This was the cathedral that began the competitive cathedral building around France and Europe. It was this cathedral that set the standards for all that was to follow, and I can see why.
So many different artists worked on this, and they were all amazing, even in the smaller things. Even the not quite so great sculpture and glass on this building is wonderful.
The brilliance and the richness of the colors of the stained glass windows are unphotographable, though I tried here. Every stained glass window in New York looks dull compared to the windows in Chartres. More of the original medieval glass survives in Chartres than in any other cathedral in Europe.
We traveled to Chartres by train on a hot day. It's less than an hour train ride from Paris. The inside of the cathedral was at least 15 degrees cooler.
These are all my pictures. Everyone is welcome to use them, especially educators.
The west front of Chartres with its spires is a survival of the first Gothic rebuilding of the cathedral by Bishop Fulbert that replaced a smaller ancient Carolingian church destroyed by fire. This cathedral burned down in a disastrous fire that destroyed much of the city of Chartres in 1194. Only the west front survived. The rest of the cathedral that we see today was built from 1194 to 1260, a remarkably short time for the construction of a major cathedral.
The south tower on the right survives from Fulbert's original 12th century cathedral. The north tower on the left was originally a taller version of the south tower. That tower was destroyed by lightning and replaced in the 16th century with a masterpiece of late Gothic architecture. As far as I am concerned, these are the 2 most beautiful spires in Europe.
The subject matter carved over the west entrances of medieval churches was always something about the end of the world as proclaimed by the Christian religion. Earlier Romanesque churches almost always featured The Last Judgment with Christ dividing the blessed from the damned. The subject of this sculpture is not the Last Judgment. It is the Second Coming of Christ in glory as described in the Book of Revelations. Christ sits enthroned in a mandorla of glory flanked by the Four Living Creatures. The 24 Elders of the Apocalypse with their gold crowns and cups of incense fill the archivolts surrounding the central panel.
On the door lintel are the 12 Apostles plus 2 more figures; one at each end. Most scholars identify these 2 extras as Elijah and Enoch, prophets taken up alive into heaven.
I think this sculpture is a major masterpiece. It doesn't have the vivid storytelling of earlier Romanesque art, but it has organization, clarity, harmony, depth, and a confident splendor beyond the nervous excitement of that earlier art.
Light plays a central role in Christian mysticism. It was the first thing created by God in Genesis. Mystics of the time believed that light was the one thing in the material world closest to the spirit. The stained glass windows of Chartres take an idea from the Byzantine mosaics and take it much further. The mosaics of Byzantine art take reflected light and transform it into a metaphor for heavenly light. The stained glass windows of Chartres are paintings upon the sunlight itself, transforming the sun's rays into metaphors for the light of paradise.
This magnificent window was the gift of the Queen of France, Blanche of Castile, wife of King Louis VIII. You can see the fleur de lis and the emblem of Castile in the small lancets.
In the lancet windows, the authors of the 4 Gospels ride on the shoulders of Old Testament prophets, an original and curious way to assert the continuity of the Old and New Testaments.
The art historian Leopold Eitlinger once argued that the surprising humanism of so much of the 13th century sculpture on Chartres was a consequence of the reaction against the Albigensian heresy. I'm not so sure about that, but it was definitely an inspiration for later Renaissance sculptors in the north and in Italy, especially Donatello and Claus Sluter.
I would argue that this is something unprecedented in Western art and is a consequence of the Christian concept of the will and of the self as a field of conflict. There is plenty of emotionalism in ancient art, but there is nothing like the complex layers of thought and feeling that we see in all of the sculptures in Chartres.
I don't have the eloquence of a Henry Adams or an Orson Welles to sum up my feelings about this place. Chartres comes out of a very hopeful and humane conception of Christianity that matched the enterprise of the era, the end of the long rebuilding of Europe after the Dark Ages and the rebirth of urban life. No more did people imagine the world of the spirit as a battleground between God and the devil, as an extension of their own war-torn world. No more did they see God as a warrior chieftain, as a liege lord like those they lived under on earth, who had the power of life and death over all men, women, children, and livestock who lived under their protection. God is the Creator as well as the Redeemer who will come again in glory as proclaimed in every stone of this great church. Humankind, God's creation in His image, is no longer the puny insect who lives at His sufferance, but is the living sign of God's promise and waits in hopeful expectation for the fulfillment of that promise, instead of waiting in terror of His terrible judgment. The spirit illumines the flesh with meaning and significance, and the flesh informs the spirit with experience and sympathy everywhere here.
Perhaps this is unfair, but I can't help but feel that we are poorer in comparison. Nothing like this will ever be made again. The conviction of a unified world where spirit and flesh dwell together is no longer available to us. And yet, we have nothing to fill the gap left behind. Our own religion of money is a very poor substitute, and the coldness of the cathedrals we build for it are testimony to that poverty.
I have no illusions about the age that produced this cathedral. The 19th century Romantics saw Chartres as the creation of a lost Age of Faith where people sang hymns as they voluntarily carted the stones to build the cathedral. The Enlightenment that called this art "Gothic" saw this age as a barbaric era of superstition ruled over by a brutal tyrannical priesthood. Both of these conceptions are wrong for the same reason. They see the Age of the Cathedrals as a time of consensus, either voluntary or forced. The Cathedral Age was no such thing. It was an age filled with conflict, and Chartres itself is a creation of those conflicts. A more humane vision of Christianity competed with an exclusively spiritual and abstract conception. Newly rich and powerful cities struggled with entitled nobles and clerics to assert their growing status. The new and rising class of shopkeepers, merchants, craftsmen, and professionals who lived in cities -- the nascent bourgeoisie -- worked to assert themselves against feudal lords, regional nobility, and sometimes the church hierarchy. Established power fought with demands for reform. These competing visions created what we see now in Chartres. We can see them together, sometimes next to each other, on this great monument that seems to find room for all of these competing visions in all of their variety. Instead of chaos, we get an astonishing harmony.
By all logic, something like Chartres should never have happened, and yet, there it is. It was created over decades by scores of master artists all competing with each other, who doubtlessly quarreled over the ultimate design of the building. Stonemasons, glaziers, carpenters, etc. spent their lifetimes working on this building knowing that they would not live to see it completed. While Chartres is certainly testimony to genuine religious faith, it was created out of the enterprise and ambition of its builders, out of the vanity of prince-bishops, and the civic pride and ambition of the rulers of the city, like all cathedrals before and since.
Art is human before it is divine insisted WH Auden among others. It is what we can imagine and do despite ourselves.