Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Chartres Cathedral, France

Thought that you might like to read an account of a visit I paid to Chartres cathedral last summer    I've written it up as an 800 word article, so it's longer than most of my posts.  Although I'm not particularly religious, Chartres made a huge impression on me.

Here's what I thought:
Chartes Cathedral - Pointing the way to God

The French cathedral of Chartres seems like a great big medieval loudspeaker broadcasting GOD,  GOD, GOD, GOD, GOD.  Right in the centre of the town, it entirely dominates its small square, overshadowing the surrounding jumble of old houses, cafes, shops, bars, luxuriant flowerbeds.   

Its two un-matching spires point at the sky, and the carvings of its stone facade seem as alive as the flowers.

To pilgrims flocking here over centuries, this huge building's elaborate decoration must have seemed like a great story book of faith.  Each carved image has a meaning, a significance.  Perhaps the biggest of its set pieces is the one above the main entrance, which shows the Apocalypse of Christ in Glory, surrounded by beasts representing the four Evangelists, and the twelve Apostles, and a host of angels.

Step inside and you're engulfed in breathless dimness, with immensely high, thin windows sparkling gently all around like jewelled kaleidoscopes.  Most of Chartres' glass dates from the thirteenth century.

It shows saints, parables, scenes from the Life of Christ, all the usual things; but for me the most touching and fascinating images are placed humbly in the  lowest panels of the windows.  These show the human beings who actually paid the cost of this place.  Here they are, these little half naked people, as brightly coloured as they were eight hundred years ago, toiling at menial tasks. Water carriers, stripped to the waist, with the jars they've hauled up the cripplingly steep hill from the river; cobblers, mending the worn-out shoes of people who could not afford to buy new.

Can you discern them in my rather blurry picture?  With their hand-tools and ox-carts, they lived hard lives,  and we would, perhaps, think them primitive if we saw them at work.  Yet their achievement, in creating this soaring building, illuminates how the power of their faith and the range of their thinking transcended the physical hardship of their lives. 

The stone labyrinth in the floor of the cathedral continues the theme of offering toil and hardship to achieve grace. It is set flush into the nave, and every Friday the chairs are moved away to reveal it fully. You are supposed to follow it upon your knees, welcoming physical discomfort or even pain, to make the difficult progress towards the holy centre.

Chartres has always attracted pilgrims who come to venerate its holy relic of the Virgin Mary and admire its marvels, and the place is full of people wandernig about simply gazing at it all.

There is no entrance fee, but in our secular age, those who care for the cathedral must work hard to keep the visitors coming, and spending. So they have hit upon the idea of small groups touring the crypt by candlelight, and that's what I have decided to do during my visit to the city.

At night, the cathedral is brightly floodlit, but I gather with the rest of the group at the pitch-dark entrance to the crypt, far from the golden spires above and even further away from the dazzling sunlight of midday.   Everyone has a tall, wax candle, and these are the only light as we descend into total darkness.

 It is an extraordinary experience to progress slowly beneath the low ceilings, gazing at the wall paintings by the light of the flickering candles.

And not only paintings, but several eerily tall Gothic statues are preserved here. Survivors of a twelfth-century conflagration, they rise over three metres, taller and far thinner than any normal person.  Yet these   weirdly elongated statues have beautiful, naturalistic heads, which give them a compelling, eerie presence.

The sculptor Rodin was enthralled by them, and he studied them for days and weeks, trying to pin down what it was that made them so fascinating.  Eventually, though, he wrote to his family that he thought he could produce something that looked like them - but the could never produce anything that actually was like them.

At the far end of the crypt, stairs lead upwards into the darkened, silent cathedral itself.   Votive candles in red glass holders flicker in bright pools of white and scarlet, reflecting dimly off polished stone, but there is no other light.  With the twenty-first century banished for now, I can barely see the walls and roof some distance away, for the great glass windows permit only the faintest moonlight. The only way to understand the size of the place by the echoes of my own whispers, returning from the shadows.

It is overwhelming, and on summer evenings, a son-et-lumiere show outside in the square regularly lightens the atmosphere.   Shortly after dark, music starts booming from cunningly positioned loudspeakers, and the cathedral’s facade becomes a towering screen for moving images representing its history: the kings and queens,

the fires, the burnings, and the cold and tumbling stones of war

and eventually the dove of peace.  Superficially, it isn't unlike the kind of show I've seen at Walt Disney World in Florida, but the difference is that,  beneath the moving colours, the wall carvings continue to gaze out with the dignity of hundreds of years. 

Let them be happy with their lights,they seem to say, for we will always stay the same. Today it is son-et-lumiere, and neatly tended flower-beds, and people sitting around in bars.  But next century, and the century after that - who knows what we will see?


  1. Wow! What a beautiful, fascinating place!

  2. Stunning pictures. I would love to do that candlelit tour. The last picture, of the cathedral lit up blue, is also amazing. It makes the place look like a cubist painting. (I think I mean cubist - am not that great on art!)

  3. Fascinating post - I have been to Chartres but have never seen the son et lumiere there which must have been amazing nor have I been to the crypt it was a flying visit to see the stained glass. Thanks for sharing this with us. I wonder have you been approached as I have by Travelizer - - they are seeking blog posts such as yours for a competition. You may or may not be interested.

  4. Impressive Gothic cathedral, even today are majestic, so when they built the men and women of that time would be paralyzed by the power the church. I love that picture of people with candles. Beautiful story, I love it. A healthy and happy day.

  5. I have always wondered what visiting a real gothic cathedral would be like. You have given me a little visit and I greatly appreciate it. I can't imagine how intimidating these cathedrals must have been so many centuries ago! Wow! Thanks for sharing. :)

  6. That's beautiful and you're right, even if you're not particularly religious, these kind of places do make you feel a little closer to - well, whatever it is you believe in. xo

  7. Excellent description to go with the photos. I feel as if I've had a real tour. I love that the spires don't match. (I'm recobbling this comment as Blogger seemed to eat my first attempt at leaving one here, so forgive me if the first one shows up and I seem to repeat myself. burp.)

  8. What excellent photos. We're going to the Loire Valley next summer, must try and stop in to see the cathedral en route!

  9. This is a wonderful article! I enjoyed every evocative word as you weaved colorful images that go beyond your photos. Amazing. And I wish I had paid closer attention to Chartres when I was there for a too brief time in the summer of 2001. Before I possessed a digital camera, or a blog....I do remember how stunning it was inside however, and the labyrinth was cleared for all to see. We have a replica of that labyrinth in the outdoor courtyard at the church I attend. I'd love to return to the real one someday. But in the meantime, your visit and your post are a wonderful virtual visit.

  10. thanks for that beautiful trip!!!

    a big hello from Madrid,

  11. re your comment: yeah i disabled the captcha (which everyone should) and moderate my comments, so that's what happened.

  12. I agree with bicocacolors, thanks for the trip. And thanks for visiting. I appreciate your comment. Glad you left one so I could find your blog. Looks like an interesting place I'll be visiting again.

  13. Hi Jenny! It must have been an overwhelming experience to be in this cathedral. You wrote this post so vividly that I had the feeling to be there myself. Chartres Cathedral is a piece of poetry in stone. I wonder why the towers are not alike.

  14. Glad you enjoyed 'our' cathedral!

    Warm Aloha from Honolulu;

    Comfort Spiral

    / )

    > < } } ( ° >


    < ° ) } } > <

  15. Chartres Cathedral is the most beautiful one I've ever been to. My father's company sent him over to France for half a year back in the 90's and although my mum and I didn't move over there for such a short period I remember the visits and how much I loved that city, and this magnificent piece of architecture. Thank you for reminding me :-)

  16. Wonderful images. I'm really thrilled to have seen them. I absolutely see what you are driving at with your opening description of the cathedral calling GOD GOD GOD.
    (Do you know why there are two unmatching spires?)

  17. What has always fascinated me with the cathedral of Chartres is the disparity between the two towers. It is its "trademark" and i think that most French people would recognize it straight away!
    Cathedrals are amazing when you think at all the generations of craftsmen who worked on them, and all the anonymous labourers who contributed to the construction without getting any salary but in the hope of a "passport for Heaven"!

  18. I think on genuinely old cathedrals, non-matching towers are more usual than matching ones. At Canterbury one of the non-matching towers was conveniently found to be dangerous in the 19th century, and replaced with a matching one to suit Victorian tastes.

  19. Hi. Thank you for your kind comment at my blog. I've had problems with the comment box so now I'll try to see if it's better to use the chrome browser instead of IE.
    Well, it very well could be an old bakers shop but it's a place where you smoke fish. Here at Bornholm we are famous in all of DK for smoking heerings and salmons. This place is a private smokery.
    Kind regards

  20. Thanks very much for your lovely comment, Jenny!
    You're right, it's some kind of freedom. The job of a carpenter, much like that of a mechanic, is one where you don't need to worry about all kinds of things all the time. It's simple. And you can work in any city or country you want to. That's more worth to me than all the money I could earn in many other jobs.
    There used to be this show on ITV (if I recall correctly; don't know if it's still running), with a duo of presenters, and I remember that one of them was a bald guy whose name was Dominic... the show was about people who buy houses at auctions, renovate them, then sell them at a profit. Back then, I thought that it must be a great thing to be doing, because at the end of the day, you know exactly what you've achieved, and that's something to be proud of.

  21. Ah memories! I used to go to Chartres when I was studying in Paris. Thanks for reminding me of this...

  22. Saw somewhere that Chartres Cathedral's architecture was based on the ratios of the diatonic intervals in music (1:2, 2:3, 3:4, etc). Not as far fetched as it sounds, as people then were very interested in this in relation to church music.

  23. Since I'm going to Paris this winter for the first time, I so enjoyed your post. I'm almost sure I won't see half the things you show us here, so it's a good thing I know them in advance. Now I'm trying to imagine how it will be to visit Chartres Cathedral in a cold december morning!

  24. Looks an excellent place to visit, and do the night tour. Such places are impressive. I am not sure however that they cry GOD! I think they cry POWER and God is forgotten while an organisation rules. The best one I have seen in the UK is Durham. I only had a short time to visit but the sheer size is impressive.

  25. Great article and pics,Jenny. My one and only visit to this cathedral was overshadowed by absolutely busting for a loo, and finding one in the gardens to the left of the entrance where I had to pee into a very smelly hole in the floor. LOL.


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