Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, begun 1134, rebuilt 1194

The Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres is a building with a complicated history.  It was begun in 1134, destroyed by fire in 1194, and then rebuilt.   What remained after the fire were the lower parts of the west towers and the west portal.

As can be seen here, it dominates the town of Chartres.  This building is contemporary with the Romanesque churches at Conques and Toulouse.  Like the Romanesque pilgrim churches, it also contained a relic — the garment of the Virgin Mary.  During this period, we see a shift in emphasis to the mother of the church — the “cult of the Virgin.”  There is a belief that if one prays to the Virgin, she will intercede on your behalf.

What features are distinctly Gothic?  Notice the use of the pointed arch and flying buttress.  We will see soaring heights and the exploitation of mysterious and spiritual light filtering through stained and leaded glass windows.

The façade is a strong, solid wall, but the rose window has grown and other windows have moved to the center.  Also the front buttresses are not as prominent.  Notice the asymmetry of the façade.  The north tower was begun in 1134 and completed to the base of the spire.  The south tower foundation was laid in 1145, and the spire was completed in 1170.  In 1194, the church, which was wood, was destroyed by fire.  Only the front facade and the crypt with Mary’s relic survived.   It had to be rebuilt.  In 1220, the church was rededicated.  Then, in 1507, the north spire was completed.  Within this one church, it's easy to see the change in the Gothic style.  Chartres is often used to study the progression of the Gothic style from the Early Gothic to the Late Gothic period.

Royal Portal, West Façade, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, ca. 1145-1155 Detail of the Jamb Figures, Royal Portal, west facade, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, ca. 1145-1155

This portal on the west facade survives as an example of Early Gothic sculpture.  It is also called the royal portal because the jamb sculptures depict Old Testament kings, queens, patriarchs, and prophets.  We again see the idea of the New Testament being supported by the Old Testament. Although the carving might seem Romanesque, these are free standing, columnar figures — not relief sculpture.  On the right is a detail of the jamb sculpture that embellishes the Royal Portal.  Notice the static, columnar quality.

On the left tympanum is the Ascension. 
In the tympanum of the center portal, Christ appears in heaven in mandorla.  He is surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists.  The lintel contains the 12 apostles, and the archivolts contain 24 elders. 
On the tympanum on the right is the Virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ Child, flanked by two angels.  The emphasis on Mary is consistent with the fact that the church is dedicated to her.  As indicated above, it was during this period that Mary gained the power to intercede on behalf of the faithful at the Last Judgment.  Above her in the archivolts are personifications of the Liberal Arts — grammar, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, etc. 


Porch of the Confessors, South Transept, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, 1220-1230 Detail of the Jamb Figures, Royal Portal, west facade, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, ca. 1145-1155

Note the sculpture of the Royal Portal was done around 1150.  Less than one hundred years later, in period of 1220 to 1230, we begin to see renewed interest in naturalism in the sculpture of Chartres.  For example, compare the figures from the Porch of the Confessors on the South Transept with the jamb figures from the Royal Portal.  The later sculptures are not so strongly vertical, even though they still function as jamb statues.  We see some turning of the body and some gesture.  The draperies are not as stiff.  There is even some facial expression, and they seem more like portraits than the earlier examples.

Saint Theodore, Porch of the Martyrs, South Transept,  Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, ca. 1230

Similar points can be made for St. Theodore (shown here on the far left).  He was also sculpted later and is more naturalistic.  He was a Roman soldier who was converted to Christianity and became a saint.   Here, he is interpreted as a Christian knight — the sculpture has accomplished a remarkable recreation of the chain mail of the Gothic crusaders.  Thus, within the period of the Gothic style, see a progression towards naturalism in the conception of architectural sculpture.  The full revival of sculptural naturalism will return in the Florentine Renaissance. 

Interior, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, 1194-1220

This is the interior of Chartres Cathedral.  The architectural vocabulary that you should know and use to describe this space includes:

Notice the stained glass in the clerestory windows and the choir.  These windows are meant to be seen from the inside and are not that interesting from outside.  The term "stained" means that they are painted windows — not just colored glass.  These windows shed colored light into the interior.  Also notice the shift from round arches of the Romanesque period to pointed arches which can cover irregular spaces.

 Virgin and Child and Angels, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, ca. 1170


 Here, in this example, we see Mary as the Queen of Heaven with the Christ Child and angels.  The scene is constructed from colored glass sheets created as follows:

When installed in the architecture, the stained glass windows produce filtered light.  Also as the light moves during the course of the day, it appears to dematerialize the solid masonry of the building.  This colored and filtered light creates a mystical experience.

Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France, ca. 1220

Finally, we take note of the impressive rose window in Chartres.  In the center is the Virgin enthroned with the Christ child.

Not seen here are the lancet windows below the rose window.  The center lancet is St. Anne (Mary’s Mother).  There are also four Old Testament prophets.  Thus, we again see the idea of the Old Testament supporting the New Testament.  In other cases, the glass is used to portraying biblical stories.