Chartres Cathedral dominates the town of Chartres, which lies in the Eure-et-Loir region of France. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the quintessential Gothic cathedral and a major site of pilgrimage for Christians.
Chartres has a long and fascinating history, which will be heavily summarised here. The current building was constructed between 1194 and 1250, a swift turnaround by mediaeval standards. In the middle ages it formed the centre of the town’s economic activities, housing the market and taking income from it. Meanwhile, the cathedral attracted further visitors due to its famous relic, a cloak said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary at the birth of Christ (the Sancta Camisa). This guaranteed generations of pilgrims passing through the cathedral doors.
The cathedral has maintained its mediaeval appearance, therefore is awash with gothic detail. It is most recognisable for its overload of flying buttresses, illustrated in the photograph below. The buttresses relieved some of the load from the walls, allowing more windows to be included in the design. Buttresses were relatively new at the time of Chartres’ construction, so the architects made them larger than was actually necessary. Better to be safe than sorry.
Twice in history has the order been given to destroy the cathedral and twice has it been saved by the quick thinking of an individual. The story goes that during the French Revolution, the Revolutionary Committee ordered that the cathedral be blown up. The architect tasked with the job pointed out that the rubble created would take years to clear, thereby staying their hand. During World War II the order was given by the allies to destroy the cathedral in a bombing raid, as it was assumed to be used as a German base. An American soldier, Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith Jr., challenged the order and volunteered to go behind enemy lines to verify whether the Germans had indeed occupied the cathedral. His spying mission was a success and the cathedral was again spared.
Most interesting of all for me is the labyrinth, built into the limestone floor of the cathedral. Once a month the chairs are cleared away so that pilgrims can walk the labyrinth, said to be an aid to meditation. A grass labyrinth has also been created in the Bishop’s garden, for those who visit at the wrong time. The labyrinth, with its mythological connotations, would seem at first to be at odds with the Christian tradition. However, it hints at the symbolism and mysticism at the heart of mediaeval spirituality.