Chartres Cathedral is The Greatest Gothic Cathedral in Europe:
Chartres Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres) has long been the main reason that many people visit the town of Chartres. This superb Gothic cathedral has many outstanding features, but it is the collection of 2,600 m² of stained glass windows that is absolutely unique and precious, warranting the cathedral’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
History of Chartres Cathedral
There have been five other cathedrals on the site of Chartres Cathedral and they were all destroyed either by war or fire. After the devastating fire of 1020, Bishop Fulbert reconstructed the whole building however the Romanesque cathedral was destroyed by yet another fire in 1194.
The 1194 fire raged through the town of Chartres, destroying pretty much all the houses and shops and the cathedral. The townsfolk and the clergy decided on a positive take and saw the fire as a sign from the Virgin herself to rebuild Her House in the most marvellous manner possible. All pulled together to rebuild the cathedral very quickly and over the next 25 years various sections were worked on. The result is a structure that has remained pretty much unchanged since 1250. There has been few alternations since that time, earning Chartres Cathedral the reputation of a “Bible in Stone”.
Chartres Cathedral was fortunate to have escaped damage during the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution, though the lead roof was removed to make bullets. Before the Germans invaded France in 1939, all the stained glass were removed and were cleaned after the War and releaded.
Star Features of the Cathedral
The Cathedral of Chartres boasts 9 sculpted gates with 4,000 statues, which are unique in France and which dates to the 12th and 13th centuries.
Facing the main facade to the west of the Cathedral, one quickly notices the sharp contrast in the two spires. The taller 113-metre spire is 16th century Flamboyant Gothic whereas the shorter 105-metre spire is a plainer Romanesque style dating from the 12th century.
As you approach the entrance of the Cathedral, the first star feature is the central tympanum of the Royal Portal which shows ‘Christ in Majesty’. The Elongated Statues represent Old Testament figures.
From inside the Cathedral, look back at the West Rose Window which shows the Last Judgment with Christ seated in the centre. Just beneath the West Rose Window is another important stained glass panel with the Tree of Jesse depicting Christ’s genealogy.
As you enter the Cathedral what overwhelms immediately are the stained glass windows. The 2,600 m² of stained glass were donated by the aristocracy, royalty and rich merchants between 1210 and 1240. There are over 150 windows which hold 5,000 images illustrating biblical stories as well as daily life in the 13th century.
During the two world wars the windows were dismantled piece by piece to be stored away for safety. Just as impressive as the Tree of Jesse panel and the West Rose Window is the Blue Virgin Window depicting Christ converting water into wine at The Marriage at Cana. To get an appreciation of the stained glass images, look for the plaque on the south side which holds the key to all the panels.
Chartres is a pilgrimage Cathedral and another of the Cathedral’s outstanding features is the 13th century Chartres Labyrinth, inlaid in the nave floor. This is a feature of most medieval cathedrals but the one in Chartres is the largest medieval maze in the world. Pilgrims, doing their penance, used to follow the tortuous route on their knees, taking about an hour to complete. You don’t have to go on your knees, but if you walk the Labyrinth, around its 11 bands of broken concentric circles, you would cover 262 m (851 ft).
A spectacular time to be in Chartres is during the city’s summer Festival of Lights when Chartres Cathedral and many of the city’s monuments and places of interest are illuminated in coloured light and to the rhythm of music. See Chartres Cathedral photos here.
Chartres is 80 km southwest of Paris.
By Train – Chartres is only an hour away from Paris and 33 trains leave from Paris-Montparnasse Station daily.
By Road – Leaving Paris follow A6 direction Bordeaux-Nantes, via the Porte d’Orléans, then A10 and A11 direction Nantes.