Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Sunday, June 12, 2011

I didn't want to get up this morning. I could blame my comfy bed or the knowledge that this was our last day of touring.

Still, we all got up early. I sat in the modern parklet across from our hotel surrounded by rose bushes and watched as the bus was loaded. Rue de la République with its statue of Jeanne d'Arc in the distance was deserted. Church bells were ringing, and I imagined tongues of blinding sunlight blessing us on this Pentecost Sunday.

Touring with this group had become fairly routine. We piled onto the bus and sorted ourselves. While nothing was assigned, we'd each by now gravitated by habit to certain sections of the bus. Hoping to stretch out my weary legs, I inadvertently rocked some worlds by sitting in the last row today. Damn me for being unpredictable; I can still feel the glares of those whose seats I usurped! Dealing with the wrathful gazes of those I displaced was the only tense moment I experienced this entire week so really, I can't complain. Still feel like I have holes bored into my head, though...  Mea culpa.

Photo by Sherill Roberts
We rolled into Chartres and immediately found the public restrooms. (Like I said, we had established tour routines). The four gentlemen on our tour were able to get their business attended to quickly, but we ladies did our usual queuing. Once that was settled, we posed for a series of group photos. Then we scattered to explore, poke our heads into the Office de Tourisme de Chartres at Place de la Cathédral, trip around some souvenir shops and eat lunch. I ate with some companions at a brasserie rather improbably named for La Reine de Saba. Sheba is already depicted on the north entrance of the Cathedral, but I suppose naming a restaurant after her here is an extra honor.

Brasserie La Reine de Saba had a model of the Hindenburg hanging from its ceiling. There was surely a story behind this, but I never did find out what it was. Took a picture of it, though, because Hindenburg.

Also I have a thing for hydrangeas, which were everywhere outside the Office de Tourisme, so I got even more distracted taking pictures. 

Enough randomness. Isn't there an architectural wonder we're supposed to be appreciating? Get a clue from the folks on this mural:

What are they looking at? Oh, right. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres.

Photo by Wendy Mehary

This is the west side and the Royal Portal, through which most people enter the cathedral. When I was here 20 years ago, this entire plaza was torn up for an archaeological dig. Below it are remains of a large Roman public building dating to the 1st century AD.

I don't think you can escape taking a photo of scaffolding when visiting Europe, which is a minor annoyance in the larger scheme of things since it's proof positive of the on-going preservation of architectural witnesses to history. And what history here! A school was established at Chartres in 990 that cemented the city's reputation as one of Europe’s leading scholastic institutions in the High Middle Ages. Chartres has also been a major Marian pilgrimage destination and has housed a cloak/tunic/veil belonging to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sancta Camisia) since 876 (photo of that a bit further down).

Source: Wikipedia Commons
I'm including the above photo from Wikipedia Commons to show the details of the Portail Royale entrance that we didn't get to see. Constructed in the mid 12th century, it reflects the period's transition from Romanesque to Gothic styles. I missed seeing my favorites from this entrance, the seven Liberal Arts (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy) personified by women. The subjects that made up the medieval Liberal Arts were considered to be expressions of the soul, which demanded harmonious development. The goal in medieval education was less about compartmentalized expertise than about having a "whole" understanding of existence, about establishing a gestalt or big picture understanding comprised of various but related disciplines. And THAT right there is the crux of why I am drawn to the medieval era, for it so mirrors my personal philosophy of learning. For a further explanation of the significance of the liberal arts: LINK.

While we ate lunch and pondered the significance of the Hindenburg and the Queen of Sheba, the view out the restaurant window beckoned. Behold, the South transept of Chartres Cathedral, with its many sculptural representations of martyrs and apostles, Last Judgement, and the legends of Saint Martin and Saint Nicolas in the three portals.

Photo by John Phillips

Above are the south Rose and lancet windows portraying the Glorification of Christ. 

The bells began pealing as mid-day Mass ended. Just like last night in Orléans, children streamed out of the church in their Confirmation robes. Tourists were not permitted in the church during Mass, hence the opportunity for a leisurely lunch and poking around. There was plenty to admire while we waited.

Like, say, this fierce little dude. I'd not advise messing with him, even if he does have only one leg and arm.

Photo by Nicole Benkert
This lovely lady was categorized as a "miscellaneous sculpture" on the exterior of the Vendôme Chapel, a Lady chapel on the south aisle of the nave that was constructed in the early 1500's. Louis de Bourbon, Count of Vendôme, promised the Virgin that he would sponsor a chapel in her honor at Chartres if he was released from capture. Gotta love how folks bargain with the divine, then as now. Anyway, I am enchanted with this lady's headdress and crespines. This is one of my favorite statues, even if it is from a later medieval period.

Le bon Dieu est dans le détail! Below is the Gallery of Kings and a gable between the mismatched spires of the western front, above the great west Rose window of the Last Judgment and the Portail Royale. The Gallery of Kings is meant to suggest continuity between the biblical Kings of Judah and the Kings of France. The gable was rebuilt in the 14th century, but most of the statues date from the early 13th century.

Part of the charms of Chartres are its mismatched spires. In the foreground below left is Le Clocher Vieux, the southwest tower. It is a 349 foot Romanesque styled tower which was constructed circa 1145–65.
Photo by John Phillips
Eleanor would have seen this tower in its earliest stages of construction, if she visited Chartres with Louis during their marriage. There are no bells remaining in le Clocher Vieux though at one time there were three.

To the right is the north-west steeple, Le Clocher Neuf, aka Tour Nord, Tour Jehan de Beauce,. It was constructed in Flamboyant Gothic style by architect and mason Jean Texier (Jehan de Beauce). It progressively narrows to a crown of pinnacles and gables. Completely built of stone and yet I can't help but think of lace. The spire was built in 1507-13 after a wooden one burned, then raised by 4 feet in 1690. It was topped by a cross in 1854 and a sun weather vane symbolizing Jesus as Light of the World. A spiral staircase behind the cathedral bookshop leads to a tower viewing platform, but the bookshop was crowded enough without me risking my luck on a narrow spiral staircase!

I'd have liked to have seen the 7 tower bells, though, which are named Mary, Joseph, The Bell, Anne, Elizabeth, Piat, and Fulbert (who established the aforementioned school at Chartres).

Some stone tracery caught my eye and I tried to imagine it brightly painted as it would have been back in its day. We think of the medieval world in terms of stone and grayness but it was truly a colorful time. Even relatively monochromatic as it is today, Chartres was a feast for the eyes with such amazing architectural details like this iron rose.

I was excited to find this memorial to Jean de Salisbury, a cleric whom Eleanor certainly knew! As
Photo by Sherill Roberts
his name indicates, John was born near Salisbury England but traveled to Paris in his youth to study arts and philosophy under Peter Abelard (among others). Eventually taking vows, John worked as a diplomat and later zealously fought for the rights of the Church alongside Thomas à Becket (thereby incurring Henry's wrath). John tried to reconcile Henry and Becket, but we all know how that turned out. John was one of the witnesses to Becket's murder at Canterbury Cathedral. He became Bishop of Chartres six years later, a position he held for four years until his death in 1180. He is considered one of the most cultured scholars of his time.

Another of my favorite authors of medieval fiction, Sharan Newman, features a young John of Salisbury in her Catherine LeVendeur series.

Finally, time to go inside!

Photo by John Phillips
Below can be seen portions of the famous Chartres pavement labyrinth, which stretches the width of the nave between the 3rd and 4th bays. Traditionally the chairs are removed to allow it to be walked on midsummer day June 21st (Litha in the Saxon tradition), and also on Fridays. No contemporary documentation of its construction exists but historians have postulated that its installation dates to sometime between 1200 and 1240. There are all sorts of legends about this labyrinth, most of which are debunked on this FAQ about all things labyrinthine: LINK.

Photo by John Phillips

Photo by Wendy Mehary

Here is the Sancta Camisia I mentioned earlier.

Photo by Tammie Maloney

Sharon Kay Penman wrote a scene in which a grubby-handed 5 year old Stephen of Blois, circa 1101, reached out to touch the Camisia at the beginning of When Christ and His Saints Slept. For shame, King Stephen!

Did Eleanor visit Chartres? Like Orléans, it fell within Louis' desmesnes. We know that the entire town except for the Cathedral was burned to the ground in a fire in 1134, when Eleanor was only ten years old.  In 1137, Abbot Suger, Bishop Geoffrey of Chartres, and Peter the Venerable accompanied a young Louis to meet his bride-to-be, Eleanor, in her lands. Louis returned to Paris with Abbot Suger to take the throne upon learning of his father's sudden death, and Eleanor followed shortly thereafter accompanied by Bishop Geoffrey. Given the prominence of the cult of Marian devotion that Chartres epitomized, and Eleanor's known Marian devotion later in life, I would think it strange if Eleanor didn't at the very least pay a visit to the Cathedral with its Bishop on her way to becoming Louis' consort and mother of his someday heirs. The last bit didn't turn out so well, but we can't blame Chartres for that.

The dark interior of Chartres envelopes the visitor first, and then one is drawn forward by the light from the stained glass windows and prayer candles.

Photo by Tammie Maloney

Photo by Nicole Benkert

Photo by John Phillips
Our guide for this tour was renowned Chartres expert Malcolm Miller, who has been giving tours here for more than fifty years. His expertise and irascible personality are legendary and I found his lecture spellbinding. Miller describes the cathedral as an inexhaustible library of information and says he is still learning its secrets.

If you look on YouTube, you can find some clips of Mr. Miller giving tours and explaining the mechanics of buttressing. He's a good deal older now and so wasn't quite this animated on our visit, but still incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about his subject.

Due to restoration, the famous west Rose was covered by a canvas, so Mr. Miller did not dwell on it but discussed other famous windows and aspects of the cathedral in detail. We were so lucky to have him as a guide.

Nearly 80% of the church has been hidden beneath centuries of grime but a major cleaning and stained glass window treatment program has been on-going since 1972, currently led by Patrice Calvel, architect-in-chief of the Historical Monuments in France. This campaign uncovered polychrome heraldic decorations painted on the five choir keystones, and the colors have been reproduced on each.

Scholar Michel Pastoureau has written that the decorations date to 1257-1261 and belong to Louis IX (aka Saint Louis), Alfonso X King of Castile, Hugh IV Duke of Burgundy, Charles Count of Anjou & Maine, and Henry III Duke of Brabant. I'm guessing the one I photographed above belonged to Louis IX, Eleanor's great-grandson.

To date, of the 175 windows in Nôtre-Dame de Chartres, only 20% have been restored. More info about the restoration of Chartres can be found here: LINK. And if you'd like to contribute to restoration of the lancets below the south Rose window, the American Friends of Chartres will take your money: LINK. Each of the four bays of the transept clerestory has two lancet windows and above those is a smaller Rose window. Lots of work to be done!

We spent some time talking about the north clerestory choir windows, which were amazing in their clarity and bright after restoration. Identifying from left to right, 5 of the 7 windows, which depict the stories of David, Ezekiel, and cherubim; Aaron and the Angel; Annunciation and Visitation of Mary; Moses with burning bush; Daniel, Jeremiah and cherubim.

Photo by John Phillips

To the left are the triforium and clerestory windows behind the altar in the restored part of the ambulatory. Identifying the stained glass windows from left: Virgin and Child, Jesus seated between candlesticks in the Rose above, two groups of pilgrims, King Ferdinand of Castile in the second Rose, and 20th century grissaille relacements. Grissaile designs are almost exclusively of uncolored glass in which the designs are created by either black leads alone or by adding paint and silver stain to the windows.

There are more than 170 Chartres windows covering 21,000 square feet, most of which are original and have survived intact. During World War II, all of the stained glass was removed and safely stored for the duration.

Unfortunately for our group's focus, a window portraying the story of Thomas à Becket in the lower ambulatory was blocked by reconstruction canvas.  You can read about the Becket window HERE.

Photo by Nicole Benkert
This is the famous Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière, commonly known as the Blue Virgin window, circa 1150. I'd like to think Eleanor once gazed upon this window. It is (arguably) the single most beautiful stained glass window ever made, and the blues have reportedly never been exactly reproduced. The face of the Virgin is a modern replacement, but the rest of this window is original to 1150.

In his 1904 book Mont St. Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams wrote thusly about Chartres:
Other churches have glass,--quantities of it, and very fine,--but we have been trying to catch a glimpse of the glory which stands behind the glass of Chartres, and gives it quality and feeling of its own. One becomes, sometimes, a little incoherent in talking about it; one is ashamed to be as extravagant as one wants to be; one has no business to labour painfully to explain and prove to one's self what is as clear as the sun in the sky; one loses temper in reasoning about what can only be felt, and what ought to be felt instantly, as it was in the twelfth century....
The windows speak for themselves, if only we can be still long enough to listen to their stories.

Windows framed by a fragile-seeming skeleton, the Cathedral invites wandering and wondering.

Photos by John Phillips


We wandered out to look at the North porch, which was constructed mostly between 1200 and 1225.

Photo by John Phillips

It has been beautifully restored. Now just imagine how beautiful it would have been with its polychrome painting! This is one of the lateral doors, and it features Judith (middle figure on left) and our friend Sheba (torso not seen to the right).

Here is John the Baptist with the Agnus Dei. You can see a hint of residual paint in his halo, and on the dragon who's busy nipping at his feet.

As we came back in to say our farewells to Chartres, I was struck by how worn and bowed the paving stones were. Nearly a thousand years of soul-weary pilgrim feet have passed this way.

A few last images of Chartres:

Photo by John Phillips

Photo by John Phillips

Photo by John Phillips


We took our final bus ride to Paris, and checked back into Trianon Rive Gauche. I only had to lug my luggage up one flight of stairs to my 7th floor aerie, but it was definitely heavier than it was a week ago!

We headed out to our last group dinner. I was struck by how nice it is of the Parisians to try to save us from the dangers of gaucheness.

Kidding, I'm kidding.

Our farewell dinner was filled with memories, bittersweet farewells, and promises to keep in touch and reunite. I headed back to my room since I had an early departure the next morning. One long flight home later on June 13th, and I was happily greeted by my favorite people at the Pittsburgh airport: my husband and children.

I've seen countless treasures on this trip but this is my favorite photo, blurry though it may be. For this is what love looks like.