We have now been to Chartres three times, and I pray we may get back there yet again. There are a few places on this planet that impress themselves into your experience so profoundly they define the joints and hinges of your biography, just as a marriage, birth or death can. Among those for me have been seeing the cave paintings from 30,000 years ago in the Vézère valley of France, standing in the breeze-twisted grasses of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, dawn at the Grand Canyon in Arizona — and Chartres Cathedral, some 60 miles southwest of Paris.
Chartres is the archetype of northern Gothic cathedrals, and the one perhaps least touched by time and remodeling. Entering the cave feels like spelunking: it is a cave, huge, dark, cool, chthonic. On our first visit, in 2002, I was admittedly unprepared for it. As you will read in these notes, I was slightly underwhelmed; I must have been expecting something different. But in each subsequent visit, I have become more and more moved. For our first visit, the sky was a bit hazy, the temperature touching on the raw, and the interior of the cathedral was darker than it has been on our revisits. We made a trip in 2006 that made the rounds of the cathedrals in northern France, from Paris to St. Denis to Chartres to Amiens to Beauvais to Laon to Noyon to Rheims, and seeing them all has given Chartres pride of place. It is not just the architecture, not the sculpture or the stained glass — there is something singular about the site, as if it were the champion, having taken on all challengers and knows it has nothing left to prove. It was built by businessmen to advertise their market — the way cities now build NFL stadiums — but it has captured something sublime, something that speaks to the magnum misterium. If I were not an atheist, I might call it spiritual, but that word is so overused, it no longer has any real meaning. Suffice it to say, a day in Chartres cathedral lifts you out of the quotidian and places you among the stars. I am embarrassed that I was so thick-brained on first seeing it, that it could not penetrate.
The north rose window remains the single most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen — ever experienced.
There will be more photos with this entry than normal; click on any of them to enlarge.
As they say about football: That’s why they play the game.
You can never know what an experience will be like until you have it. You can read about Chartres and see the photos. And you can visit other cathedrals, as we have on this trip. But you have to be there, at Chartres to see how it is different.
This is not a panegyric to Chartres. Others have written them. My reaction is a bit different. I was surprised to see how sparse the cathedral is. After Notre Dame de Paris, I was expecting something a little more crenelated, more decked out, more flamboyant.
After all, Notre Dame de Paris was an early example of Gothic architecture. Chartres is considered High Gothic. It was followed by Rayonnant and Flamboyant styles, each increasingly geegawed up.
But 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 those portals are rather small and restrained, unlike their cousins in Paris. You almost get the idea of a facade that isn’t finished, that 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.
We walked first around the building, from the facade to the south transept, around the apse and treasury, along the north transept and back to the front.
Yes, the portals of the transepts are splendid, rich with sculpture. But the walls of the building are generally plain.
And when we went inside, we were blinded by the dark. It is a dimly lit nave — again contrasting with the brightness of Paris, to say nothing of Saint-Chapelle.
The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. The large aisle arcades take up almost half the height of the nave. The small triforium leaves room for a rather scaled down clerestory. 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 some brickwork behind the stone.
The rose windows are also smaller in proportion to their settings than those of Paris.
The west rose window, in particular, is at least half stone. The tracery is heavy and dense, leaving only small patches of glass to shine. Unlike the Paris rose windows, this one seems almost a crude, early attempt at constructing one.
The north and south rose windows are more elaborate, but even they are small in comparison with the space of the transept walls. They could easily have been made 20 percent or 30 percent larger without overwhelming their setting.
The interior almost gives you the feeling of an empty apartment, after someone has moved out. Where are the paintings, the furniture, the curtains? In Chartres, where are the windows, the interior carving, the elaborate bosses in the vaulting?
Of course, we didn’t see Chartres in operation, as we did Paris. Perhaps it has the same awe inspiring grandeur when a mass is being said.
And you cannot fault its setting, on the hill above the town. From miles around, you can see the twin towers looming. It was the first thing we could see from the train arriving in the morning: Those towers poking up out of the countryside.
One of the reasons Chartres is so highly prized is because so much of it is original. The statuary at Paris is cleaner and more neatly featured. But then, it is only 150 years old, having been restored by 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. 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.
The limestone is mossy, lichened and eroded. Paris has only recently been sandblasted. Its stone seems newer — although there is plenty of erosion to go around there, too.
But Viollet le Duc’s restoration has made Paris look fresher than her matronly cousin in Chartres.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh Chartres. It is glorious. And it is the very prototype of the high Gothic. But there was a certain musty odor in the nave; Paris smelled more urban, more used.
If I sound disappointed, I don’t mean to. This was one of the true high points of our travels. We spent 12 hours from the time we left the hotel in the morning till the time we returned. With an hour each way on the train, and time out for breakfast and lunch, that left a good 9 hours spent with Our Lady of Chartres. We spent that time feverishly. I photographed every one of the main sculptures of the portals, and a good deal else beside.
I walked the eleventy-hundred stairs up the north tower and dangled acrophobically over the roof, the bell and the south tower, taking photos of gargoyles, tracery and stone foliage. Liability laws must be quite different in France. In the U.S., they would never allow anyone to climb up those stairs, let alone hang out over the precipitous drop, with its low balustrades and that steady breeze that must often become a wind.
Visiting Chartres was one of the highlights of our lives.
Now we have experienced it, have it in our blood. This is very different from ID-ing the photos in the art history textbook.
For lunch — because we have to mention such lowly things among the lofty ones of the cathedral — we had a pot au feu at the Cathedral Bistro, just across the courtyard from the south nave exterior. As we sat eating our boiled beef, potatoes and turnips, we could see the masonry through the plate glass window of the restaurant front.
And when we finally got back to Paris, we went down to L’Etoile d’Or and had a cassoulet with duck and sausage. C’est magnifique.
Carole’s highlights from Chartres:
I loved the ride on the train. I loved the white flowering trees by the train tracks, and loved watching the men come out and work in their little back yard gardens. The sculpture outside the cathedral and the windows inside. Inside the cathedral, in the chapels, one of those had a statue of Mary and draped on her was what looked like a very old white silk garment encrusted with pearls and there was a little group of people sitting there and there were five or six fresh floral arrangements, and every time I walked past it I could feel the heat of the candles on my face. I walked by five or six times just to feel the heat. That was very nice. While R. was photographing outside, I walked around and around the carved stone rood screen pretending I was there in the Middle Ages and I was reading the stories from the statues; and the statues worked great. There was this really remarkable carpet at the altar in the center of the cathedral and it was tapestry work and it was blue and red and as a carpet it was made in the form of a cross, so it draped down all four sets of steps of the altar. It had 8 large medallions and each was different. One had roses another had wheat. Oh, and one of the things I liked best was the floral arrangement at the altar. It was branches of those white flowering trees with birds of paradise and orange day lilies. I spent a lot of time looking for a spot on the floor that looked like nobody had ever stepped on it, but I couldn’t find even an inch in a corner that wasn’t worn. I loved knowing R was happy all day.
Richard’s greatest hits:
There is no way to break it down: It is the sum total of Chartres cathedral, including its architecture, stained glass, sculpture, setting, the town around it and the people in it. If there was one event that stood out, it was the climbing of the north tower. It was a trial, but there were several stops along the way that I had all to myself and could sit in the air above the roof of the cathedral, contemplating the whole thing. The train ride was also good, through forests and past villages with old stone houses covered in vines and lichen. When we finally got back to Paris, there was a cassoulet with my name on it at L’Etoile d’Or.