In France, as with pretty much anywhere in the world, there has been a fair few things happen over the last 800 years. The Hundred Years' War, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and two World Wars among many other conflicts - it's been a rather destructive time. And so for a building - a large, prominent, delicate, and sometimes controversial building - to survive unscathed for these eight centuries is, well, remarkable. This is Chartres Cathedral.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres (Our Lady of Chartres) is indeed remarkable. It is widely celebrated as one the finest examples of Gothic architecture around, even moreso for being in almost an original state of preservation. While most of the great cathedrals have been damaged, restored, and altered over the centuries, Chartres remains the same. Although at its time of construction, beginning 1194, it took some influences from some nearby churches, it was the most unique and the biggest of its time. It set the bar for monumental Gothic cathedrals. If you think it looks like the others, it's because they look like Chartres.
Like so many of the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, we have two things to thank for it - a fire and a relic. In 1194, the cathedral that stood in the same spot was destroyed by fire, and with an almost suspicious rapidity the new, current, cathedral began construction. It has been remarked that the speed of rebuilding was so fast that it seems the bishop found the new master-mason while the old building was still in flames. This was no simple matter of finding a general contractor to do a routine four-walls-and-a-roof, it was the matter of finding a genius able to take on an immense and unprecedented project for the rest of his life. How did the bishop find this man so fast? We've no idea, there are no surviving records. It could be cheekily suggested the man was found before the convenient fire started, but more likely the bishop just had good contacts and got lucky. After all, if the man he'd found had simply been average, architectural critics centuries on wouldn't still be extolling Chartres' virtues and I wouldn't be touting it as a world's best.
The name of this man - or men - however, we don't actually know. He lived and died and built a work of colossal genius without his name ever being recorded. Unlike the other Gothic cathedrals, no names were cut into stone. There was once a central bronze plaque in the cathedral which may have had a name or names, but it is long gone, taken to be melted down to help make cannons for war.
The other good reason for the quick turnaround between fire and construction is the relic. In this case, the holy relic is none other than the tunic, or robe, worn by the Virgin Mary at the birth of Christ. Another relic with a slightly muddy back story, the "Sancta Camisa" to give its proper name is a cloth of around five metres long that was given to the town in the 9th Century by King Charles the Bald. He in turn was said to have received it from his grandfather, the mighty Charlemagne, who in turn was given it by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I, although this part seems very shrouded in myth. Whatever its precise origins, it soon proved its worth. The Vikings attacked in 911, and were ready to destroy the town when the tunic was shown to them. Its power repelled the invaders, and their leader, Rollo, converted to Christianity, and became the first ever Duke of Normandy. Despite the name, he didn't inspire the confectionery over 1000 years later (that's Rolo, with just the single "l") but even better, just 150 years later, his great-great-great grandson, William, conquered England and changed things quite considerably. Therefore, whatever you believe about the authenticity of Mary's tunic, Chartres Cathedral's primary relic has certainly had a role in shaping history, albeit nothing to do at all with chocolate sweets.
Repelling Rollo confirmed the Sancta Camisa as a top-notch relic, and put Chartres on the map, with many miracles of healing being attributed to it. Sure, it didn't stop the church burning down in 1020, 1029, 1134 and 1194, but that it survived each fire was deemed miracle enough. Not only was the grand Gothic cathedral that emerged following the 1194 fire built to house and show off the tunic, the tunic also directly contributed to the fundraising efforts. It went on tours around the area, giving publicity to and generating income for the huge new emerging cathedral.
It's not the only relic there either. In the 11th Century, the bishop of Chartres was sick, and all of a sudden Mary appeared. She bathed his tongue with her breast milk (!) and three drops spilt onto his cheek. He duly collected them in a vase, presumably shaking his head and saying "They're never going to believe this one..."
These days, in our space-age bubbles of instant information, we might smirk at what seem like medieval flights of fantasy, but there is no doubt of the impact of these relics. Not only were giant cathedrals built to house them, but it has been suggested that the impetus of the entire Gothic style comes from the desire for space and light to illuminate these holy relics. This wasn't just a spiritual need, it was also financial. Big-time relics were big-time earners for the church, with pilgrims flocking from afar. Having a highly visible holy relic in a grand, heavenly cathedral was good business acumen.
For the secular visitor as myself, the glory of cathedrals is clearly the sheer size and majesty of the building. Chartres Cathedral's kudos clearly comes from being one of the first great Gothic cathedrals as well as being excellently preserved. That knowledge aids appreciation, but in the end most visitors will simply judge it upon the impact it will make. Just looking at pictures of the facade, it's clear that it has a cleaner, less ornate front. You might almost say it's not trying to show off. Its spired towers are curiously asymmetrical: the north was rebuilt in a different style at the beginning of the 16th Century, following a lightning strike, but I don't think they ever matched. Inside is where Chartres tries to impress. All the innovative architectural elements on the outside are there to give the interior as much sense of space and light as possible. The scale of Chartres is not unique, but it is the light from the windows that sets it apart. The large majority of the cathedral's stained-glass windows are original, something no other grand old cathedral can remotely claim, and the reward for this is to be able to experience the lighting as intended by its makers. No direct light enters the catheral, all of it is filtered through the coloured windows, bathing the interior in a warm, dim, supernatural glow. This was very different from the dark, candlelit churches that preceded it. “Beneath the vaults of Chartres, the atheist would feel uneasy,” said Napoleon. While we might smirk at medieval man's seeming credulity of tales of Mary's milk, we have to accept that, by God, they knew what they were doing.
Another day, another Gothic cathedral, you might say. I've got Cologne, Amiens, Chartres, and the Notre-Dame on my list. It wouldn't be a stretch to add fellow luminaries such as Rouen, Strasbourg, Orleans, Laon, Rheims, St Stephen's in Vienna, Burgos, Seville, Milan, and York Minster to my list either. But as with Egyptian pyramids, there are many, massive and ancient beyond just the trio at Giza, but we celebrate those at Giza as the biggest and the best. Chartres' virtues - aside the "usual" size and beauty - are its originality, its reputation, and whether by protection by holy tunic or not, its excellent preservation throughout centuries of turmoil around it. Some would say it is the best. And the best Gothic cathedral will surely have a fighting chance being one of my best, in my top Seven Wonders of the World. I look forward to finding out.
I'll be visiting Chartres Cathedral in the summer of next year, and will give a full account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.