One of the greatest examples of French Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral was built around the remains of an earlier Romanesque church which had been partly destroyed by fire. The result is a blend of styles, with the original north and south towers, south steeple, west portal, and crypt enhanced by lofty Gothic additions.
Peasant and lord alike helped to rebuild the church in just 25 years. Few alterations were made after 1250, and fortunately Chartres was unscathed by the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution.
THE ROYAL PORTAL
Following the devastating fire of 1194, a decision was taken to retain the magnificent, still-standing west entrance (Royal Portal), which was a survivor of the earlier Romanesque church. Although this created a variation in architectural styles, it was an astute decision that resulted in the survival of some of the finest sculpture of the early Middle Ages. The Royal Portal, carved between 1145 and 1155, is the most ornamental of the cathedral’s three entrances. The features of the statues in the portal are lengthened in Romanesque style and depict figures from the Old Testament. The portal represents the glory of Christ.
THE STAINED GLASS OF CHARTRES
Donated by aristocracy, the merchant brotherhoods and royalty between 1210 and 1240, the cathedral’s glorious array of stained-glass windows is world-renowned. More than 150 windows illustrate biblical stories and daily life in the 13th century. Each window is divided into panels, which are usually read from left to right and bottom to top (Earth to heaven). The bottom panel of the Blue Virgin Window depicts Christ’s conversion of water into wine. During both world wars, the windows were dismantled piece by piece and removed for safety. There is an ongoing program, begun in the 1970s, to restore the windows.
There are around 4,000 statues at Chartres Cathedral. Fortunately, having remained virtually untouched since being sculpted in the 13th century, they are in a remarkable state of preservation. Incredible examples, tracing the evolution of Gothic sculpture, are clustered around the north and south portals. The north porch is devoted to representations of such Old Testament figures as Joseph, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Scenes from Christ’s childhood and the Creation of the World are also illustrated. The South Porch portrays the Last Judgment, and episodes in the lives of the saints. The hundreds of figures decorating both portals were originally painted in bright colors.
The central tympanum of the Royal Portal (1145-55) shows Christ in Majesty.
The north tower’s steeple dates from the start of the 16th century. Flamboyant Gothic in style, it contrasts sharply with the solemnity of its Romanesque counterpart on the south tower.
A network or ribs supports the vaulted ceiling.
As wide as the Romanesque crypt below it, the Gothic nave reaches a soaring height of 121 ft (37 m).
Apsidal Chapel (left)
This chapel houses the cathedral’s oldest treasure, the Veil of the Virgin relic. More artifacts can be seen in the St. Piat Chapel, whose lower level was once the chapter house.
Chartres’ windows cover a surface area of more than 28,000 sq ft (2,600 sq m).
The sculpture on the South Porch (1197-1209) reflects New Testament teaching.
This is the largest crypt in France, most of it dating from the early 11th century. It compromises two parallel galleries, a series of chapels and the 9th -century St. Lubin’s vault.
The lower half of the west facade is a surviving part of the original Romanesque church.
VEIL OF THE VIRGIN
The miraculous survival of this relic after the fire of 1194 made Chartres a pilgrimage site and attracted generous donations. The veil is said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus.
Set into the stone floor of the nave is a labyrinth (13th century), a feature often seen in Gothic churches. As a penance, piIgrirns would follow the tortuous route on their knees, echoing the Way of the Cross. The jouney of 859 ft (262 m), around 11 bands of broken concentric circles, took at least one hour to complete.
1020: Works starts on a Romanesque basilica with a huge crypt.
1194: A fire partly destroys the Romanesque cathedral.
1220s: The cathedral is rebuilt, with new parts in the early Gothic style.
1260: The cathedral is formally consecrated.
1507: A Flamboyant Gothic steeple is added to the north tower.
1836: The cathedral’s wooden roof is damaged by fire.
1974: The cathedral is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.