By Craig Kuehl and Elizabeth Seitz
While we at AFC may be a bit biased, we can think of no better day-trip – or even better, weekend getaway – than the great cathedral town of Chartres for visitors to Paris.
While anytime is a great time to visit Chartres, whose Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres was placed on the very first list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, now is always best. If you do visit the cathedral, you will have a chance to wonder at the glories of this beautiful gothic space, while at the same time getting a glimpse into the restoration work being carried out by a multitude of partners, including the American Friends of Chartres (AFC) and our sister organization, Chartres, sanctuaire du Monde. And the charming town of Chartres itself is well worth a visit.
Before I describe AFC’s work at Chartres, however, I’d like to entice you to visit the cathedral by quoting a wonderful blog post* by Elizabeth Seitz of French Affaires (www.frenchaffaires.com). [Dr. Seitz has given AFC permission to quote extensively from and edit her post for our purposes.]
This summer, I made a long overdue pilgrimage back to la Cathédrale de Chartres – Chartres Cathedral. It had been nearly 25 years since my last visit during my graduate school days in Paris. I wanted to refresh my memory of this crown jewel of gothic art and architecture. I must say I now regret not having been to this sacred gem more often over the years.
Located about 50 miles southwest of Paris, the charming town of Chartres makes a great day trip from the French capital. Local trains run approximately every hour from the Gare Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. The easy journey takes about an hour and costs around 23 euros round trip. The church is a 5 to 10 minute walk from the station.
In a country that abounds with gorgeous gothic churches and cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris, St. Denis, Reims, Amiens, Bourges, Rouen, to name a few – what is it that makes Chartres so special?
First, Chartres is the best-preserved of all of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Today, most of its stained glass and sculptures remain intact from when they were created in the 1200’s. Wonderfully enough, the cathedral’s sacred art survived the ravages of time, the mobs of the French Revolution and also the destruction of the two World Wars. Sometimes, the acts of preservation were deliberate. In 1939, for example, les vitraux (the stained glass windows) were removed prior to the invasion of the Germans. They were then restored and replaced after the war. As a result, Chartres has the largest collection of 12th and 13th C. stained-glass under one roof, in the world.
Second, the architectural design of Chartres is amazingly unified. The fact that the church was built in the space of about 30 years – very quickly as far as cathedral-building goes – is a main contributor. A bit of history: There have been five churches on the site of Chartres, each previous one destroyed by fire or war. After the great fire of 1194, the cathedral as we know it today was rebuilt in the early 1200’s. To be fair, some details of the church have changed over time, like the north spire which was destroyed by lightning in 1506 and then rebuilt in the flamboyant gothic style. (This answers the question about why the two spires are different!). But it is important to remember that most medieval churches have undergone significant alterations since their construction. At Chartres, the architecture of this medieval church has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries.
British-born Malcolm Miller, who began giving tours of the cathedral in 1958, likened the cathedral to a book with the church’s architecture as its spine and the texts are the narratives contained in the 12th to 14th century stained glass and sculptures. At the time the church was built, paper was nearly non-existent and printing had not been invented. Most people could not read or write but they could ‘read’ the sacred texts of the colorful windows. The windows also record people’s lives at the time.
Restoration of the church is ongoing. It is clear which parts have been newly cleaned and which still are dark with soot and pollution whether in stone or glass. The French Government is financing the restoration of the stones in the nave; the work is to be completed in 2017. American Friends of Chartres are currently raising funds to restore the Bakers’ window (Bay 140) in the upper clerestory of the nave.
Meanwhile, here is a look at the newly restored Belle Verrière window with the Blue Halo Virgin which is perhaps the most famous stained glass at Chartres. The startlingly bright colors, including the famous Chartres blue, just pop out at you.
To sum up, visiting Chartres is to be transported to the Middle Ages and its rich sacred art, a very meaningful experience whether one is religious or not. If you have the time and the inclination to go, here are a few thoughts for making the most of your journey: Go on a Saturday – the charming town is bustling with activity and the weekly outdoor market. When you first arrive, see the cathedral in the morning light. Then go back in the afternoon for a whole different view. Take a tour with an English-speaking guide. Take the time to decipher an entire cycle of stained glass – and notice the characters at the bottom who sponsored the piece whether bakers**, carpenters or other medieval tradesmen. Have a nice lunch outdoors at one of the restaurants by the church or in the nearby market square – and enjoy the view of the cathedral nearby. Be sure and walk around the exterior perimeter of the church – the details and angles are fascinating. And last but not least, relish the less crowded church atmosphere when compared to Notre Dame in Paris. Bonne visite!
As Elizabeth Seitz’s excellent introduction to Chartres makes clear, restoration work is ongoing, and is fascinating in itself. AFC is about half way toward its goal of funding the complete restoration of Bay 140, and work started in April of this year with the removal of the stained-glass panels from the cathedral. Along with the AFC President, Dominique Lallement, by ascending to the top of scaffolding, I was privileged to view – from a dizzying height — the removal of the panels from the cathedral. We subsequently visited Claire Babet’s studio where they are being restored. In addition to the work on the windows, a major interior conservation project is underway, with massive cleaning and restoration work intended to restore the interior stonework and paintings to their original, shining glory. (As an interesting sidelight, we met the young American woman who is directing the Italian team that is doing much of this work.)
Any time you visit you will be able to see AFC’s other major project, completed in 2013, the restoration of the five lancet windows of the south transept.
To support AFC’s work, see http://www.friendsofchartres.org/
If you wish to organize a visit to the restoration workshop during the week, we will be happy to introduce you. These are free, but they appreciate a box of chocolates!
*I have edited the post to reduce its length and to interpolate some small changes. For the complete, unedited post, see http://www.elizabethnew.com/category/sacred-france/
** The Bay 140 windows, whose restoration is the current project of the American Friends of Chartres, are popularly known as “Bakers’ Windows,” because of the depiction of various scenes of baking in the bottom panels of the two lancet windows.
Cathedral Notre-Dame of Chartres (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres)
Cloître Notre-Dame, 28000 Chartres
Open: Daily 8:30am-7:30pm
See the Labyrinth: Friday only 1:00-4:00pm
Tours in English
Malcolm Miller has guided at Chartres Cathedral for more than 50 years, and continues to do so, from Easter until late October, daily at 12 noon, but not on Sundays. Private tours are possible. He has also lectured widely in the United States, Canada, UK, and Australia, has authored several books on Chartres Cathedral, made TV documentaries, and has been awarded two of France’s highest honors: Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite and Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
E-mail: email@example.com and home telephone +33 (0 ) 2 37 28 15 58.
Anne Marie Woods has been collaborating with Malcolm Miller as his successor for public daily tours since May 2016, and has been an approved cathedral guide since 2012. With some exceptions, she leads daily tours at 2:45 PM from May 1 through September 30, except Wednesday and Sunday. Tour lasts about an hour and a half, and includes the crypts. Private tours are possible year round. (For private tours call Cathedral Service Accueil et Visites +33  2 37 21 75 02.) Tours available in French and English. Anne Marie has broad experience working and teaching English in France and the USA.
NB: Located near the cathedral are the Centre International du Vitrail and the Ecole Internationale du Vitrail et du Patrimoine which are dedicated to the history and art of stained glass. Their superb cultural offerings include lectures, excursions, exhibitions and training in making ancient and contemporary stained glass.