France, Revisited: Chartres is the first in a series of blog posts from “France, Revisited”, a remembrance of things past; specifically of my clandestine adventures in France over the past three decades.
My first visit to Chartres was in the summer of 1976 while on a tour of Europe with the First Baptist Church, Dallas, Chapel Youth Choir. This was my first introduction to the Gothic style Cathedral, the Notre-Dame de Chartres, which was built on the ruins of an ancient Celtic temple in the 11th century. I wish I could say that I was very impressed with the Chartres Cathedral upon my first visit; however, the only picture I could find from that trip is of a dog sitting in a café window across the street (If you look closely, you can see the reflection of the Cathedral in the window!)
Fast forward thirty years later, during my study abroad graduate Internship for my 2nd visit, in the fall of 2012, with my daughter Kalie; the visit that changed my heart for this picturesque city, located 60 miles southwest of Paris.
When arriving at the train station in Chartres, the first view is of the Cathedral, sitting atop the highest point in the city set against a cerulean backdrop. Everything converges towards the Cathedral which dominates these steep streets of yesteryear. The names of the streets recall the old trades of Chartres such as rue de Tannerie, the” Tannery” and rue du Clouterie, “nails“. My favorite is rue du Noël Parfait, “perfect Christmas”!
As you walk towards the Cathedral, Romanesque and Gothic churches line the river, crossed by a multitude of old stone bridges. Half-timbered houses and winding long, stone step-passages lead you to this measured city which, distinctive from Paris, lives its own life.
Chartres Cathedral was first constructed during the 4th century during the Gallo-Roman period, when Chartres was one of the principal towns (of then Gaul). Built in the Gothic style in the 4th century, the Cathedral had several additions over the centuries:
- 6th century, a merovegian cathedral was built (now under the choir);
- 8th century, the cathedral was destroyed by the duke of Aquitaine and another cathedral was built in its place;
- 9th century, Carolingian crypt added;
- 11th century, Romanesque crypt added; 14th, the axial chapel of the north-west tower;
- in the 18th century, a Baroque refurbishing;
- in the 19th century, restorations following the Revolution and then finally, in the past decade, repairs of the stained glass windows from damage during WWII and a complete cleaning of the soot-darkened walls and statues. Kalie and I visited during this most recent restoration and the aesthetic pleasure is now other-worldly.
This restoration has been very controversial, however, as many critics say, “ the repainting has erased a cultural memory from a building its restorers say they are saving.” (see NYTimes article about this restoration at this link: )
When entering the Cathedral, you will notice that the steeples are completely different as the Romanesque steeple is from the 12th century (original building) and the flamboyant gothic steeple was added later in the 16th century.
The Notre-Dame de Chartres is also known for the stained-glass windows with the unique blue, bleu de Chartres, which has been impossible to replicate. In addition to imbuing the atmosphere of the Cathedral with a panoply of rich colors, these windows also served a purpose in illustrating the story of Christ to those who were illiterate. The South Rose Window displays the Second Coming of the Lord, the South Portal, Christ’s blessing and Last Judgment, and the North Rose Window, the Kings of Judah and the Prophets.
The original Cathedral can be visited from the west entrance where one can find mosaics, the Lubinus crypt, and many vaults.
(For those of you who like architecture, there is a fascinating video called “Chartres Cathedral: Sacred Geometry” discussing the theories of how this Cathedral was built in the Middle Ages without modern tools, mathematics, machinery, etc)
The Labyrinth in the foyer, representing the path “leading us from the earth towards God”, is replicated in the manicured gardens behind the Cathedral. This is one of my favorite features of the Notre-Dame de Chartres. These gardens are mythical; stepping into a fairy-tale world of peaceful freedom from everyday thoughts and emotions.
I have made several trips back to Chartres since my first introduction and have been delighted with each new discovery. I hope you will have the chance one day to make memories of your own in Chartres!
Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)