One of Western civilisation’s crowning architectural achievements, the 130m-long Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres is renowned for its brilliant-blue stained-glass windows and sacred holy veil. Built in the Gothic style during the first quarter of the 13th century to replace a Romanesque cathedral that had been devastated by fire – along with much of the town – in 1194, effective fundraising and donated labour meant construction took only 30 years, resulting in a high degree of architectural unity.
Today, it is France’s best-preserved medieval cathedral, having been spared postmedieval modifications, the ravages of war and the Reign of Terror.
The cathedral’s west, north and south entrances have superbly ornamented triple portals, but the west entrance, known as the Portail Royal, is the only one that predates the fire. Carved from 1145 to 1155, its superb statues, whose features are elongated in the Romanesque style, represent the glory of Christ in the centre, and the Nativity and the Ascension to the right and left, respectively. The structure’s other main Romanesque feature is the 105m-high Clocher Vieux, also called the Tour Sud (South Tower). Construction began in the 1140s; it remains the tallest Romanesque steeple still standing.
A visit to the 112m-high Clocher Neuf, also known as the Tour Nord (North Tower), is worth the ticket price and the climb up the long 350-step spiral stairway. Access is just behind the cathedral bookshop. A 70m-high platform on the lacy flamboyant Gothic spire, built from 1507 to 1513 by Jehan de Beauce after an earlier wooden spire burned down, affords superb views of the three-tiered flying buttresses and the 19th-century copper roof, turned green by verdigris.
The cathedral’s 176 extraordinary stained-glass windows, almost all of which date back to the 13th century, form one of the most important ensembles of medieval stained glass in the world. The three most exquisite windows, dating from the mid-12th century, are in the wall above the west entrance and below the rose window. Survivors of the fire of 1194 (they were made some four decades before), the windows are revered for the depth and intensity of their tones, famously known as ‘Chartres blue’.
In Chartres since 876, the venerated Sainte Voile (Holy Veil) – a yellowish bolt of silk draped over a support, which is believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus – is displayed at the end of the cathedral’s north aisle behind the choir.
The cathedral’s 110m crypt, a tombless Romanesque structure built in 1024 around a 9th-century predecessor, is the largest in France. Thirty-minute tours in French (with a written English translation) start at the cathedral-run shop selling souvenirs, from April to October. At other times they begin at the shop below the Clocher Neuf in the cathedral.
Guided tours of the cathedral, in English, with Chartres expert Malcolm Miller depart from the shop.