May 13, 2015
While the story of Fatima is well-known, that of Chartres still needs to be told.
In the 1940s, a French monk and a star-gazer made a curious discovery. He observed that in certain cities, the churches dedicated to Our Lady were strategically located in such a way as to outline the constellation Virgo.
Now Virgo is the second largest cluster of stars that form the outline of a woman carrying two sheaves of wheat. Virgo’s brightest star, Spica, is bluish-white, traditionally Our Lady’s colors. In Greek and Roman antiquity, Virgo was sometimes called the virgin goddess. The designated cities are north of Paris, and they are: Amiens, Rouen, Bayeux, Evreux, Chartres, Paris, and Reims. All have churches or cathedrals dedicated to Our Lady. These monuments tower over people’s homes like mighty guardians, keeping alive the invincible faith of France’s history.
Medieval builders of these Marian churches sacralized the countryside, for their intent was to bring heaven to earth. To echo St. Augustine, we live in two overlapping cities: the City of God and the City of Man, just as Jesus did. The two cities must speak with each another.
The Attraction and Power of Chartres
Visitors are quite unprepared for the beauty of Chartres in an age that teaches ugliness to our children and glorifies it for the rest of us. Chartres’s loveliness thrills the senses and sends chills up the spine. In this period of faith, the arts flowered for God’s sake.
This architectural marvel has stood for 1,000 years. Since the twelfth century, pilgrims have traveled there for different reasons. Jewish and Catholic philosophers visited the cathedral school where the teachings of Plato were taught. By the twelfth century, the cathedral had become a major pilgrimage site. The Chartres of today is the Chartres of the twelfth century.
Today, millions visit Chartres to admire the cathedral’s Gothic beauty, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, rose windows, flying buttresses, Labyrinth, and of course, its eerie gargoyles. Believers and secularist go to Chartres to be enveloped by its silent beauty and by a sacred, if not divine, presence abiding there. They sit, heads bowed while others meander, deep into their own thoughts. It’s easy to lose track of time because Chartres’s atmosphere is one of timelessness. All are searching, but searching for what? Who can fathom what lies in the recesses of the heart? Visitors stay for hours at a time. Year after year, they return. Chartres is designed to quiet the mind and the heart, and offer respite from a noisy world.
The Construction of Chartres
Begun in the eleventh century, Chartres took a few hundred years to build. In 1194, the church and much of the city was destroyed by fire. When the veil believed to be the veil worn by Mary at the Nativity was lifted intact out of the rubble, the people’s resolve to restore the cathedral was further strengthened.
People came from far and wide, all classes of people, united in heart and mind. The whole community helped to build the cathedral. There are no signatures on the stained glass or on the sculptures, or anywhere. Orson Welles wrote about Chartres in a 1974 film essay, F for Fake: “And this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of men, perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres.” To the medieval soul, building a church dedicated to the Mother of God who interceded for them was the greatest reward one could receive.
How did the architects construct the great walls of colored glass? These cathedrals were taller than the ancient pyramids, larger than the Statue of Liberty and as heavy as the Empire State Building. Their engineering secrets remain a medieval mystery. A compass sufficed as their sole instrument of measure. Masters of the compass had a working blueprint which they shared with a few masons. They had no rulers, no units of length, only the proportions of the human body, an A B A form.
The Human Body, the A B A Form as Cruciform
The church building is the Domus Dei, the House of God, where the Body of Christ assembles for worship. The shape of the traditional church building is that of the human body, the form of a crucifix, i.e., cruciform. The cruciform in churches conveys rich symbolism. The head of the body is the apse, the body of the church is the nave, and the arms, the transept. This human image is completed in the image of Christ who is outstretched on the wood of the cross in expectation of the resurrection. The human body became the basis of the measurement of Chartres. Its layout followed the principle of the body, A B A.
The building of Chartres, which utilized theologians, master stonecutters, decorators and designers, was a costly enterprise. Patrons and royal families, artisans, merchants, and the guilds donated funds to finance the stained glass and rose windows. In 1194, enthusiasm ran high, and the community stood to gain economically as well.
Medieval cathedrals like Chartres dominated the lives of the people. They were magnets for outsiders as well as symbols for the people. Cathedrals were town buildings where vital social and economic, religious, and academic functions were carried out. Around the cathedral were sold textiles, images and relics, fuel, vegetables, meats, and fish. Baptisms, sacraments, marriage, burials, and schooling took place there. But especially for the great Marian feasts of the year, Chartres was the central place to celebrate them.
World War II
Neither the French Revolution nor the two world wars could damage Chartres. In 1939, before the Nazis invaded France, every piece of cut glass was painstakingly removed from 176 stained glass windows with their millions of brilliant colors. After World War II, each piece was cleaned and replaced with stronger leading. This intense labor was one of intense love.
“The American Colonel of World War II, Wellborn Barton Griffith, Jr., is best remembered for helping to preserve the cathedral. When it was learned that the Nazi army was about to attack them at Chartres, the Allies planned to shell the cathedral. Griffith questioned the strategy and volunteered to climb the cathedral tower alone, not knowing whether an enemy unit was a step or turn away. After finding the tower unoccupied, he rejoined his forces, reporting that the cathedral was clear. The order to shell the cathedral was withdrawn, and the Allies took the town” (Relative’s letter to Jay Nordlinger, National Review, May 10, 2011). In 1979, Chartres was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Finally . . .
Chartres’ grandeur appeals to the highest aspirations of the human spirit. In Chartres, one does not simply see beauty. One experiences it and is united to it.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell, the comparative religionist who left his Catholic faith, writes of Chartres: “I’m back in the Middle Ages. I’m back in the world that I was brought up in as a child, the Roman Catholic spiritual-image world, and it is magnificent . . . . That cathedral talks to me about the spiritual information of the world. It’s a place for meditation, just walking around, just sitting, just looking at those beautiful things.”
Gothic architecture is nothing without its pervasive light, its luminosity. It is said that Catholic faith is rational and right when, from the inside, one is bathed by the outer light of God’s grace. And “to want to see the stained glass window from the inside is already to believe,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Chartres, a manifestation of God in stone, has been called a library of spirituality and a visual Bible. Chartres celebrates God’s glory, the dignity of men and women, and what they can accomplish together. The dark Middle Ages, ridiculed by sophists, were anything but dark. This age of faith can enlighten today’s Sophisticates through the genius of Chartres.