the Byzantine influence driven by crusaders.
The three large 12th century stained glass windows overhang the royal portal, from which they are separated by modillions representing human heads. They were inspired by Romanesque art.
The upper part of the façade was added when the Gothic cathedral was built after the 1194 fire.
Above it is located the opening of rose window which illustrates the Last Judgement from the inside.
The rose window is topped by a Gallery of Kings and a gable, where you can see the Virgin with Child, then at the top Christ blessing.
The Royal Portal (Western Façade)
The central portal (or royal portal) constitutes the main entrance of the cathedral. This triple portal there is the oldest of the three portals of Chartres Cathedral. Surrounded by the North Tower and South Tower, it displays a considerable group of sculptures: 19 large statues (24 originally) and more than 300 figures form a decor in harmony with the architecture of the cathedral.
Behind the statues, the decor represents the last sparks of Romanesque style: interlaced designs, small columns, acanthus leaves.
Portal to the left
The portal to the left is dedicated to the Ascension of Christ and announces the Return of Christ.
The central portal has a theme based on the Book of Revelation. It represents Christ in his glory surrounded by his apostles.
In the upper lintel, angels descend from a cloud. The archivolts feature the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the months.
The central portal focuses on the Last Judgement, as described by the Book of Revelation. The centre of the tympanum presents Christ enthroned within a mandorla (an almond-shaped halo), surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists. The lintel depicts the Twelve Apostles while the archivolts portray the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse.
Portal to the right
The right portal portrays the earthly incarnation of Christ. The lintel is carved with scenes of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Presentation in the Temple. The tympanum portrays the Virgin and Child surrounded by archivolts carved with allegories of the Seven Liberal Arts and famous classical authors and philosophers associated with them.
The Towers of the Cathedral
From afar, the silhouette of the Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral can be easily recognised due to its two unequal towers.
The North Tower, known under the name of Clocher Jehan de Beauce (Jehan de Beauce Bell Tower), has a primitive Gothic base (with thick buttresses and reduced opening). The spire was added in the 16th century and is of Flamboyant Gothic style. It reaches 115 metres at its highest point.
The South Tower (the Romanesque bell tower), which has a more typical Gothic base, is surmounted by a very simple spire giving a striking impression of a “spurt”. This spire, 106 metres high, was the subject of many comments from artists and writers (Charles Péguy said that it was “unique in the world”). Since the French Revolution, the bell tower does not longer contain a bell. It previously had six, including three great bells.
The only bells that the cathedral has are all hung in the bell tower of the North Tower. There are seven in total and named: Mary (6 tonnes, 1840), the Bell (5 tonnes, 1520), Joseph (2.350 kg, 1840), Anne (2040 kg, 1845), Elizabeth (1515 kg, 1845), Piat (870 kg, 1845) and Fulbert (1095 kg, 1845).
We recommend climbing to the bell tower in order to have a better view on the whole nave. After climbing 195 steps and following the north roof, you will reach the lower gallery of the new bell tower, at a height of 70 metres. You will find a spectacular view on the old bell tower, buttresses, flying buttresses, statues and gargoyles.
The Statuary of the Cathedral
There are about 4,000 sculpted figures in Chartres. If the cathedrals are known as the “Bibles in stone”(an allusion to the thousands of sculpted details which “recount” the Bible), here in Chartres, the portals are exceptionally detailed in all types of biblical stories. Let’s not forget that in the past, all these statues on the interior and exterior of the cathedral were polychrome.
The Portals of the South Transept
The south transept contains three portals housed by a deep porch. The central portal is surmounted by a stained glass clerestory (4 lancet windows), a rose window and a clerestory gallery surrounded by turrets and dominated by a gable. The lateral portals are topped by two open towers which do not exceed the height of the cathedral.
The South Transept portals are consecrated to Christ and his Church.
The portal to the left is dedicated to martyrs with Christ appearing to Saint Stephen and the Martyrdom of the Saint.
The central portal represents the Last Judgement with Christ, Mary and John, as well as scenes depicting the Procession of the Chosen and the Damned.
The portal to the right refers to the legends of Saint Martin and Saint Nicolas.
The Portals of the North Transept
The north transept has the same layout as the south transept.
The portals of the North Transept have the Virgin Mary as their main theme. The central portal draws attention to Mary’s Crowning which no canonical texts allude to. This theme first appeared in Senlis Cathedral before it was used in Chartres and Laon cathedrals.
The left portal is dedicated to the Incarnation with scenes showing the Adoration of the Magi and the Announcement of the Nativity to the Shepherds.
The central portal represents Mary’s Crowning with a statue of Saint Anne and Mary as a child on the trumeau.
The portal to the right refers to the announcement of a Saviour with scenes of Job and the Judgement of Solomon.
The view of the chevet is spectacular with its numerous flying buttresses and the layout of minor apses, choir and transept arms.
The chevet has double flying buttresses with three levels of ornamental blind arches. The flying buttresses have to go over the chapels and require an intermediate buttress.
The chevet is surrounded by two towers opened by twin bays and comprising a corner turret. The balustrade which heads to the top links them to the choir.
An elegant staircase connects the 14th century Saint Piat chapel to the cathedral, which were initially separated.
The interior of Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral is 130 metres long. The nave, 16.4 metres wide and 44 meters long, consists of seven bays punctuated by as many columns.
The vaults of the central nave are 37 metres high in the nave.
It is a three-storey elevation.
Above the great archways, the triforium contains bays of four archways.
At the time of the construction of the nave, the decision about the height came from an ambitious research on finding balance in its design. Despite the height of the vaults, which are higher than those of Notre-Dame de Paris, the nave does not appear too vast or too spacious but rather heavy and powerful.
Research on brightness in cathedrals, which used to haunt architects at the time, had led to effective solutions in Chartres Cathedral: by removing the lofts which often surmounted the side naves of previous basilicas, the nave was directly illuminated.
The windows, divided into two lights and crowned with a rose, were left opened. They were the largest windows ever built. This is the genius of Gothic Art: as soon as the flying buttresses took the main thrust, it was no longer necessary to strengthen the building by using a superposition system of vaults. The side naves rise up vertically and allow the light shining through the aisle windows to reach the centre of the nave, with archways that are 14 meters high.
Notice the slight slope of the floor towards the choir. This slope allowed the church to be washed when the pilgrims spent the night there.
Unlike Reims Cathedral, Chartres has preserved its labyrinth.
A work from the 12th century, it has a circular geometrical shape across the whole width of the main nave’s pavement, between the third and the fourth bays.
The labyrinth seemed to represent a symbolic road where man meets God. The centre of the large design would therefore symbolise New Jerusalem, the hereafter.
Its path is 261 metres long and the pilgrims used to walk along it on their knees during the celebrations of the Virgin Mary.
Every Friday, from 10am to 5pm, the chairs are put aside so that visitors can also complete this path if they wish to.
The vast transept, 13.99 metres wide and 64 metres long, was built to allow processions to be held. The porches, which the transept arms open to, were to highlight their grand occasion.
The transept arms have three bays, the elevation of which is rather similar to that of the nave, except that the triforium has 5 archways here.
The Choir and the Ambulatory
The significant size of the choir had to meet the large number of canons which were to be seated on the stalls. The choir extends the nave with seven columns arranged in a semi-circle, which is the ambulatory that surrounds it and opens onto seven apse chapels. The rood screen which had existed since the 13th century was demolished by the canons in 1763. It separated the choir from the nave.
The high-altar (1771) is the work of the sculptor Bridan and portrays the Assumption of the Virgin Mary based on Victor Louis’ drawing, in a baroque style which was very much in vogue at the time.
The choir is surrounded by a wall, which is intended to better isolate the choir from the ambulatory. Entirely sculpted (40 groups, 200 statues in total), it is partly the work of Jehan de Beauce who started the construction at the beginning of the 16th century. The sculpted panels, of Renaissance style, recall events in the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
The Stained-Glass Windows
The stained glass windows of Chartres are known around the world due to their famous cobalt blue colour, clear and deep, known as “the blue from Chartres”. Chartres Cathedral retains the largest collection of medieval stained glass windows preserved in the world, which is remarkably well-maintained until today. There are 176 stained glass windows (including small rose windows), which corresponds to a surface area of 2 600 m2, yet inferior to that of Metz Cathedral (6 500m2). Three stained glass windows from the 12th century have been preserved, notably with inimitable cobalt blue colours, the secret formula of which has not been discovered.
The Stained-Glass Windows of Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière
Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière is a famous stained glass window, due to its exceptional and inimitable cobalt blue colour, the secret formula of which has not been discovered. It is one of the 175 depictions of the Virgin that the cathedral contains. It could have almost been destroyed in the terrible 1194 fire.
On this stained glass window, the Virgin, without dominating those who look at her from the cathedral floor, overhangs them at a height of 2.25 m. The Virgin shows her Child holding a book on which the inscription “omnis vallis implebitur” (every valley shall be filled) can be read, referring to one of Luke’s passage in the Bible.
In the middle, Mary rules on her heavenly throne. Beneath her throne, three panels recall the episodes of the Temptations of Jesus, and six other panels recall the Wedding at Cana. Finally, around the Virgin in Majesty, eight other panels show the angels glorifying the Child King and his Mother. At the highest point, the last of the 20 panels, the Holy Spirit, which is represented by a dove with a halo surrounding the head, shines over her.
The Rose Window of the North Transept
In the north transept, the rose window represents a Virgin with Child surrounded by angels, Kings of Judah and prophets. Under the rose window, Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, carries Mary in the central lancet window. In the other lancet windows, they are surrounded by characters of the Old Testament. In the spandrels, you can see the arms of Blanche of Castile (Castilian castle) and of Saint Louis (fleur de lys). These stained glass windows were created around 1235.
The Rose Window of the South Transept
This rose window is an illustration of the first vision of the Revelation of John (4:1-11).
Christ in Majesty is portrayed at the centre of rose window.
The first circle represents, starting from the bottom left in a clockwise direction:
- the lion, symbol of Mark the Evangelist,
- the ox, symbol of Luke the Evangelist,
- man, symbol of Matthew the Evangelist
- the eagle, symbol of John the Evangelist,
- the other stained glass windows represent angels holding censers.
The two following circles represent the twenty-four Elders of the Book of Revelation.
Between these two circles are quatrefoils with the coat of arms of the Dreux family, who donated the stained glass windows dating from 1230.
A cleaning and stained glass window treatment program against the effects of pollution has been undertaken since 1972. It is still continuing and should help restore the brightness accordingly in the nave.
The cathedral was built in superimposition on several previous buildings, each serving as foundations for the following building. The areas that were not part of the foundations formed two concentric crypts which can be visited today. There you can admire frescos from the 12th and 19th century, as well as contemporary creations.
The inside crypt unveils remains of walls, usually attributed to the Gallo-Roman period, which refers to the time when the first church was present. The crypt of the Carolingian church, built by Gislebertus in the 9th century, is located beneath the choir of the cathedral, just under the high altar. It bears the name of Saint Lubin’s vault.
The outside crypt is known as the Fulbert’s crypt or low church. It goes from one bell tower to the other around the building. Dating from the 11th century, it is the largest crypt of France, being 230 metres long and 6 metres wide. Starting from the end of the north gallery, you will reach the chapel of Notre-Dame Sous-Terre (Our Lady Underground), which is maybe one of the oldest shrines dedicated to Mary in the Christendom.
The gallery becomes semicircular underneath the chevet and opens onto three deep Romanesque chapels, surrounded by four smaller 13th century Gothic chapels. There you find the well of Saints-Forts (33 m deep).
In the south gallery, you can admire a 12th century fresco along with several popular saints (Clement, Giles, Martin, Nicholas…). At the end of the south gallery is located a stone baptistery dating from the Romanesque period.
Similarities with the Speyer Cathedral, Germany
Since 1959, the city of Chartres is twinned with the German city of Speyer which is located on the banks of the Rhine in Rhineland-Palatinate. Speyer is famous for its cathedral (the Kaiserdom), the largest Romanesque Church in Europe. The similarities between the two cities must have probably played a part in the development of the French-German pairing, yet their cathedrals have nothing in common. In addition, Chartres and Speyer have a population of approximately 50,000 people.
Founded by Conrad II in 1030 and transformed at the end of the 11th century, Speyer Cathedral is the largest Romanesque building in Europe with its four towers and two domes. For almost 300 years, the cathedral has been the burial place of the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.
A Large Crypt
The crypt of Chartres Cathedral is well known for being the largest of all Gothic cathedrals in Europe.
The crypt of Speyer Cathedral is the largest Romanesque crypt with colonnades in Europe.
Listed in UNESCO
Speyer and Chartres cathedrals have been registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979 and 1981.
A Green Roof
Both cathedrals have a metal roof structure and a copper roof, giving them a typical blue-green colour.
The length of Chartres Cathedral (130m) is very similar to that of Speyer Cathedral (134m).
The height of the nave (37.50m) in Chartres Cathedral is slightly higher than that of Speyer Cathedral (33m). However, the height of the German building is particularly important for a Romanesque style cathedral.
The Gothic towers of Chartres Cathedral are 115m and 106m high and those of Speyer Cathedral are 71m and 65 m high.