It is a chilly November morning, and the skies hang heavy and low with clouds. The weather is typical for this time of year in Northern France, but it has not deterred me from making a mini pilgrimage an hour southwest of Paris to the tiny town of Chartres.
As I step out of the train station, the fabled cathedral looms in the distance, its mismatched spires shrouded in mist like two great mountain peaks towering over the town.
Since the 4th century, there has been a church on this site, but the current cathedral is the fifth to be constructed after the previous structures burned down at various times in history. The present church was built between 1194 and 1250 and is considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture due to the remarkably short window of time it took to complete it. Whereas most cathedrals took centuries to erect, Notre Dame de Chartres was finished in a little over fifty years.
Although fire destroyed the former churches, this cathedral narrowly escaped destruction by Allied bombers during World War II. According to Wikipedia:
All the glass from the cathedral was removed in 1939 just before the Germans invaded France, and it was cleaned after the War and re-leaded before replacing.
While the city suffered heavy damage by bombing in the course of World War II, the cathedral was spared by an American Army officer who challenged the order to destroy it.
Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. questioned the strategy of destroying the cathedral and volunteered to go behind enemy lines to find out whether the German Army was occupying the cathedral and using it as an observation post. With a single enlisted soldier to assist, Griffith proceeded to the cathedral and confirmed that the Germans were not using it. After he returned from his reconnaissance, he reported that the cathedral was clear of enemy troops. The order to destroy the cathedral was withdrawn, and the Allies later liberated the area. Griffith was killed in action on 16 August 1944, in the town of Lèves, near Chartres.
A short walk later, and I’m standing in front of the church craning my neck up.
Those towers are 371 ft. and 344 ft., respectively. The bell towers of Notre Dame in Paris (226 ft.) are nothing compared to this giant of a cathedral, and boy, did I feel it as I climbed the spiral staircase inside. I was the only soul in the steeple that day, which was nice when I wanted to catch my breath and chart my progress by peering out the small windows along the way.
When I reached the top, I was slightly terrified to look over the edge. The stone balustrade only came up to my waist, and it would have been all too easy to pitch over the wall in a moment of vertigo. On top of that, it was bitterly cold, and I was afraid my numb fingers were going to drop my umbrella or camera. I slowly made my way around the narrow walkway, hoping that the car-sized bells behind me wouldn’t suddenly ring to life and send me plummeting to my death.
In the distance, I could see the train station, while all around me, the chimeras crawled along the tower, regarding me, a solitary intruder into their cold, stony domain.
As I descended the spiral staircase (much easier than going up!), I poked my head into a few of the open chambers along the way, but they were empty.
Once I was back inside the church, I sat in the dark and prayed for a while before the restoration crews started banging away on their scaffolding which covered the entire transept. I walked around slowly, consulting my Rick Steves book while I pondered the original stained glass windows and the immense choir screen full of statues depicting the life of Mary and the Passion of Christ.
In a quiet corner behind the choir, there is a chapel with the Sancta Camisa— the holy tunic– allegedly worn by the Virgin Mary during Jesus’ nativity. It was the center of pilgrimages to Chartres during the Medieval period, though whether the tunic actually belonged to Mary, much less that she was wearing it on the first Christmas Eve, I’m not entirely sure.
Before leaving the church, I stopped to admire the statue of Our Lady of the Pillar, where this elderly lady was praying. The statue has been venerated since medieval times by pregnant women who seek the intercession of the Blessed Mother for their unborn children.
And finally, before I headed back to Paris, I stopped at the nearby center for the history and heritage of stained glass windows, where I learned how to read medieval church windows. You normally start at the bottom and work your way from left to right up to the top. Here are a couple of famous Bible stories (click for a larger image you can zoom) and some closeups of the life of Joseph.
Here, I have arranged the pictures as if reassembling the window, so scroll down and work your way up to the top to “read” the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat the way a medieval peasant would!
I was lucky that I was alone in the church at this time of year, but should you happen to visit Paris, a day trip to Chartres would be well worth your time. I’d love to hear your impressions of the cathedral as well!