Friday, October 9, 2015

Chartres Cathedral-An Enduring Icon

About 50 miles southwest of Paris, stands high above the flat wheat fields of the Beauce region, the Cathedral of Notre Dame  de Chartres.  This magnificent landmark comes almost intact straight from the Middle Ages  and is a must see on any France itinerary for  Chartres Cathedral is one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. Since 1979, Chartres Cathedral is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites

The present cathedral replaced a Romanesque basilica that had been destroyed in 1194 in a fire ignited by lightening. Immediately after the destruction, a new church was rebuilt in record time  in the new gothic style (1194 -1220).  Chartres is recognizable by its two mismatched spires;  one romanesque, a remain  of the previous Basilica (1140) and another of flamboyant gothic style dating from the late 15th century.

Other distinguishing features of the Lady of Chartres are its magnificent stained glass windows ; most are authentic dating from the 12th and 13th century.  Of the original 186 stained glass window 152 survived. They are impressive for their artistry and vivid colors especially their special blue. They represents bible scenes, lives of saints as well as  scenes of specific trade guilds like the bakers, goldsmiths, winemaker, weavers and others.

Chartres' other unique features are its spacious nave (52 feet)- the widest in France and the crypt, also the largest in France .  On the floor of the nave is the famous labyrinth which medieval pilgrims used to follow on their knees. These days, the labyrinth  is usually covered with chairs except each Fridays in summer.

Chartres-Royal Portal
The exterior sculptures of the west, north and south portals portray scenes of the Old and New Testaments. A parade of statues of kings and queens adorn the Royal Portal. 
Thankfully, Chartres Cathedral came almost unscathed through the centuries.  It was spared from loot and destruction at the French Revolution.  During WWII, the  stained glass windows were preserved as they were taken down and hidden in the nearby countryside before German occupation.  Although the city of Chartres suffered much destruction from bombings in 1944, the cathedral was saved thanks to the brave actions of  an American officer, Colonel Wellborn Barton Griffith, Jr.  who stopped the order to destroy the cathedral by volunteering to go behind enemy lines to find out whether the German arrmy was occupying the cathedral and using it as an observatory post.  After reporting that the cathedral was clear of  enemy troops, the bombing orders were rescinded and the cathedral was spared from destruction. 
Henri IV Coronation in Chartres
It is interesting to know that King Henri IV was the only French king ever crowned in Chartres (1594).  It was a departure from the traditional coronation site in Reims Cathedral.

Chartres is easily accessible from Paris by train which makes for a pleasant day excursion. A short walk from the Chartres train station and you are the historical center.  On a day visit you can tour the cathedral and explore the charming historic town that has some very well preserved timber-frame houses. In the summer and through October, it is a great idea to stay overnight in Chartres to enjoy the amazing light display showcasing the cathedral and more than 20 other sites in town.  
For a custom itinerary to France, visit 

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Flicker-OT Chartres
Chartres' Light Show

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