Monday, August 11, 2014


Chartres Cathedral was as wonderful as all the books said it would be, and maybe a little more.  It was definitely a highlight of the whole trip.  The only other building that I can think of where architecture and imagery come together so perfectly is the Parthenon.
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 cathedral from the railroad station

The magnificent 12th century south tower, a leftover from the first building campaign under Bishop Fulbert.

The west front of the cathedral; medieval churches almost always faced west, the direction of the setting sun, and the direction from which the last trumpet would sound according to common belief of the day.  The west front of Chartres, like the first Gothic west front on the Abbey of Saint Denis in Paris from a few decades earlier, is a huge monument built in anticipation of the Second Coming.  It is a monument to a future triumph to welcome the return of Christ.  Unlike earlier Romanesque churches with their frightening Last Judgments over their west entrances, Gothic churches look forward to the Second Coming of Christ not with fear and trembling, but with hope and faithful expectation.
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.

This is the west portal of the cathedral with sculpture all from the 12th century.  Like earlier Romanesque churches, Gothic churches concentrate most of their sculpture not around the altar, but around the door.  Western Christian art is narrative and didactic in form and function.  The point of all of this sculpture was to teach, to put people in the right frame of mind before they entered the church.

This is the magnificent tympanum sculpture over the royal portal, the central door to the cathedral open only on high holy days and for visits by the king.
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.

A close up of the splendid figure of Christ of the Second Coming who raises His hand here not to throw the damned into eternal fire, but to bless all who enter the church.
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.

This is the very unusual Incarnation tympanum over the south door of the west portal.  As far as I know, this is a one-of-a-kind sculpture.  It shows at the top of the central panel the Virgin enthroned with the Christ child flanked by angels, a Theotokos composition derived from Byzantine art.  The level below that shows the Presentation in the Temple with Simeon and Hannah among others.  Below that is an unusual Nativity narrative.  On the left, we see the Annunciation with the Visitation next to it.  In the center, Mary lies in a covered bed while the swaddled infant rests on top of the bed.  On the right, shepherds with their sheep approach.  The Christ child is always on something in this panel, and always in the center; a reference to the Altar and to the Eucharist.  On the archivolts are personifications of the Seven Liberal Arts.  In the encyclopedic age of the High Middle Ages, all study was considered an extension of theology since the study of Creation led back to the Creator.

The north door of the west portal showing the Ascension of Christ with the signs of the zodiac and the labors of the months in the surrounding archivolts.

On the archivolts of the north Ascension door on the west portal are the signs of the zodiac and the labors of the months.  The medieval cathedral was a model of the universe as people understood it at the time.

Amazing how much these sculptures change with changing sunlight throughout the day.  I'm convinced that these sculptors had this in mind.

The famous jamb statues from the west portal; they are tall like the columns to which they are attached, and their long elegance makes them look aristocratic and other-worldly.

Again how much changing sunlight transforms these sculptures

The beautiful heads with their serene expressions

The expressions are serene, and yet so complex at the same time.

Figures identified as Pythagoras and possibly Priscian or Donatus from the archivolts over the south door of the west portal.

A figure usually identified as Aristotle from the archivolts over the south door of the west portal.

 The interior of Chartres with scaffolding.  Maintenance is necessary for a building that is over 800 years old.

People walking the maze at Chartres.  Chartres' maze is the only one to survive from medieval times.  Other cathedrals had mazes, but only the one at Chartres survives.

The West Rose window and the three large lancet windows; these are the oldest surviving windows in the cathedral from the 12th century.  The window on the left is the Passion and Resurrection window.  The center is the Incarnation window.  The one on the right is the Jesse Tree window.

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.

The Jesse Tree window

A detail from the Passion and Resurrection window

The 13th century Noah window

A detail of the Noah window showing the wheel makers and carpenters who paid for the creation of the window.

A view of the North Rose Window with the present day altar in the foreground

The North Rose Window;  the subject of this magnificent window is the First Coming of Christ.  The Virgin and Child sit in the center of the window.  In the lancet windows below are St. Ann and the infant Virgin in the center flanked by King David on the left and Solomon on the right.  On the left-most lancet is Melchizedek.  On the right-most lancet is Aaron.
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.

Detail of the North Rose Window showing the Virgin and Child enthroned in the center surrounded by the Ancestors of Christ and the Prophets in the outermost ring.

The South Rose Window was the gift of the Duke of Brittany whose gold and blue checkered emblem you can see throughout this window.
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 subject of this window is the Second Coming of Christ in Glory, the same as in the west portal tympanum sculpture.  Christ of the Apocalypse is in the center.  In the ring of censing angels, you can see the Four Living Creatures.   The 24 Elders are in groups of 12 each in the surrounding rings.  Lots of number symbolism in these windows.

The windows of the apse behind the high altar

The flying buttresses that carry the downward and outward stress of the stone ceiling vaults outside; they make the great windows possible.

An apsidal chapel filled with medieval stained glass; there is an ongoing effort to restore the stones of the building by scouring off 800 years worth of accumulated candle soot and mold.  As you can see in this photo, the results look like brand new construction.  I'm not sure what I think of this.  Plans are to eventually scour all the stonework on the interior.

The stonemasons who built Chartres donated their own window and had themselves portrayed at work carving jamb statues and other building parts.

The Charlemagne Window with episodes from the Song of Roland

One of the older windows in Chartres, the 12th century window known as La Belle Verriere or The Blue Virgin; it is a western variation of the Byzantine composition of the enthroned Virgin and Child, here surrounded by candle and incense bearing angels.

A detail of La Belle Verriere.

What was once the most important religious relic in France, a piece of cloth long believed to be the shawl worn by the Virgin Mary at the birth of Christ.  It was the reputation of this relic that attracted the funds required to build and rebuild Chartres.

The central door of the south portal; these doors and their sculpture were completed almost 100 years later than the sculptures from the west portal and are very different.

The tympanum of the central door of the south portal showing the Last Judgment.  As I said before, this is usually a subject for the west portal of a medieval church.  Gothic art in general, and Chartres in particular, departs from earlier medieval art with its emphasis on the Terrible Day of Reckoning.  The torments of hell are shown here, but they are not dwelt upon as in many a Romanesque tympanum sculpture.  Here Christ sits in judgment flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist and surrounded by the implements of His suffering and death.  On the lintel below is the weighing and division of souls.  On the surrounding archivolts are angels with the Resurrection of the Dead on both sides.  On the left (Christ's right), the dead awaken to glory.  On the right (Christ's left), they awaken to damnation.

The central panel of the tympanum over the central door of the south portal;  The object above Christ is the cross.  The cross beam was broken off centuries ago.  Flanking angels behind Mary and John hold the spear and the column and whip.  Below on the lintel, the Archangel Michael weighs souls and sends the blessed to glory and the damned to hell.

On the right archivolt, the dead rise from their tombs to damnation.

On the left archivolt, the dead wake up to glory.

An image seen in a lot of medieval art, the souls of the blessed in the Bosom of Abraham.

The pillar between the doors is the trumeau, and on the trumeau of the south portal of Chartres is a splendid figure of Christ.

The head of Christ from the trumeau of the south portal of Chartres

The jamb statues from the south portal are very different from those on the west portal.  These are much less tied to the columns supporting the tympanum.  They are much more naturalistic and more emotional.  The jamb statues on both the south and north portals generally come in 2 types; those tending toward more grace and naturalism and those tending toward more expressive emotionalism, even toward a kind of other-worldly expressionism.

One of the most striking naturalistic statues on the cathedral, the figure sometimes identified as Saint Theodore from the Porch of Martyrs on the south portal.  He stands flat footed on his pedestal in an almost but not quite contrapposto pose.  The carving of the drapery and the chain mail armor is very naturalistic.
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.

The head of Saint Theodore from the south portal; one of the things that strikes me about all the figure sculpture of Chartres, including the earlier 12th century jamb statues on the west portal, is the complex psychology in all of the faces; both the restrained emotion of Saint Theodore here, and the more expressive figures of apostles and prophets elsewhere.
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.

This is the central door of the north portal, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  Saint Ann holding the infant Virigin appears on the trumeau.  Old Testament prophets and kings flank her in the jamb statues.

The tympanum of the central door of the north portal shows the Coronation of the Virgin; Mary as the First Christian receives a crown from Christ at His right hand, the reward that all the faithful could expect in the next life.  On the lintel below are scenes of the Virgin's death and burial.  Prophets and saints fill the surrounding archivolts.

Another one of the most striking and beautiful of the naturalistic figures is this statue from the porch of the north portal of a saint usually identified as Saint Modeste.  Her drapery beautifully expresses the graceful turn she makes with her whole body.

A detail of Saint Modeste

The Old Testament figures on north portal are masterpieces of the more expressionistic style of sculpture on Chartres cathedral.  They are from left to right Melchizedek, Abraham with the young Isaac, Moses, Samuel and David.  The figures of Abraham and Isaac turned to face the voice of God are particularly striking.

On the other side of the central portal of the north porch are prophets with 3 New Testament figures.  Those 3 New Testament figures appear here.  From left to right, they are Simeon with the Christ child, John the Baptist, and Saint Peter.

The figure of John the Baptist is widely and rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece of medieval expressionist carving, the most otherworldly of all the 13th century sculptures on 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.


Paul said...

Thank you, Doug. Having been there just a few months ago, I rejoice in the quality of your photos and the depth of your commentary. I have eagerly awaited your travel posts.

IT said...


One small note: it's not a maze, which is basically puzzle to determine which is the right path amongst the dead ends. It is a labyrinth. That means it has just one continuous path that winds its way to the center and back. Hence its use as a tool for meditation.

rick allen said...

Envious, grateful.

JCF said...

C'est Magnifique!

I might quibble re towers and spires---as a 3rd generation Anglophile, I'm more partial to Salisbury and Lincoln---but the French were the indisputable masters of glass and carved-stone sculptures.

Re cleaning the stone (and controversy): there was a similar fracas ~25 years ago re restoring the stained glass at Saint Chappelle: some marveled at the restoration, some said it ruined it. All subjective, and what one was used to.

West Fronts...on cathedrals that face East (because the Returning Christ comes w/ the rising sun).

And I thought "Gothic" was the (contemporary) disparagement of *Romanesque* loyalists? (because Rome = Civilized, Goths = Barbarians). Centuries before the Enlightenment came along (for good or ill).

But Wot Rick Said: envious you're not looking at MY pic from such a trip, but So Grateful for yours, Doug!