A Day in Chartres-Exploring One of France’s Greatest Cathedrals

If you are not “churched” out after a visit to Paris, then take a day trip to Chartres, about one hour southwest of Paris, to see one of the greatest Gothic churches still in existence. The Chartres Cathedral is considered the pinnacle of high Gothic architecture and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. As one of the best preserved Gothic churches, it is still adorned with most of the original sculptures and numerous beautifully detailed stained glass windows.

The south view of the Chartres cathedral

The official name of the cathedral at Chartres is Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres,  or Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. The term “Notre-Dame” means “Our Lady” referring to the Virgin Mary. So while we think of Notre Dame as the church in Paris, there are actually many Notre-Dame churches and cathedrals in France, all dedicated to Mary. (A cathedral by the way is a church that is also the seat of a catholic bishop).

The back of the Chartres cathedral

The Chartres cathedral was built between 1194 and 1220, and despite almost 1000 years of wars, revolution, natural disasters, environmental impacts and changes in artistic tastes, the cathedral remains mostly original. It had some close calls to complete annihilation over the centuries though. During the French revolution, it was saved from destruction by the local architect’s arguments that the rubble from such a large building would clog the streets for years.  In WWII, the church was saved from bombardment by the brave efforts of an American colonel who questioned the destruction and went behind enemy lines to confirm that the church was not being used by the Germans as an observation post.

One of the first things you notice about the Chartres cathedral are the massive flying buttresses which provide the additional support for the height and weight of the stonework, and that allowed the use of so many windows. Not only are these supports sturdy, but they are also decorative with statues and detailed carvings.

The north entrance and porch

The next thing you notice are the heavily detailed porches over the front and side doorways. Each sculpture, and there are very many of them, is symbolic and has a story associated with it – mostly biblical stories from both the Old and New Testaments.

The North porch

What is amazing is the extreme level of detail in each and every sculpture. Robes flow, beards and hair show curl and braid details, and bodies are in motion.

View of some of the upper windows in the ambulatory.

As detailed as the sculptures are on the outside, the stained glass windows inside are even more so. Once you step inside the church, the windows will take your breath away. About 152 of the original 176 windows are original and have miraculously survived. During WWII, every piece of glass from each window was removed and hidden in the countryside to preserve them, and then painstakingly restored after the war. What a jigsaw puzzle that must have been.

The north rose window, which is one of three rose windows in the church. This window tells stories of the Old Testament and the birth of the Virgin Mary.

The windows have a predominant deep cobalt blue color (actually called Chartres blue) which bathes the church interior with a unique blue tint. The windows were designed to tell stories and educate a mass population that had no other means of formal learning. They are extremely detailed, telling narrative biblical stories, and filled with symbolism that would have been understood by the faithful of the time. Not only is each window exquisitely detailed, but each one also uses a different design, making each unique.

Detail of the assumption window

The Chartres cathedral became an important pilgrimage site because of the holy relic it contained, and still contains – a piece of the Virgin Mary’s veil worn at Christ’s birth. It is prominently displayed in one of the side chapels.

One of the most unique features of the cathedral is the labyrinth set into the floor of the church. It is one of the largest (42 feet in diameter), oldest and best preserved of its kind, dating from about 1200.  Pilgrims would walk it or crawl it on their knees as a spiritual exercise, mimicking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Today, it can sometimes be hard to see the whole thing if it is covered in chairs and visitors’ feet.

Besides the cathedral which takes center stage sitting on a hill above the rest of the town, Chartres also has a well preserved old town.  Walk downhill from the back of the church toward the river to discover timber framed homes, gardens and lovely photogenic views.

To get to Chartres from Paris, take the train from Montparnasse station. Trains leave approximately every hour and the trip takes a little over an hour. Once you arrive in Chartres, exit the station onto Place Pierre Semard. Walk straight ahead and then take Avenue Jehan de Beauce. Walk through the Place Chatelet to Rue Sainte-Meme and then take the first left which will take you to the square in front of the cathedral.

Thanks for visiting.