Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Gothic Masterpiece of Chartres

The morning broke beautifully, crispy with all the potential of a sunny, but cool day. Give me sun rather than clouds any day. Since we left Burgundy we experienced slightly warmer days. After breakfast in the chateau near Bleury-Saint Symphorien we drove about 50km to Versailles for a revisit to the famous palace. This time though we were not planning on seeing the palace proper, we did that before, but rather the Grand and Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s little “Austrian escape”, at the end of the palace estate. 

Grand Trianon of Versailles 
After our visit to Versailles we initially took the boring but busy N10 motorway to Chartres, but near Ablis we exited the motorway and followed the D910 through the flat countryside and rape seed fields. We were on our way to see the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres.

 The Normandy influence of wood frame houses on the steep walk up to the Cathedral

Although I didn’t specifically looked for it, at the time of driving I didn’t even know in which direction the town was, and still 14 km away from the town, the cathedral’s spires became visible, rising like tiny mountain peaks from the horizon.  As so often the case, the cathedral was located at a high point with the town below it and river running around it. In this case, the town was built at the edge of a plateau on the west bank of the Eure River.

 The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

For nearly 1200 years Roman Catholic pilgrims have come to Chartres, a town about 60 miles southwest of Paris, France. It has always been an important place for religious people since 876 AD when King Charles the Bald of West Francia (reigned 840 – 877AD) gave the relic, the Sancta Camisa, believed to be the undergarment worn by the Virgin Mary at the time of Christ's birth, to the Cathédrale.

Some pilgrims came to see the relic specifically while others used Chartres as a stop-over from or to The Camino de Santiago, also known by the English name of The Way of St. James, to see the shrine of the apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Distance did not seem to be a problem for those pilgrims. They came from Austria, Bavaria, Switzerland and from all over France. And if one considers the time in history, the modes of transport available and the extreme difficulty and dangers that involved travel in general in those days, the number of pilgrims were remarkable. But pilgrimage was such a powerful concept during the Middle Ages, and it was encourage by the church, so monasteries along the way provided food and safe haven for pilgrims.   

 Everything about the cathedral is in massive proportions
Today they still come to Chartres from all over the world. Some religious pilgrims get there by walking the Paris-Chartres Pilgrimage, a three-day walk from the Notre-Dame de Paris to the Notre-Dame de Chartres, approximately 60 miles. Once there many slowly walk around the labyrinth, their heads bowed in prayer or just stand on the labyrinth for a moment of silence.
The labyrinth
We came to Chartres to see the architecture.  The cathedral is said to be one of the best preserved Gothic buildings in Europe. Very little, compare to other Gothic buildings in Europe, has changed since the building was consecrated in October 1260 by King Louis IX of France. We also came to see the massive stained-glass windows, most of them still originals from the 12th century and which incidentally, were all removed in 1939 before the Second World War and replaced after the war. Very good thinking from the bishopric if one consider that the American Army had concrete plans to bomb the cathedral during the war, thinking that the Germans were using it as an observation post. Luckily a braved American colonel proved his command wrong and saved the cathedral from a bombing, but the outskirts of town and an old entry port into the town were bombed.

One reason why the cathedral is still in such a fantastic state is that it has been maintained on a regular basis. At least every couple of hundred years or so. It is currently undergoing a clean up inside the church. On the left of the picture one can clearly see the dirty walls and on the right the clean portion after recent restoration.
The chancel/choir and the altar of the Chartres Cathedral
 A portion of the monumental screen of statues around the chancel


The magnificent stained glass windows.

French kings were historically crowned in Reims, a city about 130 km north of Paris. The coronations took place first in the Abbey of Saint-Remi, and then from 1027 AD in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims.  29 kings were crown there. Only 2 French kings were not crowned in Reims: Louis VI was crowned in Orleans in 1108 AD and on 27 February 1594, Henry IV, the Huguenot king, was crowned King of France at Chartres. Being a converted catholic, Reims rejected Henry IV as a “poor catholic”.

When we exit the cathedral it was getting cooler but we still took a circular walk through town in search of some hot coffee before we headed back to where we parked our car.

Although I didn’t get to see much of the stained glass windows in detail, very high up and dirty, the numerous sculptures inside and outside the cathedral and the colossal proportions of the building makes this a masterpiece in Gothic architecture. The town itself is rather quaint. Even though our visit was very brief, it has a mixture of narrow old world streets with boulangeries, pâtisserie, fromageries and fruit and vegetable shops, and open modern squares and small shopping malls.

A beautiful river view near Porte Guillaume

Against the wall of a restaurant I saw a painting of what Porte Guillaume, one of several gates in the fortified walls of the medieval city used to looked liked before it was bombed in 1944. Today there are only a few ruins left.   

Sunset from the medieval side of town

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stunning place.