Tuesday, 25 March 2014

37. Wonder: Chartres Cathedral

(For the Chartres Cathedral preview, please click here.)

Malcolm Miller is an institution. Perhaps not quite as much as Chartres Cathedral - 820 years and counting - but at 57 years and counting it's probably fair to count him as a fixture. That's how long he's been a tour guide at Chartres, since 1956 at the age of 23. He's now 80 years old and going strong, doing up to two public tours each day and as many private tours as he fancies. The French government have recognised this service, awarding him both the chevalier de l'ordre national du Merite and the chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which in case it's not obvious, are prestigious awards for service and achievements.

One of the first thing Miller says when opening his tours, after mentioning how long he's been guiding for, is that he's still learning. He first learnt about the cathedral while writing a mini-thesis for his French degree at Durham University in 1956 and the process has never stopped. It's very telling. It's telling of Miller's devotion to the cathedral, but it's also telling that Chartres Cathedral has that level of detail, that amount of history, and that power to it that it can consistently offer more, even to a man who spends his life there. Chartres Cathedral was built for devotion, and whether you are religious or not, it delivers.

It was also built, as Miller explains on his tour, for teaching and learning. Chartres is a quiet town these days, a pleasant centre surrounded by more anonymous suburbs, but in the 11th and 12th Centuries it was a major centre of learning. It was a glimmer of light after the Dark Ages, developing a more rational way of thought, like an early version of scientific thinking. This was a big deal after centuries of simply not questioning the natural world or events: it was not the done thing to "question" God, it was all simply supposed to be His will. Life, death, disease, disaster - all up to God. The cathedral school attracted high profile scholars and students: the head of the school from 1119, a man called Bernard of Chartres, is the origin of the quote, “We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants so we perceive more things than they do”, which Isaac Newton, more famously, adapted in the 17th Century. The band Oasis did likewise, in 2000 calling their fourth album "Standing on the Shoulder of Giants", although apparently their inspiration wasn't from Bernard of Chartres, with Wikipedia informing me: "Songwriter Noel Gallagher chose the name after reading it printed on the edge a £2 coin; he scribbled the phrase down but spelled it incorrectly with the word 'Shoulder' rather than 'Shoulders' as he was inebriated at the time".

In the late 12th Century, Chartres was in vogue therefore as a bright light of learning and an established cathedral city. The cathedral we see today is far from the first, many older versions are recorded, some with physical traces remaining. Indeed, official bishops of Chartres are recorded as far back as the 4th Century. At the peak of its power, and with the arrival of the Virgin Mary's tunic, or chemise more accurately, said to have been worn at the time of Christ's birth and attracting large numbers of pilgrims (and therefore large amounts of donations) a new and huge cathedral in the modern style was desirable. Conveniently, the old one burnt down. With suspicious immediacy, the new one began to appear.

So, what do we have now? Well, we've got a Gothic Cathedral, begun in the 12th Century, 1194 to be precise. This was a golden age of cathedral building in France, some breakthrough in knowhow and vision inspiring churches and cathedrals in the new Gothic style to spring up all across France and northern Europe. Chartres was an early example, and one of the finest. Using the external supports called flying buttresses to take the weight of the masses of stone, the interior was able to be built much more massive and spacious than ever before. Huge facades like cliff-faces could be constructed and elaborately decorated, especially around the three entranceways, or portals. Spires reaching to the heavens could be seen for many miles around. Pilgrims flocked.

Today, Chartres is a town of around 40,000, but the cathedral is still a dominant force in the town centre. Arriving on the train, it appears, towering above the town centre like a giant among children. On our walk from our accommodation in the neighbouring area of Montvilliers, it was a welcome sight each day.

And indeed, the pilgrims still flock. On Sunday afternoon, outside the cathedral, a hundred or more youths converged. But it wasn't a skateboarding flashmob or Twilight convention, or whatever young people do these days, it was a student pilgrimage. Poor sods, it was freezing, and it appears they had been camping. But they all seemed in boisterous form, later filling the cathedral for an enthusiastic afternoon service, complete with laughter and singing. Cathedrals often seem very empty - not today. It seemed alive.

Which is exactly how the cathedral would have been in medieval times: alive. Today the church is less central to the community, but back then it was the very heart. It was not a place for quiet shuffling or hushed awe - it was a bustling community centre where people would gather to chat and eat and buy and sell. Animals would wander around. This is largely why screens were built to separate the choir and sanctuary at the core of the cathedral from the rest of the building - to keep it holy and sacrosanct. (These days, most cathedrals, Chartres included, have the screen replaced by a gate, so you can see - although not go - inside.) Even winesellers set themselves up in the medieval Chartres Cathedral nave (the main part), with it being recorded in 1327 that they became such a pest that they had to be forced into the crypt below. As it happens, the patron saint of winemakers is Saint Lubin - who also happened to be bishop of Chartres in the 6th Century. By the 13th Century, two feasts were dedicated to him each year. He can still be seen in the stained-glass windows. Medieval Christianity sounds fun.

When possible, I like to visit my Wonders in the original manner they were intended As no wine festivals appeared to be on, for Chartres Cathedral this meant attending a Sunday Mass. Danielle frequently complains that the only time she can ever get me to Mass is when it takes places in a Wonder. Why else, I tell her, would I go there? I'm not exactly a devout believer; even if I was, I think the bishop's message of the day was rather lost on me, being as it was in French. So while people sang and prayed, bishops preached, and Danielle shivered (it was freezing in there: Gothic architecture was not built with central heating in mind), I sat back and admired the high vaulted ceiling, the colourful stained-glass windows, the sense of space and verticality, all in close to the form it would have been seven centuries ago.

One of Chartres Cathedrals main attractions is that it has remained virtually intact. No other Gothic cathedral, anywhere, is as pure as Chartres. France has seen the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution and been subject to the huge amount of vandalism against religious art that these movements brought. But Chartres survived. In 1793, Revolutionaries wanted to pull it down to use the stone, and they began to pull down sculpture in the north porch - but the people of Chartres forcibly stopped them. A Revolutionary committee then planned to blow the whole thing up, but a local architect saved the day by pointing out that a large amount of rubble would be created, blocking the streets thus causing disruption. It went on to survive two World Wars. The cathedral we see now, against all odds, is essentially the same one seen by medieval eyes.

In a sense, at least. Our eyes are very different from medieval eyes, and although we see the same physical structure, we are missing many of the layers of spiritual meaning. This is what Malcolm Miller tries to comprehend. He describes the cathedral as a form of medieval library, or a giant book, built in glass and sculpture. Chartres was a centre of learning: the cathedral was designed to educate. When the cathedral was built, printing was yet to be invented in Europe, even paper barely existed. The masses were uneducated, but not stupid. The detail within the cathedral was not designed for simple decorative purposes, it was designed to tell a story. To teach.

Chartres Cathedral has the world's biggest collection of medieval stained glass - or vitrail, in French. What a much more delightful word: "stained-glass" is such an uncouth way to describe such works of art. Chartres has 176 windows in total, 152 being original, up to 46 metres wide, with around 2600 square metres in all. I'm pretty sure Miller could go on all day, all week, going through each panel of glass, describing the story it tells. On our tour, he gave us a preview of some of the main facade's rose window story, which flies through creation to Christ's birth and death, and then the end of days. It's not all so high and mighty though. Local trades - labourers, bakers, shoemakers, the aforementioed winemakers, and may more - are frequently depicted. The reasons for this is disputed. Some think it was just the church demonstrating its appeal to everyone; others believe that guilds helped fund the windows - which were hugely expensive (and possibly too expensive for tradesmen), at around 10% the cost of the entire cathedral - and the windows record this. Books have been written on the windows, so I'll just summarise it by saying: they're pretty.

For the modern eye, unless with an interpreter like Miller, there's just too much medieval symbolism to figure it all out. In the end, we might make some guesses, or just appreciate the quality of the art. The meaning, sadly, is lost on us. In one sense, it's like a person from the 28th Century trying to figure out a whole series of 20th Century pop references and in-jokes. What would they make of South Park, for example, or The Simpsons? The majority of these futuristic spacefolk would have to content themselves with simply enjoying the colourful animation and squeaky voices. Jokes about Saddam Husseim or Tom Cruise or whatever would be lost on them.

This sort of thing, this fantastic level of details and meaning, can keep a scholar like Malcolm Miller occupied for a lifetime. For most though, I would say the impact is made by the facade. Chartres Cathedral has a very distinct facade. The three portals are as exquisitvely detailed as you'd expect - they really are beautiful. Despite my terrible photography.

But the rest of the facade is much more simple. Many cathedrals - check out the Notre-Dame or Amiens - have facades packed full of sculpture, enough to overwhelm the eye. Chartres does not. It is more simple. and gives Chartres Cathedral a strange humility. Sure, it's huge and grand, but it never seems like it's showing off. It's stately and elegant. Imagine meeting two well-traveled gentlemen: one is entertaining and flamboyant, eager to tell all about his adventures; the other is restrained and softly-spoken, his stories emerging over time. Both are interesting, but the restraint of the quiet traveller makes each story more compelling, less in-your-face. This is Chartres Cathedral. It's not flamboyant, but it is extremely compelling.

Although of course, architecturally, it is Flamboyant, or the south spire is at any rate. One of Chartres most obvious features is its assymetry - its two front steeples are entirely different. The south one is a straightforward octagonal spire of 105 metres, whereas the north one is an elaborate tower in the Flamboyant style reaching to 113 metres. The south one is original, and when the cathedral was essentially completed, around 30-60 years depending on how you judge it but rapid regardless, it was the only one. Two spires weren't deemed necessary - one only is enough for pilgrims to see. But the north tower was given a wooden steeple, and as wooden things will do, this caught on fire in the 15th Century, after being struck by lightning. A new one was built, in the fashion of the times but arguably out of keeping with the more simple 12th Century cathedral.

And in photos, it looks strange. Most of the other great Gothic cathedrals are symmetrical, or nearly anyway. Before visiting Chartres, I thought the irregularity of the cathedral facade was its undoing. It just didn't work. But I was wrong. Yes, it looks strange as a simple image in a book or screen, but standing there in person, it works. It suddenly makes sense. Suddenly I can look at photos and think, yes, I get it. I can barely explan why, but I'll try anyway. I think the two different steeples combine the sense of a humble village church and a grand city cathedral: looking at Chartres Cathedral I can see both in one view. Irregularity is a big gamble in design - it's easy to screw it all up. But when it works, it's fascinating. In person, Chartres' facade is fascinating.

It's the flamboyant tower that is open to the public and on a cold Monday afternoon, Danielle and I made the climb. In a world of high-rises and skyscrapers, a tower of 113 metres might not seem like a big deal. And I've been higher. But usually that's been encased in glass. One of the principles of cathedral architecture was the emphasis of the vertical - these are tall buildings. This is usually appreciated from below looking up, but standing on the north tower I can assure you the verticality was very much emphasised looking down. There was no glass to protect us, no containing net, only the original stone sides. For one of the first times in my life, I felt my legs go. I had to creep round the tower, clutching the sides. Chartres Cathedral is scary.

I can only imagine what the builders of the thing went through. But people then were made of stronger stuff. Obviously, the main source of power was good-old fashioned manpower. Large stones were lifted by wooden levers and winches, and the very largest were driven by man-powered wheel drums - imagine a giant hamster wheel and you get an approximation - that allowed a man to lift ten times his weight. Was this dangerous? Hell, of course it was.

A lot of this technology was new, adapted from machines used for war. Just as the equipment was improved, so was the planning. Remember, there was barely any precedent for this kind of thing. The unnamed master mason - the architect in other words - would not have used standardised measurements - there weren't any, not really. Instead it was all about proportions. If any plans were committed to paper, none have ever been found. Perhaps the entire thing was in his head. Building Chartres Cathedral really was a leap of faith in a way we can barely conceive today.

Recently, Chartres Cathedral has undergone - and is still undergoing - a major cleaning work. Cleaning an ancient cathedral requires a little more than a mop and bucket, it is a meticulous process taking years, carefully cleaning every stone, every pane of glass, every sculpture, being sure not to destroy any original shade of colour or detail. Only the dirt must go. Around half the cathedral has been done, and the difference between old and new is obvious to the eye. And to be honest, I'm a little unsure about it. I'm all for restoration - it is clearly vital for anything we want to save for future generations - but I think we need to be very careful about how we go about such a thing. Chartres is an old cathedral, and I think it needs to look old. Not dirty, or broken, but old. Much of the restoration, internally especially, makes it look too new. Look closely at the clean-up stonework, and you can see that the individual bricks are just painted on! It's not mortar, it's painted lines!

Even stranger, on some of the columns, original paintwork has been discovered. Nobody wants to destroy this, so it's just left. The result being that the cathedral becomes patchy - lots of spanking brand new-looking stonework interrupted by ancient smears of dirty reds and browns. The cleaned-up windows, the vitrail, I'll happily say, are absolutely terrific. Work is due to go on until 2017, and according to Malcolm Miller we were very lucky to have seen a cathedral free of scaffolding. Upper windows are due to be removed and cleaned, and scaffolding was supposed to have gone up in January. But delays with the scaffolding company have pushed this back till May.

I spent three days at Chartres Cathedral - is that enough to make any assessment? Or do I need another 57 years? Do I need 57 years or more at every one of my Wonders? But my Wonders quest isn't about attaining expertise in all 100-plus of my candidate Wonders, it's just about assessing the impact of a structure, seeing how much they impress me, and guessing at how much they impress the world. And Chartres Cathedral is a grower. It starts well - it's big and old - but the more time I spent there, the more its details appealed. At first, especially if you've seen a few cathedrals, it seems a little like an overgrown parish church. It's not adorned head-to-toe with finery, it keeps things simple. But this becomes its strength. It's not an ostentatious statement of sculpture, it's a no-nonsense slab of pure Gothic.

It makes it a brilliant cathedral. Does this make it a World Wonder? Perhaps it lacks that unworldly look that the very best have - hundreds of other Gothic edifices in Europe and around the world water down its impact. It could be said that the Great Pyramid isn't exactly the only large Egyptian pyramid, and nor is it the first. But it is the biggest, the most legendary, the most supreme example of the many Egyptian pyramids. Chartres Cathedral is arguably the finest surviving example of medieval Gothic architecture out there, and this alone makes it great. But it lacks the other edges that the Great Pyramid has among pyramids - it's not the biggest cathedral, it's not the most famous. It's just one of many great cathedrals, indeed one of the best, but I'm not sure that's enough to give it World Wonder status.

Some criteria then.

Size: 113 metres at its highest and 130 metres long. It's big and it dominates the town.
Engineering: An absolute marvel of improvised and exploratory technical excellence, pushing all kinds of boundaries as part of the incredible Gothic revolution that changed the face of Europe. In the 12th Century, there was not exactly a handbook for this kind of thing. Chartres Cathedral was a work of technical genius.
Artistry: Also sublime. It doesn't feel the need to go overboard with the sculpture, but the sculptures that it has are exquisite. The overall simplicity gives it power. And the vitrail are beautiful.
Age: 820 years old and in mostly its original state.
Fame/Iconicity: For cathedral aficianados, it's the supreme example of Gothic architecture. But I don't think it's so well known otherwise - it gets lost in the masses of other, more well-known, cathedrals and churches.
Context: On a raised point in the centre of Chartres, it towers above the town. Closer by, there is enough space around it to enjoy a view of all sides, and the surrounding buildings are suitably old and charming.
Back Story: It's a story of survival and a celebration of pure Gothic. It may not be a story that will entertain the children however.
Originality: It was one of the first grand Gothic cathedrals, but these days it is just one of many. This dilutes its impact.
Wow Factor: It's a huge cathedral and it looks damn impressive, but many might shrug it off as just another cathedral. It's one that takes time to know, and one of the most rewarding cathedrals out there.

Gothic cathedrals are amazing and I have several on my list: the Notre-Dame, Amiens, Cologne, and Chartres. I could easily add many more. We are spoiled to live in a world that we can say "just another Gothic cathedral". But it's true that the sheer number of these cathedrals makes each individual one a little less special, a little less unique. Chartres Cathedral is brilliant, it is a clear work of genius. It may be one of the finest, perhaps even the finest, cathedral out there. But to be a World Wonder takes something a little more unusual, it takes something that truly stands out. For the expert, Chartres Cathedral might offer something special; for the layman, Chartres Cathedral isn't as distinctive as something like the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu. Nonetheless, it's clearly a masterpiece and I rate it highly, a bit below the one-of-a-kind (and likewise book-in-stone-form) Borobudur, but definitely higher than the Houses of Parliament.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. The Eiffel Tower
6. The Millau Viaduct
7. Angkor Wat

Other Wonders
Sydney Opera House


Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Nazca Lines
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Did you chartre a flight to get there?

    1. Have you got a serious point to make or is this just idle chartre?

  2. I am a huge fan of Gothic architecture (in all its forms - medieval, 19th century neo-gothic and 20th century neo-gothic - but especially medieval). I have never been to Chartres but it is my ambition to one day.

    "The unnamed master mason - the architect in other words - would not have used standardised measurements - there weren't any, not really."

    I don't know how Chartres cathedral itself was built, but generally medieval cathedral architects did use standard measurements: they had a stick about a metre long which was subdivided (with notches) into lengths based on the forearm, the hand and the thumb if I recall correctly. They also had a length of knotted rope based on these same measurements. Although I'm afraid I don't know more than that and how these simple tools translated into building these vast monuments. Also they used the golden ratio for proportions (for example length of nave vs length of transept).

    "Look closely at the clean-up stonework, and you can see that the individual bricks are just painted on! It's not mortar, it's painted lines!"

    I find that puzzling too, given that nowadays restauration work has to abide by very strict principles.

    "The cathedral we see now, against all odds, is essentially the same one seen by medieval eyes."

    Almost, but the statues on the western façade would have been painted in rich colours which have since faded away (although as you point out there are still traces of paint elsewhere in the cathedral). Apparently every so often coloured lights are projected onto the façade in such a way that they illuminate it so that it looks how it would have done when it was painted (sort of). I have to say it looks both pretty and garish, if you look it up on Google images.

    1. I can always rely on you for some proof-reading!

      As I understood it, the measurement systems were particular to the project/architect, rather than a universal system throughout Europe. But this may have been a misreading on my part - I need to check up on it. Golden ratio - yes, I should have included this.

      As per the painted lines for the restoration - I meant to ask Malcolm Miller about it on the day, but he got commandeered into appearing in photos and signing books. Maybe I should email him. It's possible that was how it was originally, although it seems very strange. But it seems stranger than a careful restoration should do this otherwise.

      I think the light projection is an annual thing, and the projections change every year. The guy we stayed with had, by chance, made a DVD slideshow with several years of the different light shows. Sometimes they roughly recreate how it might have looked, but often it's just abstract or other designs. I thought it looked pretty spectacular.


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