The best example of High Gothic architecture in France
Introduction to Chartres Cathedral
Located in north-central France in the city of the same name, Chartres Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral considered among the best examples of High Gothic architecture in France. Built between 1193 and 1250, it is lauded by secular tourists for its architecture and by Christian pilgrims who travel there to view the Sancta Camisa, the tunic that Mary, the mother of Jesus, supposedly wore, when she gave birth to her son. Chartres is one of the most intact churches of the 13th century, boasting most of its original stained glass and with few architectural changes made during the last seven centuries.
Chartres’ floorplan is that of the standard cruciform (Latin cross) with three aisles and a fairly short transept. On the east end, five deep, semi-circular chapels radiate from the ambulatory. The nave is the widest one in France and the ceilings rise to 36m or 121 feet. Visitors have a clear view from the west end all the way to the east end.
The choir screen, erected in the 16th century, includes magnificent sculptures depicting the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The chancel screen also dates from the 16th century and includes an astrological clock that tells the time, day, month, sunrise and sunset, and current sign of the zodiac, an unusual item for a Christian church.
The original floor labyrinth, built in 1205, still exists at Chartres. The path through it measures 293 m (964 feet) long. Metal plates once located in the center were melted for use during World War II.
The stained-glass windows at Chartres Cathedral are truly spectacular and make up one of the most complete collections of medieval stained glass in the world. There are 3 rose windows, the west one being the most magnificent. That one depicts the Last Judgment while the North rose depicts the glorification of the Virgin Mary and the South rose depicts the glorification of Christ. On the exterior, double flying buttresses made extra space for the magnificent windows.
The North Portal, completed around 1230, illustrates figures from the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) and Mary, the mother of Christ. The South Portal has the New Testament as its theme, and the Royal Portal, carved in 1150, includes sculptures, friezes, and reliefs of Christ and Mary.
The first thing many people notice, however, is that the two west towers are asymmetrical. One is a plain Romanesque pyramid while the other is an extremely ornate example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture.
Even long before the current Chartres Cathedral was built, the town of Chartres was an important pilgrimage site. From the end of the 9th century onward, pilgrims arrived by the thousands to worship the tunic of the Virgin Mary and to attend one of the four “fairs” held at the site, marking the religious holidays of the Presentation, the Assumption, the Annunciation, and the Nativity.
At this particular site, many churches were built, but all were destroyed by war or fire, prompting the building of the current Chartres Cathedral using some of the existing structure that remained after the fire in 1134 that destroyed a large portion of the town. However, another fire in 1194 caused extensive damage to that which was already complete or under way. At this point, it was decided that a new nave and choir would be built in the current popular style – High Gothic – and that undamaged parts, like the western façade, would be incorporated into the new work.
Like France’s Amiens Cathedral – also built in the High Gothic style – Chartres Cathedral was completed fairly quickly, allowing for a consistency in architectural style that is lacking in so many of the cathedrals that took centuries to complete. An estimated 300 men worked on Chartres at any given time, clearing the rubble and adding to the surviving parts of the old structure.
Builders used the surviving parts of the west façade in the new design, and by 1215, both the south and north facades were complete as well. The magnificent rose window on the west side, depicting the Last Judgment, was also installed by 1215. The high vaults were done by the mid 1220s and the rose windows in the transept were completed by then as well.
Plans called for nine towers but one was discarded and six were left without spires. Of the two contrasting spires on the west side, the plain pyramid-style tower remained from the previous structure, completed in 1140. The other, done in the Flamboyant Gothic style, used an older tower as its base but wasn’t complete until the 16th century. Nonetheless, the current Chartres Cathedral was consecrated in 1260.
The cathedral suffered minimal damage during the French Revolution. Instead, most of it was protected by a local architect and the townspeople, despite the fact that anti-religious sentiment was high.
In 1939, just prior to France’s attack by the Germans, the windows of the cathedral were removed and stored for safe-keeping. It is noted that when plans were made to bomb the Chartres Cathedral, an American army officer – Colonel Barton Griffith – stepped in to save it, traveling behind enemy lines to confirm that it wasn’t being used by the Germans.
Since that time, cleaning and restoration has been ongoing and artists are aiming to restore the sculptures to their 13th century polychromatic style.
Chartres Cathedral is open daily from 8:30 am until 7:30 pm. Visitors may walk the labyrinth on Fridays. Crypts can be visited via guided tours, which are unavailable on Sundays. In addition, tower climbs can be enjoyed until 5:30 pm each day. Admission to the cathedral is free, and a gift shop is on the premises.
Chartres Cathedral is located 50 miles from Paris. Visitors can reach Chartres from the Montparnasse station in about 70 minutes by train. The train station is about a five-minute walk from the cathedral. Trains leave Paris for Chartres once per hour.
- Chartres is the best example of the French High Gothic style
- The current cathedral fifth to occupy the site
- The cathedral has three grand facades, each a little different
- Follows the traditional cruciform style
- The cathedral has 176 stained-glass windows
- The largest tower in the northwest rises 113 meters.
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