Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral (Notre-Dame de Chartres) is only 80km away from its sister in Paris, which was so recently struck by a tragic fire. Built between 1194-1220 it has been declared a “masterpiece of French Gothic art” by UNESCO World Heritage.
The entire world stood in shock and solidarity as one of humanity’s great architectural treasures, Notre-Dame de Paris, was consumed by a raging fire in mid-April of 2019.
Thankfully, France’s religious architecture holds many other masterpieces that can still be visited, including Chartres Cathedral.
What makes Chartres special is that no one person can claim authorship of its splendor. It was a collective endeavor of the whole society for everyone’s use and benefit.
Chartres is first and foremost a cathedral of beautiful colors, which stands majestically against the backdrop of the blue sky. When the sunlight falls through the stained glass, greens, reds, and blues are lit up. At night, the church’s massive structure is illuminated from below.
The labyrinth of life: Following the path of the divine
Upon entering the cathedral, visitors are immediately struck by the series of interlocking circles which form a kind of maze. This labyrinth holds many meanings, but most of all the pilgrim’s long and winding search for spiritual clarity.
The 272 stones that the labyrinth comprises correspond to the nine months required for gestation, an interesting reference to the new life that is the center of Christian belief.
Jesus himself underwent this process, so the number has added significance.
When walking the labyrinth, one understands how it represents the “path of life.” It is never easy or direct. It encourages us to be patient in our journey. Others may seem to advance more quickly, when in fact they are far behind.
When walking the labyrinth, one must not only be patient, but tolerant. To advance, one must often wait for others and adjust to their pace. There is no shortcut to the end.
The story of the stained glass
Stained glass windows were not only objects of beauty, but also invaluable for teaching parishioners the stories of the Bible and the Saints. In Medieval Europe, only a tiny percentage of the population was literate, so pictures were needed to help ordinary believers understand the Gospel.
Chartres can pride itself on some of the greatest existing stained glass in the world, over 2,600 meters in total and more than twelve dozen panels. Some of these are believed to be the oldest in the world.
The windows are also unique because they feature true blue glass, made from transparent cobalt, rather than clear glass with color applied to it.
For modern visitors, it can be hard to know where to look when confronted with such beauty and so much detail. Medieval churchgoers knew how to “read” these rose-shaped stories, starting from the bottom up, then to the left and right, ending up at the top.
Each shape and color has meaning: the earth was shown as a square, the heavens as a sphere. Blue denotes the purity of the believer, whereas the red of Mary’s dress is related to outlasting suffering. Green embodies the hope for new life.
The whole story of Jesus, from his ancestors (represented as the branches of the tree) to his descent to our world in the middle, is shown as a square inside a circle, the marriage of heaven and earth.
Another panel shows an angel with blue wings who announces to Mary that she is with child.
The following panels show Jesus’s Birth, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and finally the Resurrection. Once again, color is used symbolically, where the cross Jesus is crucified on is stained green, because of the hope for humanity that will come from his sacrifice.
The stained glass is remarkable for its beauty and its craftsmanship. Those who did the work believed in what they were doing.
Their work was made possible by donations from all strata of society, who wanted to make the cathedral as beautiful as possible: a piece of heaven on earth.
Under one panel, we see a pair of white boots represented, meaning that this section was paid for by the cobblers of the town. Other tradesmen and merchants gave as well, making the cathedral something that belonged to everyone in the community.
Sculptures that tell a story
The Cathedral does not only employ stained glass to convey a sense of wonder to believers, it also uses sculpture. At the center of the Western gate, also called the Royal Gate, Jesus welcomes all into the house of worship.
On the south gate, another sculpture relates the story of the Gospels and the final book of the Bible: Revelation. In the middle, above the door, Jesus is seen spreading the good news to all who will listen. On the top of the crossbar, the final judgment is pictured.
The Archangel Michael weighs the deeds of each soul. On the right, those saved with humility and gladness are led by angels up to heaven. The sorrowful damned, on the left, are dragged down to hell by demons.
Specific sins, such as lust, represented by a naked woman, and greed, shown as a man with a bag of gold, are punished by demons. The scale is being restored, but the sculpture carries the weight of judgment.
Those who came: The legacy of the pilgrims
In the Middle Ages, Chartres was the site of important pilgrimages, in which people from all over Europe came to see the beautiful cathedral and pray. The cathedral served both as a site of worship and a place for pilgrims to lay their heads. Shops sprung up outside the walls to serve pilgrims’ needs.
Interestingly enough, the biggest problem was that pilgrims’ shoes needed repair after their long journeys to Chartres, and this meant that many cobblers had their shops on the adjacent street, which over time became “Cobblers’ Street.”
Meanwhile, pilgrims also brought all the currencies of the continent with them, so money-changers quickly established themselves further on “Exchange Street.” Thus the cathedral has deeply marked the religious and secular makeup of the town.
The message of Chartres
Ultimately, the message of Chartres is about this world and the next, heaven and earth, and the moral law that underpins it all, promising justice for those who do good and punishment for those who do wrong.
It is a story for all times.