On a hilltop in the French city of Chartres stands a cathedral renowned as a testament to human builders inspired by faith in the divine. One of the world’s best-preserved medieval cathedrals, it is a Gothic architectural achievement that has been called a miracle of stained glass and stone. Completed in 1223, the Cathedral Notre Dame at Chartres, as it is formally known, is the last of series of shrines located on the same hill that has drawn pilgrims since early Christian times. The building has survived fires, the Reformation, the French Revolution and two World Wars, and its miraculous endurance has inspired believers. The natural site itself has long been considered holy, and is believed to have been a place of Druid worship before the Christian era.These ancient legends have strengthened the faith of Christians throughout the centuries and attract modern spiritual seekers as well. Some 1.5 million people visit Chartres each year, a testament to the power it holds, but the effects of time — 800 years of visitors, weather and pollution — have taken their toll. The cathedral requires monumental restoration work, both inside and out. The French government has been engaged in a repair and preservation effort, but the work is expensive and progress is slow. Fortunately, non-profit foundations and donors have joined to help fund the government’s work and ensure that Chartres continues to inspire seekers, whether they come for God, beauty or both.
The Land and Its People
Chartres’ history as a holy place has legendary roots in the pre-Christian era, when Druids, the Celtic priests of Britain and Gaul, held sacred rites in natural settings like the forest groves and underground grottoes that once lay at Chartres. According to mystical legend, the Druids believed Chartres to be a place where spiritual energy emanated from the earth and they worshipped at its grottoes — now a supposed part of the cathedral’s crypt — which connected to a sacred spring. According to some scholars, the Gauls of that era created statues of protective mother goddesses with infants on their knees, which were placed near sacred waters. Early Christians may have found such a statue at Chartres, inspiring a medieval legend that the Druids had prophesied of a virgin who would give birth to a child for the good of the world. A replica of that legendary herald of Christianity was placed in the crypt of the cathedral, where the Druid altar to the virgin was believed to have been. A well in the crypt dating from Gallo-Roman times leads to the underground waters believed to have been revered by the Druids. According to legend, Roman soldiers attacked early Christians worshipping at the virgin shrine by the well and threw them in, making them the first Christian martyrs at Chartres. That well can still be found in the crypt of the cathedral, along with walls from the same era that may have been part of earlier religious buildings.
A church has stood atop the hill at Chartres since the 4th century, when Christianity became well established under the rule of Constantine, and perhaps even earlier. There have been at least five cathedrals, and they have always centered on reverence for the Virgin Mary, the patroness of Chartres. In 876, the cathedral became an important Christian pilgrimage stop when it received a piece of fabric believed to have been the garment Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus. Many miracles have been attributed to the cloth, which was once also stored in the cathedral’s crypt. It’s said that when Normans attacked the city in the 10th century, the bishop of Chartres waved the Sancta Camisia from the top of the church, causing the invaders to flee and leading the people of Chartres to believe that they were under the Blessed Virgin’s protection. It was their dedication to the Virgin that inspired the townspeople of Chartres to expand and renovate the cathedral after a damaging fire in 1134. Most significantly, a few days after the church was very severely damaged by fire in 1194, the Sancta Camisa was found intact. This was taken as a miraculous sign from Mary that a more magnificent cathedral should be built there. Thus began the construction of the cathedral that stands at Chartres today, one of the greatest architectural achievements of Western civilization.
This Gothic cathedral was a landmark in architectural innovation, relying on columns, pointed arches and flying buttresses, rather than walls, to carry the weight of the building. This allowed the architects to expand the building upward to more than twice the height of earlier cathedrals and freed the walls to be filled with the now-famous stained glass windows. In the windows, which are regarded as the finest examples of stained glassmaking in history, parables and figures of the Bible come to life with color and light. Created in an age when most parishioners were illiterate, the glass images were a vital tool for instruction in the Catholic faith. Other windows were funded by trade guilds and portray medieval life through scenes of the work done by craftsmen who contributed to the rebuilding effort. The sculpture that adorns the outside of the church is also regarded as the start of a trend toward life-like carving that realistically portrays human form and emotion. The design of the church involved “sacred geometry,” the use of numbers, angles and shapes that mirror the principles the faithful believe God used in creating the universe. The cathedral’s floor is inlaid with a labyrinth, a winding circular pathway that facilitates a walking meditation. For Chartres’ pilgrims the labyrinth symbolized pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was not feasible for most European Christians, and as well as the Christian’s life journey and triumph over evil.
Chartres’ medieval architects, masons, glaziers and sculptors created a sacred shrine that continues to move pilgrims today, whether they are traditional Christians, spiritual seekers who connect with the site’s Druidic roots, or those devoted to great art and architecture. They may worship before one of the shrines to the virgin in the cathedral’s crypt, walk the labyrinth in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, contemplate the mysteries of the cathedral’s sacred geometry, or simply stand in awe of the magical windows that illuminate the inner sanctum.
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
In 1979, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Chartres Cathedral a World Heritage site. The French government is thus committed to protecting and preserving this contribution to the cultural heritage of France and the world. Chartres Cathedral, however, is suffering the effects of old age: Eight hundred years of exposure to weather, pollution and human use have caused tremendous damage. The church’s exterior sculptures have been eaten away by erosion and encrusted with pollution from the air and animals. Its legendary stained-glass windows are eroded and obscured by air pollutants such as carbonates, sulfates and nitrates on the outside and coated on the inside with grime that blocks out much of their brilliance. The windows have also been dismantled numerous times — most recently during World War II, when they were stored in wine caves for protection — and this handling also had a damaging effect. The cathedral’s interior, blackened by candle smoke and the moist breath of visitors, has never been cleaned.
In the 1970s, the French government began a slow restoration process at Chartres. The initial work focused on the windows and the sculptures, but the activity quickly led to controversy. The technique used on the first three restored windows, which involved applying a protective coat of synthetic resin, elicited criticism for flattening the color and significantly altering the unique characteristics of the medieval glass. The French Ministry of Culture thus decided to suspend work until better restoration methods could be developed and proven effective. Preservationists working on the initial sculpture restoration determined that some were so corroded that the only option was to replace them. Six were replaced, but experts were concerned that this solution would be overused and thus sought to develop better cleaning and restoration techniques.
In 1986, the government restarted the window restoration process with improved techniques. The process involves removing each pane from its metal frame and cleaning off the accumulation of pollutants. Broken pieces of glass and metal are replaced by gluing and counter-gluing based on a mold made in sand. To ensure greater protection, a second pane of clear glass is added to the outside of the window. Of Chartres’ approximately 170 windows, some 45 have been restored and the process continues today. Chartres’ sculptures, of which there are about 4,000, are being cleaned using lasers and micro-sandblasters. At least nine of the cathedral’s wooden doors have been restored, as well as its 16th-century clock pavilion. The choir at the center of the cathedral is also undergoing restoration work.
Restoration progresses slowly — only a few windows are restored each year, at a cost of about $80,000 per window — mainly because of funding limitations. Although the French government has fiscal responsibility for the repair, a number of non-profits and concerned citizens have mobilized to augment funding, including the Chartres, Sanctuary of the World Foundation and the U.S.-based French Heritage Society.
Chartres, Sanctuary of the World. Chartres, Sanctuary of the World Association.
French Heritage Society. French Heritage Society.
Miller, Malcolm. Chartres Cathedral. Malcolm Miller. Riverside Book Co., 1997.
Chartres Cathedral. San Jose State University.
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Report by: Amberly Polidor
Posted on: March 1, 2004
Updated on: March 1, 2004