Checking into the Past: Chartres


It was a rather dreary day as I headed to Chartres. Chartres is best known for its medieval church, that sits on top of the hill in the city.

Before discussing my visit I would like to share an  interesting anecdotal story about the Cathedral.  During World War II the Cathedral was spared bombing when Col. Barton Griffith Jr. questioned and later investigated if German troops were using it as a base. Once verified that it was clear, the order to destroy it was lifted. Shortly after the Allied Forces liberated the area. Unfortunately, the tale is not entirely pleasant because Col. Griffith was killed in action on August 16, 1944.

It is thanks to his intuition that millions of visitors like myself can make the journey to this Gothic Cathedral.  Here are my first glimpses of the building as  I made my way through the city from the train station.

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One of the most beautfiul aspects of the Cathedral is its stain glassed windows, which survived all of the wars’ bombings by being taken down piece by piece. The small flecks of colored glass are combined in intricate patterns to reveal the mysteries of faith, but all to cast colorful light on the cold stone beams.  According to Guillaume Durant, the chancellor of the Chartres Chapter in 1200, “The windows through which the light of the sun is transmitted symbolize the Holy Scriptures enlightening the hearts of the faithful.” Such a quote gives an idea of the significance these windows and this space held for its worshippers.

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Below is an image of the Choir Stalls, where each figure appears to be set into a dark box, reminiscent of the sculptural programs evoked by Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition.  These lively figures break out of the confines of these boxes, interacting with one and another. You can imagine the skill it took to make the stone tracery appear above them as fine as lace, as well as the artists’ abilities to capture each the expression of each face.

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According to traditions, the Empress IRene of Byzantium sent “The Holy Dress of the Virgin”, this silken tunic dress as a gift to Charlemagne. It was later donated by his grandson, Charles the Bold to Chartres Cathedral in 876. Experts date its origin to the first century, and has been a site of pilgrimage for those seeking Mary’s Intercession. When envisioning the re-model of the Cathedral in the 11th century, Bishop Fulbert wanted to create a space large enough for the crowds of processions, giving an idea of the magnitude of visitors this relic had.


The panel on the left is the most famous window in the Cathedral. Mary, in her blue dress, stands out against her red background. It is thought to be the seat of wisdom, the windows survived the fire of 1194. She is also known as  The Belle Verrière (Blue Virgin), known for the cobalt oxide, native to the area, used to paint her dress blue.


On the floor of the Cathedral we find a curious concentric tile arrangement.   In fact it is a labyrinth filling the width of the Nave. Medieval french priests were known to dance during Easter festivities in the Nave; however, the exact use of this labyrinth is unknown. It is postulated that pilgrims weaved through its black lines before visiting the relics. Such a practice exists today, but its sources may in fact be a modern adaption to the space. There are too many chairs to wander through each day; however, once a month the church officials remove the chairs.

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There are three spires on the Cathedral. One is currently accessible and after climbing the winding stair cases I was greeted by gusts of winds and these beautiful views: IMG_4517 IMG_4518 IMG_4519 IMG_4520 IMG_4521 IMG_4523 IMG_4524

I always love seeing the intricate sculpted details that almost no one had access to, but still were an essential aspect of the design program.


There are three main façades to the Cathedral, the first, the one that was originally shown is called the Royal Façade. This was not because it was the desired entrance for kings and queens, rather in commemoration of the slender figures of Kings and Queens of the Old Testament. This portal focuses on aspects of Christ’s life on earth.

The Southern Portal emphasizes the history between Christ’s Death and his appearance on Earth. Many subsidiary scenes accompany this larger trend depicting the signs of the zodiac, personifications of virtues and vices, as well as themes of the months.

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In comparison, the Northern Portal (below) focuses on the Old Testament. Stories of the saints line the pillars holding up the deep patio. It is fitting that a pilgrim would have exited out of this portal after visiting the Crypt, where the religious relics are stored.



Around the back is a large patio that extends out onto a garden that emmulates the labyrinth found on the church floor. I believe that it is attached to Bishop’s Palace which is next to the Cathedral. Unfortunately, it is only open on Wednesday’s and so I could not see the palace nor the art collection displayed there.

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After a quick lunch I caught the last tour of the day into the Crypt. It was a rather dry tour given in French, and that is partially due to the fact that I only understood the bare minimum of what she said, but I read the hand out translated version in English and will still claim it was dry. That is compared to the beautiful murals and other art works found underground.

It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, not that the photos would show that. The only light that entered the space came in through the large stain glass windows of each chapel. Additionally, almost all of the walls were covered in extensive murals like the ones displayed below.

The crypt has held many different functions other than just a religious retreat. In the Middle Ages upon the outbreak of Saint Anthony’s Fire (Ergotism) it was used as a hospital to care for the sick.

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Above is an example of how the extensive stain glass windows that we saw in the Cathedral were constructed.  Below is what I understood to be the chapel of the Crypt and where some of the most important relics are still currently housed. IMG_4574 IMG_4577 IMG_4585

Below are two examples of modern stain glass windows. The comparison with the other two strips is shocking, especially with the pieces of thick glass jutting out of the frames.

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Upon heading out of the church I made my way down towards a small street wandering into a current convent. I am still not quite sure how I got back the first round of security, but was quickly ushered out when they realized that I was not supposed to be there.  I may or may not have a knack for exploring cloisters.

I then took my travels towards the Eure River. I passed by St. Andrew’s College whose façade dates back to the Roman occupation of the city, and continued to follow the river around the city.

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There are five main staircases like this one shown that lead from the top of the hill (Cathedral) down to the rest of the town.


In many ways the buildings proclaim their medieval heritage. Does this not just look picturesque?

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Eventually I found my way back towards to train station and caught a train into Paris. I met up with Thomas, who I had not seen since he moved back to Paris. While catching up (in Spanish), we stopped by his new apartment before setting out to find a restaurant for dinner. We found one with Tartiflette, the same dish that he and Adélie had previously made for all of us. It was prepared very differently, the potatoes were fried crisps instead of pureed, but it was still delicious. Partially because it was reminiscent of such a fabulous night, and partially because I was sharing it with such great company.  I was bummed that I was not able to reconnect with Adélie while in Paris; however, since I just found out I will be going back in November, we will be able to see each other soon!! IMG_4628


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