No human achievement better displays the truth and beauty that mark the faith and reason of the West than the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, France. Located some 60 miles southwest of its sister cathedral of the same name and dedication in Paris—also a gem in its own right—Chartres can be visited and explored over and over again with no fear of exhausting its riches. What makes this place so special?
The cathedral took its current form in the late 12th and 13th centuries, when Europe as a whole was emerging from centuries of political disorder. It was a time when Thomas Aquinas and the Dominican Order of Preachers, and their fellow mendicants the Franciscans, were building on the order of the monastic houses of prayer and study that had brought western Christianity through the aftermath of the fall of Rome. Intellectually, the Greek philosophical tradition, as it had earlier influenced Augustine with Platonic thought and now Thomas with newly recovered works of Aristotle, provided fuller possibilities for the use of human reason in Christian philosophy and theology.
This intellectual flourishing within the Christian faith extended to art and architecture. The site of the Chartres cathedral had seen pagan worship before Christianity arrived in Europe. There was a Eucharistic altar dedicated to Mary there by the sixth century. The first church built there was ransacked by the Duke of Aquitaine in 743, and its replacement was destroyed by the Normans the following century. The subsequent rebuilding brought the gift of an important relic, the veil of Mary, Mother of Christ. With that, Chartres became a pilgrimage site for all of Europe.
The church was again destroyed by fire in 1194. This time, the rebuilding project became an extraordinary labor of love, with donations from all regions and many nobles traveling to Chartres to lend their sweat equity to that of the craftsmen and laborers.
The new cathedral rose as a sublime—a word that truly applies here—example of Gothic architecture. The innovation of the flying buttress allowed the stress of the stone weight to be distributed effectively, permitting both a high nave (121 feet) and, even more importantly, more open space in the walls that would be filled with the signature accomplishment of Chartres, the magnificent stained glass windows produced in Paris and in the local workshops.
Entering the cathedral, the visitor’s eyes are drawn upward by another Gothic development, the ogival or pointed arches. Simultaneously, the rich blues and reds of the 176 windows dazzle the eye. Even for someone with little background in art, this combination provides a transporting effect and a profound sense of entering another, larger world.
For all of its artistic glory, Chartres Cathedral is above all a Christian place of worship, a place whose visual testament makes it a building that can be read almost like a book. Its statuary, inside and out, tells the story of the Bible and the life of Christ. For example, the western or “Royal” portal depicts scenes of Christ rising in the Ascension and ruling after his second coming.
The windows likewise make the Bible come alive, especially for illiterate visitors who could not read the text of the Gospel or the Old Testament but could follow the stories they had heard in homilies and readings. One window on the west side depicts Christ’s incarnation, from the Annunciation forward, and his public ministry.
The interior choir stall was added in the 17th and 18th centuries and maintained a coherence with the original style of the cathedral while taking advantage of more recent techniques. The statuary depicts 41 Biblical stories in some 200 statues, such as the scene of the Baptism of Christ.
The Chartres Cathedral can be described in words and pictures, but it is a place that demands direct experience to be understood and appreciated. Even with abundant tourist traffic, it remains a spot where one immediately detects the transcendent order that inspired its architects, artists and builders and that has continued to spark wonder and adoration among its visitors for eight centuries. And while the simplest unadorned chapel can be an island of spiritual grace, few places join history and beauty in the magnificent way that Chartres does. It is a living and enduring example of a high moment in the West, a moment that brought the traditions of ancient Jerusalem and Athens—faith and reason—together and moved them decisively forward in Europe. In our own day with its attendant confusion and disorder, we can be more grateful than ever for Notre Dame de Chartres.
Header image, first image of Chartres, and image of pointed arches by Marianne Casmance used under CC BY-SA 3.0. Image of flying buttresses by Florestan used under CC BY 3.0. Image of western portal by Guillaume Piolle used under CC BY 3.0. Image of west-side stained glass window by PtrQs used under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image of choir stall by Tango7174 used under CC BY-SA 4.0.