Beyond Paris: A Day at Chartres Cathedral Thursday, Aug 28 2014
Sacred France 8:00 am
This summer, I made a long overdue pilgrimage back to la Cathédrale de Chartres - Chartres Cathedral. It had been nearly 25 years since my last visit during my graduate school days in Paris. I wanted to refresh my memory of this crown jewel of gothic art and architecture and also to get in a tour with Malcolm Miller, the famous Englishman who has made Chartres his life’s work. I succeeded on both counts, although I must say I now regret not having been to this sacred gem more often over the years.
Located about 50 miles southwest of Paris, the charming town of Chartres makes a great day trip from the French capital. Local trains run approximately every hour from the Gare Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. The easy journey takes about an hour and costs around 23 euros round trip. The church is a 5 to 10 minute walk from the station.
In a country that abounds with gorgeous gothic churches and cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris, St. Denis, Reims, Amiens, Bourges, Rouen, to name a few – what is it that makes Chartres so special?
First, Chartres, a UNESCO world heritage monument since 1979, is the best-preserved of all of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Today, most of its stained glass and sculptures remain intact from when they were created in the 1200’s. Wonderfully enough, the cathedral’s sacred art survived the ravages of time, the mobs of the French Revolution and also the destruction of the two World Wars. Sometimes, the acts of preservation were deliberate. In 1939, for example, les vitraux (the stained glass windows) were removed prior to the invasion of the Germans. They were then restored and replaced after the war.
Second, the architectural design of Chartres is amazingly unified. The fact that the church was built in the space of about 30 years – very quickly as far as cathedral-building goes – is a main contributor. A bit of history: There have been five churches on the site of Chartres, each previous one destroyed by fire or war. After the great fire of 1194, the cathedral as we know it today was rebuilt in the early 1200’s. To be fair, some details of the church have changed over time, like the north spire which was destroyed by lightning in 1506 and then rebuilt in the flamboyant gothic style. (This answers the question about why the two spires are different!) But it is important to remember that most medieval churches have undergone significant alterations since their construction. At Chartres, the architecture of this medieval church has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries.
Finally, Chartres is also noteworthy for the matchless expertise and enthusiasm of British-born Malcolm Miller who began giving tours of the cathedral in 1958. Miller first came to Chartres from the U.K. when writing his thesis on the cathedral for his degree in French from Durham University. He then decided to make Chartres his life’s work and stayed on in France. He has written numerous books, appeared in documentaries and given lectures abroad. For his significant contributions, the French government has recognized Miller with the Chevalier of the Ordre National de Mérite and Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awards.
However, Miller is at his best when leading English-speaking tours of the church and its iconongraphy which he does at 12noon and 2:45pm from Easter to the end of October (except Sundays or during religious ceremonies). The cost is 10 euros per person. Miller also offers private tours. For Miller, such are the riches of Chartres that no two tours of his are ever like.
The Saturday I visited the cathedral, I made sure Miller was on tap for the noon tour. We started on the interior with a sweep through the nave, then sat in the pews as Miller deciphered a cycle of stained glass and the biblical symbolism within and finally went outside to unlock the stories of the exterior carvings. Most fascinating were the metaphors he used to speak about all the sacred art at Chartres. He likened the cathedral to a library yet the texts are not books; they are the narratives contained in the 12th and 13th century stained glass and sculptures. At the time the church was built, paper was nearly non-existent and printing had not been invented. Most people could not read or write but they could ‘read’ the sacred texts of the colorful windows. Miller added that there is so much material at Chartres that one can never take in all the ‘books.’ Hence, he is still learning himself. Alternatively, he said, Chartres cathedral is like a book with the church’s architecture as its spine. The text is the unfolding of time from Creation to the Last Judgment as seen in the medieval stained glass and sculpture.
As we took our tour, we could see that restoration of the church is ongoing. It is clear which parts have been newly cleaned and which still are dark with soot and pollution whether in stone or glass. A couple of weeks after our visit, a large section of the church was going to be closed off for some time as the painstaking work began. And plans were announced this summer that the American Friends of Chartres are raising funds to restore Bay 140 of stained glass. As part of the restoration effort, they are sponsoring the exhibition of the restored glass at a major museum in the U.S. next year. This would be the first time ever that Chartres stained glass would travel to the States. Wow. The institution to host the exhibit has not yet been announced – stay tuned for that one!
Meanwhile, here is a look at the newly restored Belle Verrière window with the Blue Halo Virgin which is perhaps the most famous stained glass at Chartres. The startlingly bright colors, including the famous Chartres blue, just pop out at you.
To sum up, visiting Chartres is to be transported to the Middle Ages and its rich sacred art, a very meaningful experience whether one is religious or not. If you have the time and the inclination to go, here are a few thoughts for making the most of your journey: Go on a Saturday – the charming town is bustling with activity and the weekly outdoor market. When you first arrive, see the cathedral in the morning light. Then go back in the afternoon for a whole different view. Take a tour with Malcolm Miller before he retires! Take the time to decipher an entire cycle of stained glass – and notice the characters at the bottom who sponsored the piece whether bakers, carpenters or other medieval tradesmen. Have a nice lunch outdoors at one of the restaurants by the church – and enjoy the view of the cathedral nearby. Be sure and walk around the exterior perimeter of the church – the details and angles are fascinating. And last but not least, relish the less crowded church atmosphere when compared to Notre Dame in Paris. Bonne visite!
Cathedral Notre-Dame of Chartres (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres)
Cloître Notre-Dame, 28000 Chartres
Open: Daily 8:30am-7:30pm
NB: Located near the cathedral are the Centre International du Vitrail and the Ecole Internationale du Vitrail et du Patrimoine which are dedicated to the history and art of stained glass. Their superb cultural offerings include lectures, excursions, exhibitions and training in making ancient and contemporary stained glass.
French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter
For a little armchair travel to Chartres with Malcolm Miller, you might want to check out his book in English on the topic: Chartres Cathedral by Malcolm Miller (1997), ISBN 1878351540. For further reading, an array of other books is also available at the church’s lovely bookstore located just to the left as you enter the cathedral.