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Chartres Cathedral

The medieval Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, (French: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres), a Latin Rite Catholic cathedral located in Chartres, about 80 kilometres (50 mi) southwest of Paris, is considered one of the finest examples of the French High Gothic style. The current cathedral, mostly constructed between 1193 and 1250, is one of at least five that have occupied the site since the town became a bishopric in the 4th century.

What makes the cathedral special from an art historical viewpoint is its exceptional state of preservation. The majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact, while the architecture has seen only minor changes since the early 13th century. The building's exterior is dominated by heavy flying buttresses which allowed the architects to increase the window size significantly, while the west end is dominated by two contrasting spires - one, a 105 metre (349 ft) plain pyramid dating from the 1140s, and the other a 113 metre (377 ft) tall early 16th century Flamboyant spire on top of an older tower. Equally notable are the three great facades, each adorned with hundreds of sculpted figures illustrating key theological themes and narratives.

Since at least the 12th century the cathedral has been an important destination for travellers - and remains so to this day, attracting large numbers of Christian pilgrims, many of whom come to venerate its famous relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ's birth, as well as large numbers of secular tourists who come to see this Unesco World Heritage Site.


Social and economic context

As with any medieval bishopric, Chartres Cathedral was the most important building in the town - the centre of its economy, its most famous landmark and the focal point of many activities that in modern towns are provided for by specialised civic buildings. In the Middle Ages, the cathedral functioned as a kind of market-place, with different commercial activities centred around the different portals, particularly during the regular fairs. Textiles were sold around the north transept, while meat, vegetables and fuel sellers congregated around the south porch. Money-changers (an essential service at a time when each town or region had its own currency) had their benches, or banques, near the west portals and also in the nave itself. Wine sellers plied their trade in the nave, although occasional 13th century ordinances survive which record them being temporarily banished to the crypt to minimise disturbances. Workers of various professions gathered in particular locations around the cathedral awaiting offers of work.

Although the town of Chartres was under the judicial and tax authority of the Counts of Blois, the area immediately surrounding the cathedral, known as the cloître, was in effect a free-trade zone governed by the church authorities, who were entitled to the taxes from all commercial activity taking place there.As well as greatly increasing the cathedral's income, throughout the 12th and 13th centuries this led to regular disputes, often violent, between the bishops, the chapter and the civic authorities - particularly when serfs belonging to the counts transferred their trade (and taxes) to the cathedral. In 1258, after a series of bloody riots instigated by the count's officials, the chapter finally gained permission from the King to seal off the area of the cloître and lock the gates each night.

Pilgrimages and the legend of the Sancta Camisa

Even before the Gothic cathedral was built Chartres was a place of pilgrimage, albeit on a much smaller scale. During the Merovingian and early Carolingian eras, the main focus of devotion for pilgrims was a well (now located in the north side of Fulbert's crypt), known as the Puits des Saints-Forts, or the 'Well of the Strong Saints', into which it was believed the bodies of various local Early-Christian martyrs (including saints Piat, Cheron, Modesta and Potentianus) had been tossed. The widespread belief that the cathedral was also the site of a pre-Christian druidical sect who worshipped a 'Virgin who will give birth' is purely a late-medieval invention.

In c.876 the cathedral acquired the Sancta Camisa, believed to be the tunic worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary at the time of Christ's birth. According to legend, the relic was given to the cathedral by Charlemagne who received it as a gift from Emperor Constantine VI during a crusade to Jerusalem, however this legend was pure fiction (Charlemagne never went to the Holy Land) - probably invented in the 11th century to authenticate some relics at the Abbey of St Denis. In fact, the relic was a gift to the cathedral from Charles the Bald and there is no evidence for its being an important object of pilgrimage prior to the 12th century.

By the end of the 12th century however, the church had become one of the most important popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe. There were four great fairs which coincided with the main feast days of the Virgin: the Presentation, the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Nativity. The fairs were held in the area administered by the cathedral and were attended by many of the pilgrims in town to see the cloak of the Virgin. Specific pilgrimages were also held in response to outbreaks of disease. When ergotism (more popularly known in the Middle Ages as "St. Anthony's fire") afflicted many victims, the crypt of the original church became a hospital to care for the sick.

Today Chartres continues to attract large numbers of pilgrims, many of whom come to walk slowly around the labyrinth, their heads bowed in prayer - an entirely modern devotional practice but one which the Cathedral authorities accommodate by removing the chairs from the nave once a month.

Earlier buildings and the west facade

There have been at least five cathedrals on this site, each replacing an earlier building damaged by war or fire. Nothing survives of the earliest church, which was destroyed during an attack on the city by the Danes in 858. Of the Carolingian church that replaced it, all that remains is a semicircular chamber located directly below the centre of the present apse. This chamber, known as the Lubinus Crypt (named after the mid-6th century Bishop of Chartres), is lower than the rest of the crypt and may have been the shrine of a local saint, prior to the church's rededication to the Virgin. Another fire in 962 is mentioned in the annals, though nothing is known about the subsequent rebuilding. A more serious conflagration occurred in 1020, after which Bishop Fulbert (bishop from 1006 to 1028) began the construction of an entirely new building. Most of the present crypt, which is the largest in France, dates from that period. The rebuilding proceeded in phases over the next hundred years or so, culminating in 1145 in a display of public enthusiasm dubbed the "Cult of the Carts" - one of several such incidents recorded during the period. It was claimed that during this religious outburst a crowd of more than a thousand penitents dragged carts filled with building supplies and provisions including stones, wood, grain, etc. to the site.

In 1134 another fire damaged the town, and perhaps part of the cathedral. The north tower was started immediately afterwards - the south tower some time later. From the beginning it was intended that these towers flank a central porch of some sort and a narthex. When the north tower rose to the level of the second story the south was begun - the evidence lies in the profiles and in the masons marks on the two levels of the two towers. Between them on the first level, a chapel was constructed to Saint Michael. Traces of the vaults and the shafts which supported them are still visible in the western two bays. This chapel was probably vaulted, and those vaults saved the western glass. The stained glass in the three lancets over the portals date from some time between 1145 and 1155, while the south spire, some 103 meters high, was also completed by 1155 or later.

Work was begun on the Royal Portal with the south lintel around 1136 and with all its sculpture installed up to 1141. Opinions are uncertain as the sizes and styles of the figures vary and some elements, such as the lintel over the right hand portal, have clearly been cut down to fit the available spaces. For the argument that the sculpture was originally designed for these portals but some was changed as the design was altered by successive masters see John James.Either way, most of the carving is of an exceptionally high standard for the period and exercised a strong influence on the subsequent development of gothic portal design.

Construction of the present cathedral

On 10 June 1194 another fire caused extensive damage to Fulbert's cathedral. The true extent of the damage is unknown, though the fact that the lead cames holding the west windows together survived the conflagration intact suggests contemporary accounts of the terrible devastation may have been exaggerated. Either way, the opportunity was taken to begin a complete rebuilding of the choir and nave in the latest style. The undamaged western towers and facade were incorporated into the new works, as was the earlier crypt, effectively limiting the designers of the new building to the same general plan as its predecessor. In fact the present building is only marginally longer than Fulbert's cathedral.

One of the unusual features of Chartres cathedral is the speed with which it was built - a factor which helped contribute to its consistency of design as there appear to have been relatively few changes in plan as it proceeded. Australian architectural historian John James, who made a detailed study of the cathedral, has estimated that there were about 300 men working on the site at any one time, although it has to be acknowledged that our knowledge of working practices at this time is severely limited. The order of construction remains controversial. Normally medieval churches were built from east to west so that the choir could be completed first and put into use (with a temporary wall sealing off the west end) while the crossing and nave were completed. At Chartres however it appears that the building work started at the crossing and proceeded outwards from there, the eastern bays of the nave being the oldest and the ambulatory bays of the choir the newest parts.It had been argued that the original scheme was for an entirely new western facade but that plans were subsequently changed to incorporate the surviving west-work (which is why the westernmost bay of the nave is narrower than the rest) and the elements which had been prepared for its replacement were relocated to the south transept portal.

It is important to remember that the builders were not working on a clean site but would have had to clear back the rubble and surviving parts of the old church as they built the new. Nevertheless, work progressed rapidly. The south porch with most of its sculpture was installed by 1210, and by 1215 the north porch had been completed and the western rose installed. The high vaults were erected in the 1220s, the canons moved into their new stalls in 1221, and the transept roses were erected over the subsequent two decades.

Each arm of the transept was originally meant to support two towers, two more were to flank the choir, and there was to have been a central lantern over the crossing - nine towers in all. Plans for a crossing tower were abandoned in 1221 and the crossing was vaulted over. Work on the remaining six towers continued at a slower pace for some decades, until it was decided to leave them without spires (as at Laon Cathedral and elsewhere). The cathedral was consecrated in 1260, in the presence of King Louis IX.

Compared with other medieval churches, relatively few changes have been made to the cathedral since its consecration. In 1323 a substantial two story construction was added at the eastern end of the choir, with a chapel dedicated to Saint Piat in the upper floor accessed by a staircase opening onto the ambulatory (the chapel of St Piat is normally closed to visitors, although it occasionally houses temporary exhibitions). The chamber below the chapel served the canons as their chapter house.

Shortly after 1417 a small chapel was placed between the buttresses of the south nave for the Count of Vendôme. At the same time the small organ that had been built in the nave aisle was moved up into the triforium where it remains, though some time in the sixteenth century it was replaced with a larger one on a raised platform at the western end of the building. To this end some of the interior shafts in the western bay were removed and plans made to rebuild the organ there. In the event, this plan was abandoned, the glass in the western lancets was retained and the old organ was replaced with the present one.

In 1506 lightning destroyed the north spire, which was rebuilt in the 'Flamboyant' style by local mason Jehan de Beauce (who also worked on the abbey church in Vendôme). It is 113 meters high and took seven years to construct. After its completion Jehan continued working on the cathedral, and began the monumental screen around the choir stalls, which was not completed until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

In 1757 a number of changes were made to the interior to increase the visibility of the Mass, in accordance with changing religious customs. The jubé (choir screen) that separated the liturgical choir from the nave was torn down and the present stalls built (some of the magnificent sculpture from this screen was later found buried underneath the paving and preserved, though sadly is not on public display). At the same time some of the stained glass in the clerestory was removed and replaced with grisaille windows, greatly increasing the illumination of the High Altar.

In 1836 the old lead-covered roof, with its complex structure of timber supports (known as 'the forest') was destroyed by fire. It was replaced with a copper-clad roof supported by a network of cast iron ribs, known as the Charpente de fer. At the time the framework over the crossing had the largest span of any iron framed construction in Europe.

The cathedral has been fortunate in being spared the damage suffered by so many during the Wars of Religion and the Revolution, though the lead roof was removed to make bullets and the Directorate threatened to destroy the building as its upkeep, without a roof, had become too onerous. All the glass was removed just before the Germans invaded France in 1939, and was cleaned after the War and releaded. Since then the fabric has seen an almost continuious programme of cleaning and restoration. In recent years a major project has been underway to clean all the stone vaults of the choir and nave and repaint them in emulation of the thirteenth century polychromy.

The cathedral is still the seat of the Bishop of Chartres of the Diocese of Chartres, though in the ecclesiastical province of Tours.

French Revolution

The cathedral was damaged in the French Revolution when a mob began to destroy the sculpture on the north porch. This is one of the few occasions on which the anti-religious fervour was stopped by the townfolk. The Revolutionary Committee decided to destroy the cathedral via explosives, and asked a local architect to organise it. He saved the building by pointing out that the vast amount of rubble from the demolished building would so clog the streets it would take years to clear away. However, when metal was needed for the army the brass plaque in the centre of the labyrinth was removed and melted down - our only record of what was on the plaque was Felibien's description.

The Cathedral of Chartres was therefore neither destroyed nor looted during the French Revolution and the numerous restorations have not diminished its reputation as a triumph of Gothic art. The cathedral was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.

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