The first French cathedral I ever saw was Chartres; did it gave me a taste for more, or did it spoil me for all the rest? Perhaps both. There were four of us in the car heading south down the Route Nationale, the N154, from Dreux that early January day in 1984, fine and not too cold. A female nursing tutor, who happened to be several months’ pregnant; a young curate; his 75-year old housekeeper; and myself. Only one of us had driven in France before, on the ‘wrong’ side of the road for people from the UK, and only two of us spoke French, neither couramment. We’d crossed the Channel on a lunchtime sailing from Dover to Calais the previous day, then driven for three hours down the N1 to enjoy the hospitality of the Benedictine nuns at le Bec Hellouin, and now we were starting on our long drive to the south. Some optimist entrusted me with route planning, and so we were heading for Chartres. I can still recall the moment when we crested a rise, and there was a spike on the horizon ahead. A little nearer and the spike resolved itself into two spires; as we neared the little city, I realised that the spires are not identical. It was shortly before noon as we parked close to the south side of the cathedral (you could in those days) and we hastened for the western entrance, in case it was one of those cathedrals that shut for lunch at noon (it doesn’t).

The west entrance is the best place to begin at Chartres, for the great Gothic cathedral has an important western portal in the Romanesque style, a reminder that the present cathedral is at least the fifth on the site. A fire in 1134 had devastated the western part of the 11th century cathedral, which was largely inspired by the great scholar-bishop Fulbert (we sing his hymns today). Soon after the fire, a great popular building campaign began, with the construction of the northwest tower we see today (its present spire was built by Jean Texier, after its predecessor had been struck by lightning in 1506) and a decade later the southwest tower was begun. Soon the façade was built between them, the Portail Royal, whose sculpture marks the transition from Romanesque to Gothic, with figures that seem to come from the great age of streamlining, the 1930s.. Fine sculpture is also found on the north and south portals.

Each of the three western doorways is topped by striking Romanesque sculpture. 

On the north side, Christ ascends to Heaven, flanked by Zodiac signs and the Labours of the Months; in the centre, Christ in Glory is shown as judge, surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists and with the Apostles beneath His feet. To the south is the Portail de la Vierge, with the Virgin and Child marking the coming of Christ. Below is a Nativity scene, where a recumbent Virgin looks upwards to her child, lying in swaddling clothes on an altar, prefiguring His destiny.

When you pass through the Portail Royal into the nave, you move into another world, from Romanesque to Gothic, as well as from light into darkness (we’ll come to that presently). Chartres cathedral was formed by fires. On June 10th 1194 an immense conflagration destroyed nearly all the building, save the very western part – the Portail Royal and its two flanking towers. The ruins smouldered for three days, then the clergy who had been trapped in the crypt with the great relic of Chartres, the chemise of the Virgin Mary, emerged to great rejoicing, bearing the relic. The rebuilding of the cathedral began immediately, it gripped the population. The new building was to be both beautiful and strong, with a stone framework held together with the help of flying buttresses. This Gothic framework was designed to support huge windows which even today retain most of their original 800-year old stained glass. The local population participated enthusiastically in the building campaign, pilgrims harnessed themselves to the wagons bringing the stone from the quarries. People seeking donations (quêteurs) went round France with holy relics, asking for contributions – and to England as well. England was at war with France, but that made no difference – the Catholic Church is universal – they were welcomed by King Richard the Lionheart (who was to die in 1199 besieging a castle in the Dordogne). King Canute had similarly contributed generously to Fulbert’s campaign in 1020. 

The immense rebuild was achieved in less than 30 years, creating the highest cathedral then in existence – Notre Dame in Paris had a nave 108 feet high, Chartres’ nave was to be 120 feet, a height later to be exceeded successively at Reims (125 ft.), Amiens (139 ft.) and finally at Beauvais (157 ft.). We know that some of the vaults were completed in 1220 and choir stalls were in place in 1221; the great building was consecrated on October 24th 1260 as the Cathedral church of the Assumption of Our Lady of Chartres.

The glazing was complete by then, with over 120 large windows, full of rich colours which glow vividly with light behind them, contrasting with the darkness inside the building. They contain around 4000 figures – from the Old and New Testaments as well saints and donors. After seeing them, Rudyard Kipling wrote to Rider Haggard: “Colour, old man, is what, au fond, clinches a creed. Colour and the light of God behind it.” A little of the glass, like the West window, with the Last Judgement as a theme and centred on Christ the Judge, predates the fire of 1194, but most of it is early 13th century. Among the most striking are the two great rose windows in the transepts. The Northern Rose is centred on the Virgin and Child, surrounded by doves and angels; the five figures below are: the priest-king Melchisidech, David, Saint Anne carrying the young Virgin Mary, Solomon and Aaron. The male figures below are four antagonists: Nebuchadnezzar, Saul (committing suicide), Jeroboam and the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The Southern Rose has the Risen Christ, and a chorus from Revelation; below are lancets with the Four Evangelists. 

As a building dedicated in honour of the Virgin Mary, it is no surprise that the cathedral contains many representations of her (people who have counted say 175).

The oldest of these is Notre-Dame-de la belle Verrière in the first window of the ambulatory on the south side of the choir, a miraculous survivor of the fire of 1194, where the serene Virgin supports her Son on her lap. On the other side of the choir is Notre Dame du Pilier, traditionally a Black Virgin, but recently ‘cleaned’ (ND May 2017). 

You can spend days in Chartres, not absorbing more than a fraction of its wonder, and will understand why many regard Chartres as the greatest cathedral ever built. Eight hundred years ago, people saw it as a foretaste of the eternal city. On entering it for the first time, Napoleon Bonaparte remarked “Un athée serait mal à l’aise ici”, usually paraphrased to ‘Chartres is no place for an atheist’. Perhaps the last word on Chartres should be left to Émile Mâle, the great French historian of mediaeval art: “Il n’y a rien qui puisse se comparer à Chartres”.