I can still hear my high school art teacher say that Chartres Cathedral is one of the best example in France of Gothic architecture and medieval art. Pilgrims have come to worship in Chartres for centuries and now I am among the hundreds of thousands. Virgin Mary reigns here. We quickly found seats up front. The first reading was underway, in French so I had no idea what was being said. I see my friend Yogi fiddling with her blackberry and thought, what is she doing Facebooking in the middle of mass. A few minutes later, she hands me the blackberry and on it were the readings and gospel in English! Yeah! The more than 120 feet ceiling of this high Gothic cathedral dwarfed the congregation of less than 150. The church choir sang in the Gregorian chant style - not exactly the caliber of the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de los Silos but passable. Beneath our seats you see portions of the medieval maze that was used for meditation by pilgrims. I would have loved to walk the maze but alas! the chairs for the service were in the way. Dominating the nave was a 18th century marble sculpture of the Assumption.- very Bernini like.
After mass, we had a chance to explore the cathedral fully. Photography was allowed inside as long as you did not use your flash. The large stained glass windows were impressive. Look at the vivid blue color in the glass used. I am told it is unique to Chartres and is particularly impressive in the window depicting the Virgin and Child. As always, inspiration strikes me who is gaga about medieval and renaissance art especially if the Virgin and Child is in it. My first project from this trip is a paper mosaic inspired by this window. I will feature it later once it is completed. If it turns out, it may just be what I'll use for my Christmas card this year.
There are a total of 3 rose windows which added lightness and airiness to the otherwise dark, candle lit interior. Imagine yourself as one of the pilgrims from the middle ages coming through the cathedral doors from bright sunlight and then there's darkness and as your eyes grow accustomed to the dim, you spot a shot of color coming through the windows across on the far-off nave. As you walk in further, an explosion of color envelops you from the more than 180 stained glass windows. Your eyes slowly focusing, you see the life of Christ, Virgin Mary and the saints depicted. The whole atmosphere of the cathedral in no uncertain terms inspires awe, devotion and faith.
In one of the chapels the Sancta Camisa is housed. The relic is believed to be from a dress worn by the Virgin Mary. It inspired even more devotion and ordinary town folk to come together and rebuild the church when the relic survived a fire that destroyed the entire church. I love this relic, to me it ranks up there with the shroud of Turin.
Another subject of devotion of the pilgrims that come to Chartres is Our Lady of the Pillar or the Black Madonna.
A most distinctive feature in the interior of the cathedral is the Chancel Screen with sculptures depicting the life of Mary and Jesus by 16th century artist. Here again the sculptors of the time were showcased. I could not fathom the number of man-hours that went into making this chancel screen alone.
As we walked outside, we are witness to the grandeur of the construction of the cathedral. This cathedral which was dedicated in 1260 stands in the same spot where preceding cathedrals stood (and burnt down). Some of the many noteworthy features of the exteriors are:
- The Flying Buttresses supporting the high nave, anchored by columns and abutments, were used as structural element in this cathedral for the first time. It is made to feel lighter by the addition of niches filled sculptures.
- The South Portal depicting scenes from the New Testament
- The North Portal depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Restored, notice how much whiter the facade is compared to the South portal.
- The Royal (Front) Portal was under restoration during our visit. The garden in front of the church is a bit unusual and looked like one you would find in the 13th century. Raised gardens boxed in by intertwined twigs were arranged in rows and filled with colorful flowers.
Yogi and I in front of the Cathedral The raised flower garden
The cathedral sits on a hill towering over the medieval village pictured below. Imagine this town when this church was being built. It must be a veritable metropolis of artisans, painters, architects, mason, wood workers, sculptors, iron smiths, silversmith, etc. And then there are the people who provide the workers with housing, food, clothing and other basic services. There had to be folks coming in from all over because there is literally tons of work to do. Many of the folks, though working for their livelihood are also doing it for the glory of God. It excited me to walk around this town. It was still early on a Sunday morning, and the tourist buses are still to come, so there were very few people milling about and it was very quiet. But in spite of that, in my mind's eye, I heard the sights and sounds, the hustle and bustle of the time when this great cathedral was being built. It is very rare when I get transported to another time when I visit a place and this is one of those occasions.
It seems a miracle that such a structure, as this cathedral, can be built at all, but there are so many more examples of these cathedrals throughout Europe. It is truly a testament to the saying, "Faith can move mountains."
One can not visit Cathedrale Notre -Dame des Chartres without feeling God's presence. How lucky are those who have had a hand in building it.
Please click to listen to Benedictine Monks mentioned earlier.