Chartres and Mont Saint-Michel

Part 1 of 2


West of Paris in northern France are two monuments of the Middle Ages: the cathedral at Chartres and the abbey at Mont-St.-Michel.

In 1904, American historian Henry Adams privately printed a classic book that he called “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres,” after the two signature sites of his thesis: that the older Romanesque architecture celebrated the masculine, martial virtues of St. Michael, while the newer Gothic style worshiped the “eternal feminine” of the Virgin Mary. Most of the major cathedrals of northern France are called “Notre Dame” — “our Lady.”

Notre Dame de Chartres is the ur-cathedral, the one used everywhere as the prototype cathedral. Mont-St.-Michel is less clear: It is a palimpsest of styles, bunched one over the other.

A trip to both still can be the best way to experience the art and culture of the Middle Ages.

And it is a very personal experience.


 Visiting the Gothic cathedrals of northern France is a kind of spelunking.

You enter the cavernous, dark spaces of the cathedral at Chartres and you hardly can avoid thinking of Carlsbad or Luray. The spaces defined by those stone walls and stained glass are always cooler than the weather and dimmer than the day, and the oldest, damp churches even can show you a stalactite or two in a draftier corner.

In the cathedrals you also descend, but you descend into the past, a darker past, barely recognized, of a Europe 700 years ago, when the church was the center of town and the source of political as well as spiritual power.

Expression of civic pride

Most of the famous cathedrals are built at the highest point in town, and can be seen for many miles, declaring their hegemony.

The churches were built as an expression of civic pride: In Chartres, it was primarily textile merchants who paid for the cathedral. They wanted to attract pilgrims — tourists — to spend money.

But the descent into the past is matched with another — a voyage into your own psyche, your sense of spirit.

The church takes you out of the daily world of business and family, and plops you down into a kind of eternity, a place where time and effort, gain and loss disappear and you are left face to face with what really counts.

Outside the cathedral, people are hawking postcards, souvenirs and crepes. Cars buzz by; the pompiers — France’s emergency workers — pass a block or two away to the sound of their tritone sirens.

But step inside, and you are blasted by the quiet. Even the tourists tend to whisper.

It has nothing to do with whether you are a believer. It is such an extraordinary experience, it can knock the breath out of you.

Spare in the extreme 

Notre Dame de Chartres is a veritable Spartan of cathedrals. Her west facade, for instance, is spare in the extreme, with only a few decorations, not counting the portals and their sculpture. But the portals are small and restrained, unlike their cousins at Notre Dame in Paris. You almost get the idea of a facade that isn’t yet finished, that it is waiting for someone to come along and add the finials, Hebrew kings, garlands of trefoils and quatrefoils.

Instead, it almost looks like the Gothic cathedral equivalent of plywood.

The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. The large side-aisle arcades take up almost half the height of the central nave. The small triforium leaves room for a rather scaled-down clerestory — those windows at the upper edge of the walls. The result of these odd proportions is that not much light drifts down to the nave floor. It takes quite a while for your eyes to adjust.

When they do, there is a good deal of wear to be seen. Not only is the stone floor worn wobbly, but the vaulting in places is peeled or exfoliated, showing brickwork behind the stone.

Attend Sunday Mass 

The interior almost gives you the feeling of an empty apartment. Where are the paintings, the furniture, the curtains? In Chartres, where are the windows, the interior carving, the elaborate bosses in the vaulting?

One of the reasons Chartres is so highly prized is that so much of it is original. The statuary at Notre Dame de Paris is cleaner and more neatly featured, but then, it is only 150 years old, having been restored by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Viollet-le-Duc was a magnificent man, and his restoration work at Paris is convincingly original looking. You don’t sense much of the 19th century in it.

But it is still pristine and new looking. At Chartres, the statuary is weathered. You can see the lichen growing on the stone. Even the walls of the cathedral sport tufts of daisies high up, in unlikely places, growing straight out of the masonry.

Intoxicating chant 

The limestone is mossy, lichened and eroded. Paris looks fresher than her matronly cousin in Chartres. Paris recently has been sandblasted.

For some, the best time to visit is off-season on a weekday, when you can have the place nearly to yourself. But a cathedral wasn’t built to be empty. You should try to take in a Sunday Mass.

A machine is always more beautiful when it is running, and a cathedral is a machine to take you someplace. It’s best to see that machine with all its gears rotating and its cylinders pumping.

The church is packed. At the altar, spotlighted as if on a theater stage, there are priests and a choir, which is chanting plainsong that echoes through the building like surf.

Grasping the metaphor 

A priest is swinging a censer around the altar, spreading smoke through the crossing of the transept. It is intoxicating to hear the chant, melismatically floating like the censer smoke, under the brilliant blues and reds of the rose window, high above.

One doesn’t have to be a believer to appreciate how the Mass, spoken and sung in the space built for it 700 years ago, addresses the magnum misterium.

The vaulting, the lights, the stained glass, the church spread out in it is cruciform, that is also the diagrammatic shape of my body and your body, with the vast ceiling, which is metaphorical of the inner dome of the skull. You can see how the priest at the crossing of the transept — the place that counts as the heart of the cruciform homunculus — is casting us out into the cosmos, out into the mystery, out into an intense beauty we only rarely let ourselves become aware of.

One listens to the choir, now taking on a descant from the 15th or 16th century, with the soprano floating her melos out over an alto’s lower harmony, and look up, and on raising eyes, one sees the axis of the rose window, with all the light pouring through the interstices in the tracery, very like the angels dancing around the divine center of Dante’s mystical rose.

The vastness of the cathedral interior became the vastness of the universe, the singing became the music of the spheres.

That melisma becomes something completely separate from music as an aesthetic event. It becomes the closest thing we can hear — outside the sounds of children playing — to the human equivalent of a bird’s song, a sound beautiful beyond its need to be beautiful, uttered out of instinct and joy.

The doctrine doesn’t matter, except to the faithful. The metaphor behind the doctrine — the metaphor truer than the sometimes unknowing doctrine — takes over.

And you will be privileged to witness the building doing what it was designed to do, like a jet breaking the sound barrier, or the dynamos at Hoover Dam spinning out electrical power.

Let there be Light

From our vantage point, eight centuries later, Gothic architecture looks as old as dirt, but it is important to remember that it was once as new as the iPhone. It was innovative, and a craze for the new style of building spread across France and the rest of Europe.

People get taught about Gothic and Romanesque architecture in schools in the most boring way: a list of arcane terms and concepts.

But in reality, you can grasp the difference if you recognize the difference between a brownstone apartment building and the Empire State Building. It’s exactly the same difference, really.

Think of it: The brownstone is built brick on brick. You can build your edifice only so high, or the weight of the brick will crush your foundation.

In the late 19th century, they figured out that you didn’t have to make your walls hold the weight of the building. You could build a steel frame and hang your bricks on it, so the steel carries the weight, not the wall.

In fact, that led to the modern buildings of glass and steel with no walls at all, only windows.

It was the same thing in the 12th century. The older buildings, called Romanesque, were built brick on brick, or stone on stone, and in order to support the great weight of the stone, the walls had to be thick and strong, and windows tiny.

But builders realized that you really didn’t need the wall to hold up your roof. You could put your roof on stilts — columns or piers — and fill in the space between them with glass — stained glass.

This is the Gothic: vast open spaces instead of heavy walls. To strengthen the columns and distribute the thrust of the roof weight, buttresses were added. They didn’t need to be so heavy, either, if they were placed in the right place at the correct angle, so they were opened up the same, and you had the flying buttress, the arch of stone to help hold up the roof.

The stained glass let streams of light enter the building.

This wasn’t just practical. Abbot Suger, the head of the church in Paris in the mid-12th century, was part of an intellectual renaissance, a Gothic renaissance, and had read the Classical and early Christian authors, Aristotle and Plotinus, and believed that light was the primary metaphor of divinity. God dispels darkness. So, he wanted his new church, now called the Basilica of St. Denis, in northern Paris, to be bright and well-lighted. The new architecture was just what he needed.

Now, the church wouldn’t seem heavy and dismal, but brilliant and airy. It was perfect, and within 20 years, everyone who was building a church used the new style, which lasted for 300 years before being rivaled by the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque.

But even now, you find new churches in America with their Gothic pointed-arch windows and their naves and aisles.

The style persists in our cultural memory.

To be continued

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