A pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages, the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Chartres is one of the most well preserved architectural gems of its age. With its original stained glass windows, flying buttresses, and compelling sculptural embellishments, today Chartres Cathedral appears much the same as it would have to Medieval pilgrims.
Among its prime attractions is the veneration of the Sancta Camisia. (This sacred relic is a piece of the Holy Virgin Mary’s clothing that was brought by Charlemagne from Jerusalem.)
Adding to the relic’s powerful pull is the legend that this French Gothic masterpiece was burned to the ground in 1194, when lightening hit the cathedral (after the cathedral had already survived a major fire some 60 years prior). All was thought to have been lost in the 1194 disaster, including the Sancta Camisia. However, some three days after the destruction, it was found in tact — surely a sign from the Blessed Mother herself.
Rebuilding of the cathedral that stands today
After the fire of 1194, plans to rebuild were set in motion, and by 1220, the main body of the Chartres Cathedral was completed. Its dedication by King Louis IX was held in October of 1260. Nothing has leveled the commanding cathedral since, and even the French Revolution had no impact on its glorious survival. In 1979, the Chartres Cathedral was recognized as a world treasure and added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list.
Architectural components and analysis
Chartres Cathedral follows the plan of a Latin cross, with a short transept crossing the main length of the church, an ambulatory, and three main aisles. The east end of the cathedral is semi-circular with five chapels radiating outward.
The cathedral has nine portals, adorned with striking sculptures, conveying many important Bible scenes to the cathedral’s visitors. Its transepts have flanking (albeit mismatched) towers, and stunning rose windows that have survived centuries of war and strife.
One architectural element that makes the cathedral special are the flying buttresses, which were used for the first time at Chartres Cathedral as a structural component. With the height of the nave and the weight of the church walls (with clerestory windows), this support structure was essential to the overall assembly.
Interior features and architectural detail
The nave of the cathedral is the widest in France, and the clustered support columns rise up great height to an arched ceiling. The ambulatory wraps around the choir, and there is a stunning 16th century carved choir screen, with nearby sculptures depicting the life of the Holy Family. There is also an impressive astrological clock within the cathedral that once told the phases of the moon, day and month, and hours of sunrise and sunset.
While the sheer size and height of the Chartres Cathedral creates a natural tendency to draw visitors’ eyes upward, there is also an important element on the floor, a labyrinth for prayer and meditation. In earlier years, the centerpiece was a metal plate that contained figures from the Greek myth of King Minos.
Stained glass glory
The large rose window and the labyrinth’s circumference are identical, as is their placement (one upward, the other forward). As with so many of the stained glass windows, the brilliant jeweled hues of the rose windows shine down in a remarkable display of luminous color. There are more than 150 stained glass windows in Chartres, one of the world’s largest groupings of Medieval glass anywhere.
The awe continues
For any visitor (whether religiously inclined or not), a visit to Chartres (some 50 or so miles from Paris) is a remarkable experience. The awe once felt by pilgrims of the Middle Ages will be equally felt by modern day travelers to this very special architectural wonder. Much like a museum, this is a place that can be visited time and again, each visit bringing new delight and discovery.