Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres

Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, c.1145 and 1194-c.1220, Chartres (France)


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Chartres Cathedral on Mapping Gothic France

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] We’re in the town of Chartres, about an hour’s train ride from Paris, looking at the great medieval cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] It’s easy to think about this church as a day trip from Paris, but back in the 11th, 12th, 13th centuries, the town of Chartres was a major destination unto itself.

Dr. Zucker: [0:29] It’s important that we understand it within the orbit of Paris, because Gothic as a style developed in the Île-de-France, that is, the area around Paris that was ruled by the king of France.

[0:35] We think now of France as a nation with stable borders, but in the medieval period the king only controlled the area immediately around Paris. It was in this area that the architectural style of Gothic first developed.

Dr. Harris: [0:48] Now, Chartres was a destination for a very particular reason. It had, and still has, the tunic that the Virgin Mary wore — it was believed — when she gave birth to Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] As the Virgin Mary’s importance grew during the medieval period, the importance of this church, and specifically this relic, grew.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] We’re looking at the cathedral today with apartments and cafes around it, but this was once part of a complex of buildings that included a school, a palace for the bishop, a hospital; and in fact, the School of Chartres, an educational institution very much akin to a university, was very important and famous during the Gothic period.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] Many other people associated with the School of Chartres believed that the pursuit of knowledge, learning about the world around us, was a pathway to understanding the divine.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] They were studying the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans, of Aristotle and Plato.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] In fact, we can see the impact of the School of Chartres in some of the sculpture that adorns the west doorway.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] The west facade of Chartres dates to the mid-12th century, and so we see it as an early Gothic facade. That’s obvious when we compare it to a High Gothic 13th century church like Amiens, where the portal is pierced everywhere, and there’s almost no sense of masonry, no sense of the stone. Here, the windows on either side of the doorway are quite small.

Dr. Zucker: [2:10] In fact, the first story of the towers still recalls the Romanesque. The windows are actually rounded, and very little of the wall is given over to openings. The architects were still nervous about supporting the enormous weight that was to be piled above.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] That’s because stone vaulting, the ceiling of these churches, are enormously heavy.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] This is all solid limestone.

Dr. Harris: [2:39] They exert tremendous pressure downward and outward, and so you need these very strong walls and piers to support the weight of that stone vaulting.

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] The facade is fairly simple. From left to right, there are basically three parts: a tower on the left, the central area, and a tower on the right. If we go from bottom to top, we also have a division of three.

Dr. Harris: [2:55] At the very top, we see what’s known as a Kings Gallery, Old Testament royal figures.

[3:01] Below that, a beautiful round rose window. These are very typical of Gothic architecture. This is using something called plate tracery. We have primarily a sense of the stone and then openings within that, as opposed to bar tracery, where we have these thin bars that separate the panes of the stained-glass windows.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] We’ll see that especially in later windows in places like Amiens.

[3:30] Below the rose window are three large lancets. Those vertical windows reflect the portals below them.

Dr. Harris: [3:31] The three portals are covered with sculpture. Anyone walking into this church would read something in the pictures.

[3:41] Let’s talk about the parts of a Gothic portal. At the very top, we see sculptures within the archivolts. The archway that is framed by the archivolts is known as a tympanum.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] Below that, supporting each of the tympana, is a lintel — that is, a crossbeam of stone. Those are supported by small engaged columns, known as colonnettes, that line each side of the three doors. Those are really door jambs. Attached to those are figures which are known, therefore, as jamb figures.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] What’s interesting is that they’re angled inward, and so we’re invited to enter the church.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] This front porch is quite shallow compared to what will happen at, say, Amiens.

Dr. Harris: [4:18] Where the doorways become almost funnels into the church.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] The archivolts protrude outward, creating canopies.

[4:31] Overall, this front is fairly modest compared to what happens in the Gothic. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important and one of the earliest fully conceived sculptural programs.

[4:37] Let’s get close and take a look. When I was in school, the three tympanum were taught to me as follows: The tympanum on the left show[s] the Ascension of Christ. The largest of the three, the tympanum in the middle, show[s] the Second Coming of Christ. The tympanum on the right showed scenes that related to the life of the Virgin Mary.

[0:00] Things have changed.

Dr. Harris: [4:55] We have a new interpretation, and that is that the portal on the left, instead of depicting the Ascension, depicts Christ before he takes on physical form.

Dr. Zucker: [5:06] That is, a Christ out of time.

Dr. Harris: [5:08] Before the Incarnation, before God is made flesh.

[5:12] Below, we see four angels.

Dr. Zucker: [5:18] Probably my favorite part of this is the way that the angels try to reach below the barrier that separates them from the prophets. Some of the prophets don’t seem to have any idea that there’s anything above them, although a few have cocked their head with some interest.

Dr. Harris: [5:30] Well, they’re prophets, they begin to see the future. They begin to understand God’s plan for mankind, but they can’t see it entirely.

Dr. Zucker: [5:36] In order to see that, we have to go to the right tympanum, the tympanum devoted to the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Harris: [5:41] Who makes possible God taking on physical form and entering the world so that we can be saved.

Dr. Zucker: [5:47] Let’s start with the lintel. We can make out a winged figure. This is the Archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will bear Christ.

Dr. Harris: [6:00] Next to this we see a scene known as the Visitation, where Mary is visited by her cousin Elizabeth. Mary is pregnant with the Christ Child and her cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant with St. John the Baptist.

Dr. Zucker: [6:08] Then the most important scene in the lintel, the center. Here we see Mary in the manger having just given birth to the Christ Child, who’s swaddled just above her.

Dr. Harris: [6:21] Just to the right, a scene of the Adoration of the three shepherds who’ve come to honor the Christ child.

Dr. Zucker: [6:23] Above this, we see the presentation of Christ in the temple.

Dr. Harris: [6:26] Mary and Joseph have brought the Christ Child to the temple.

Dr. Zucker: [6:34] Then above that, in the tympanum, we see the Virgin Mary enthroned, with the Christ Child on her lap, with angels on either side. This represents the Throne of Wisdom.

Dr. Harris: [6:39] When Christ is shown seated on Mary’s lap, Mary’s body is understood as the Throne of Wisdom. Christ is understood as the personification of wisdom.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Mary, in turn, is understood as that throne, but also as the Church itself.

Dr. Harris: [6:56] Both Mary and Christ are shown frontally, very symmetrically. Mary is enthroned here as the Queen of Heaven. On the left, we have an image of Christ before the Incarnation, before taking human form.

[7:09] On the right, we have the moment when Christ enters the world in order to save it.

[7:20] Then in the center we have the Second Coming of Christ, when the dead rise from their graves and all of mankind is judged.

Dr. Zucker: [7:23] What’s important though is that that is the end of time, so a period before time, a period of human time, and a period at the end of time.

Dr. Harris: [7:31] Christ is surrounded by symbols of the Four Evangelists.

Dr. Zucker: [7:35] The four writers of the Gospels, and is shown in the center larger than any other figure. This is called hieratic scale, emphasizing his relative importance. He’s shown seated on the throne of heaven, surrounded by a mandorla.

Dr. Harris: [7:49] [A] large, full-bodied halo. Below him we see 12 figures. These are the 12 apostles.

[7:55] Now, the jamb figures are especially beautiful here at Chartres. These represent Old Testament prophets and kings and queens, and by association, the kings and queens of France.

Dr. Zucker: [8:07] The jambs of the westwork are my favorite figures at Chartres. They’re so long and attenuated. They’re so solemn and so elegant.

Dr. Harris: [8:15] You’ll notice that each figure is attached to a column and each figure resembles a column. There’s a interdependence between the architecture and the sculpture that adorns it.

Dr. Zucker: [8:25] It seems natural to wonder why the figures have been so abstracted, why they’re so absurdly long, or even why their feet seem to be dangling down a bit.

Dr. Harris: [8:35] These are heavenly, divine figures. They’re not meant to look physical and on this earth, they’re meant to look transcendent.

[8:42] If you look at the drapery, the folds are indicated by lines.

Dr. Zucker: [8:46] There’s very little sense of mass. Instead, there’s a real emphasis on the linear.

Dr. Harris: [8:51] By the time of the High Gothic period, and in fact on other later sculpted portals here at Chartres, we’ll see figures who have much more volume; figures become more human.

Dr. Zucker: [9:01] Another important attribute is their sense of isolation. Each figure seems isolated from the figures beside it.

Dr. Harris: [9:07] That, too, will change on the later sculpted portals at Chartres and at other High Gothic cathedrals.

Dr. Zucker: [9:16] We’ve been talking about the portals, we ought to use the doors. Let’s go in.

[9:17] We’ve walked into the cathedral and we’re entering into this long space, which is based on a basilica plan.

Dr. Harris: [9:25] A basilica is a type of building that Christians borrowed from the ancient Romans. It’s longitudinal. It has an entrance on one end; opposite that is the apse, the holiest part of the church.

Dr. Zucker: [9:41] If you were to look at the church from a bird’s-eye view, you would see that the church sketches the shape of a cross, because it is the long hallway, the nave, that is crossed by something called the transept.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Here at Chartres, the north and south transept also have doorways that are sculpted.

Dr. Zucker: [9:50] This church is a little more complicated because on either side of the nave there are auxiliary hallways, known as aisles. This was so that pilgrims, that is, religious visitors, could enter the church and move through to the apse, and around the other side without disturbing a Mass that might be taking place.

Dr. Harris: [10:10] Those pilgrims were primarily here to see the famous relic of the tunic of the Virgin, and later another relic that was acquired by the cathedral, the head of Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother.

Dr. Zucker: [10:21] In fact, the most famous relic of this church, the tunic of the Virgin Mary, played a very important role in the church that we’re now sitting in. We were looking at the west front, and that was part of a church that dated to 1145. In 1194, there was a terrible fire and most of the church burned to the ground.

Dr. Harris: [10:41] Miraculously, two priests saved the tunic of the Virgin Mary. When the people of Chartres saw that the tunic was safe, they interpreted this as a miracle, one with a message: that the Virgin Mary wanted an even more beautiful and grander church to house her relic.

Dr. Zucker: [10:55] And that’s the church that we’re in now.

Dr. Harris: [10:57] The west front of the church that survived the fire is decidedly early Gothic. The church that we’re sitting in now that was built after the fire is clearly the beginning of the High Gothic style.

Dr. Zucker: [11:14] That’s probably most clear if we look at the interior elevation, because unlike earlier Gothic churches like at Paris, where there was a four-part elevation, here we have a three-part elevation.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] The three-part elevation consists of a nave arcade, these very tall, pointed arches that are very slender and graceful.

Dr. Zucker: [11:29] That’s the lowest level.

Dr. Harris: [11:31] On top of that, we see an arcade standing in front of a wall, and that area is called the triforium.

[11:38] Above that, we see very tall clerestory windows. In this case, each bay of the nave, we see two lancet windows topped by an oculus.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] The three segments of the elevation are united by the piers and the colonnettes that are attached to the piers. You can see them soaring from the pavement below, all the way up.

Dr. Harris: [12:08] We have that interest in linearity and these lines that draw our eye upward, that are so typical of Gothic architecture. As we follow those colonnettes up, we see that they divide into ribs that form the four-part ribbed groin vaults that constitute the ceiling, the vaulting, of this church.

Dr. Zucker: [12:20] The pointed ribbed groin vault allowed for greater height than a round arch would. That’s because a pointed, ribbed, groin vault pushes its thrust more down than out.

Dr. Harris: [12:38] As a result, it can rest on smaller piers and not as much buttressing is required. We should say that one of the primary goals of the Gothic architect was to open up the walls to the stained glass. Glass that helped to make the interior a space that recalled the divine, that gave one a sense of heaven here on earth.

[0:00] One of the ways you could do that was with a flying buttress, essentially supporting the building from the outside.

Dr. Zucker: [13:20] Instead of having massive walls within the church, much of the weight is supported by flying buttresses that help support the lateral thrust of the building. While the flying buttresses are beautiful architectural elements in their own right, they were really subservient to the idea of allowing the walls to open up, to allow for more glass, for more light to enter into the church.

[0:00] This wasn’t aesthetic. The idea was that light itself was an expression of the divine. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chartres, where more of the original glass survives from the medieval era.

Dr. Harris: [13:37] And that glass is largely this lovely deep blue color that’s especially associated with Chartres, but there’s also reds and golds, creating a space that makes you feel as though you’re almost inside of a jewel, with light refracting in all different ways.

Dr. Zucker: [13:55] It is still stunning. It’s still spectacular. One can only imagine the impression this glass would have made in the 12th century, when most people’s clothing was earth colors, where painting was rare.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Where windows in your houses were very small.

[0:00] Coming into this space was a transcendent experience.

[14:27] We’re so fortunate to be here today, when so much of the restoration work on the interior has been completed. We can see that the walls have been cleaned; they used to be a dark brownish-gray. And the conservators here have painted the stone the way that it was painted in the 12th and 13th century.

Dr. Zucker: [14:33] Somewhat unexpectedly, the stone was covered with a thin layer of plaster, and then painted onto that was this light ocher color with white lines painted on top of it to mimic the joinery of the stones below, but not accurately. That layer of plaster and paint obscures the true masonry.

Dr. Harris: [14:50] 19th and 20th century visitors to Chartres talked about how dark it was, but they were seeing it with centuries of grime. We are fortunate today to begin to see it the way that it looked in the 13th century.

Dr. Zucker: [15:02] Let’s walk down towards the apse and take a look at one particularly famous stained glass window.

Dr. Harris: [15:08] One that dates from the early Gothic period, from before the fire.

Dr. Zucker: [15:11] This tall window is sometimes known as the “Virgin of the Beautiful Window.” The blue contrast against the red is extraordinary. It looks like the window is made out of rubies and sapphires. Mary is frontal. Here again, we see Mary as the Throne of Wisdom.

Dr. Harris: [15:25] Mary is elongated. Both of the figures are strictly frontal. We’re clearly looking at a heavenly image and not an earthly image, but a projection of the divine.

Dr. Zucker: [15:37] At the end of the north transept is an enormous rose window on top of five lancets. This is a much bigger rose than what we see in the earlier west front.

Dr. Harris: [15:46] This was paid for by Blanche of Castile, the mother of Saint Louis, King Louis IX, who was a major patron of Gothic art.

Dr. Zucker: [15:54] We can see fleur-de-lis throughout this window, a reference to the French monarchy.

Dr. Harris: [15:58] In the center of the rose, we once again see the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. Surrounding Mary, we see doves and angels and then prophets and kings.

Dr. Zucker: [16:09] For example, in the 12 o’clock position, we see King David.

Dr. Harris: [16:12] When we look at the five lancets below, we see in the center Saint Anne, Mary’s mother. Remember that the cathedral acquired the relic of the head of Saint Anne, so it’s appropriate that she’s honored here in this window.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] She’s holding the infant Mary.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] And in the two lancet windows on either side, we see these interesting pairings of virtuous and villainous kings, and also Old Testament priests.

Dr. Zucker: [16:36] For example, the lancet just to the left of Anna shows King David and the smaller figure of Saul, who’s shown with a sword through his chest.

[16:44] We’ve walked out the south transept, and the porch is so different from the west front.

Dr. Harris: [16:49] Here, we’re about 80 or so years after the sculpture on the west facade, and things are really different for Gothic architecture and Gothic sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [16:58] The porch projects much more than the west front did, which is a characteristic of the High Gothic, but the jamb figures have changed so much.

Dr. Harris: [17:10] Before we saw a real interdependence between the figure and the architecture. The figure looked like a column and it was in front of a column. Here the figures are still in front of columns, but they have an independence from the architecture which is entirely new.

Dr. Zucker: [17:21] The most famous figure on the south porch is Saint Theodore, and you can see why.

Dr. Harris: [17:28] He looks almost like an ancient Greek or Roman figure. We see that the body has movement. The jamb figures on the west portal were so elongated and static.

Dr. Zucker: [17:35] They were columnar.

Dr. Harris: [17:40] They had no sense of liveliness to them. Theodore seems almost as though he could walk off the porch and greet us.

Dr. Zucker: [17:44] His right hip juts out, and it creates this Gothic sway. Just look at the feet. His feet are firmly planted, whereas the figures on the west front seem to dangle somehow in midair.

Dr. Harris: [17:55] In his right hand he carries a spear with a banner, and we see, much more than on the west front, a sense of volume to the drapery, especially when we look to the hem of the garment, where we see real three-dimensional folds.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Now, Theodore is still attached to the column.

Dr. Harris: [18:10] We can’t call him freestanding.

Dr. Zucker: [18:12] But he does seem animated.

Dr. Harris: [18:14] In his belt we see the hilt of a sword, and his left hand rests on a shield, which is pressed against his thigh. There’s a naturalism to his movement and the way he carries himself that tells us we’re now in the High Gothic period.

Dr. Zucker: [18:28] The Cathedral at Chartres is remarkable for so many reasons, but what I love about it especially is the way it represents the evolution of the Gothic style, from the columnar jamb figures on the westwork to the High Gothic representations that we see on the south porch.

Dr. Harris: [18:41] I’m so glad we decided to spend the day at Chartres.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres," in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed May 19, 2024,