Stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral


The history of Chartres Cathedral can be only formally dated back to 1194, when the construction of the building that survived until our days began. A holy place is never empty and the high hill above the river Ayr has been holy since prehistoric times. It was the site of successive Christian churches, which died in fires but rose from the ashes with new guises. The tenth-century crypt, for example, dates from the time of Bishop Fulbert, the founder and leader of the scholastic school of Chartres, quite famous in its day.

By the way, Fulbert was a pupil of Herbert of Aurillac (in the modern transcription – Aurillac), the future Pope Sylvester II. And if you look at the end of the first chapter of The Master and Margarita, where Woland explains to Berlioz and the Homeless the reason for his appearance in Moscow, you get an unexpected greeting almost from Chartres himself.

In the IX century French King Charles the Bald, grandson of Emperor Charlemagne, at the consecration of another church in Chartres donates to it a precious relic – the veil of Our Lady, which his famous grandfather received as a gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene. Since then Chartres has become a center of pilgrimage and the city’s inhabitants have found a heavenly protector.

Long before that, in the middle of the fourth century A.D., Christianity arrived in Chartres and with it the first bishops appeared. One of them, Solemnis, was the religious instructor of Clovis, the first Christian king of the Franks.

Before Christianity, the Roman gods were worshipped here, and even earlier, the Celtic mother goddess, and before that the Druid priests performed their mysterious rites. What was even earlier is hidden in the darkness of the ages. But that does not mean that there was nothing.

The year 1194 was the beginning of the new history of Chartres Cathedral. In June, a fire almost completely destroyed the then building. The inhabitants were especially grieved over the loss of their precious relic, fearing that they would lose her patronage along with the veil of the Virgin. Three days after the fire, however, the papal legate showed the townspeople the relic that had miraculously survived the fire. No one, of course, carried out an authenticity examination, but the inhabitants wanted to believe, and they did. On the wave of their enthusiasm and it was decided to build a new cathedral.

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The central nave with a labyrinth

The commoners voluntarily worked in the quarries eight kilometers from the cathedral and delivered the building material in carts to the place of construction. The cathedral chapter and the bishop himself decided to devote almost all the income over five years to paying for the construction work. The northern portal was built at the expense of Kings Philip-Auguste and his son Louis VIII . The latter’s wife, Blanca of Castile, funded the construction of the north rose window and the lancet arches. Many other gifts came from kings, priests and nobles, so that by 1223 the building was basically complete – a fantastic rate for those times. It was slower, however, but in 1260 the new Chartres Cathedral was consecrated.

The story, of course, did not end there. In the 14th century, a special chapel was built behind the altar to store the veil of Our Lady. In the 16th century Chartres was not spared by the religious wars: in 1568 it was besieged by the Huguenots. In 1589, breaking with centuries-old tradition, Henri IV, the first Bourbon on the French throne was crowned here and not in Reims. (The story of his ascent to the throne is familiar to us from the famous trilogy of Dumas.) Until the XX century there were fires, wars and historical upheavals. But Chartres Cathedral survived and has survived to this day, not just as a historical monument and tourist attraction, but as a center of religious pilgrimage and a stronghold of French Catholicism.


By the end of the 12th century, when construction of the present cathedral building began, a new architectural style, later called Gothic, was triumphing all over France and even beyond. The luminous, openwork, heavenward-looking basilica in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis became a model to follow. (For details, see the special issues of the newspaper Art: “The Gothic Temple” (No. 7/05) and “The Romanesque Style” (No. 4/06), where the history of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic is presented with many examples).

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Our Lady of the Blue Window.

Naturally, the new trends did not pass Chartres either. The western facade, which was hardly damaged by a fire in 1194, was not rebuilt and still retains some notable Romanesque features. Everything else is distinctly Gothic. The widest in France central nave is covered by the ribbed arch; transept portals are decorated by lancet arches with characteristically elongated sculptures and tracery windows – roses; the spread of the arch is transferred by arkbutans to buttresses placed outside; the internal space is merged into a solid volume, where through numerous stained-glass windows the divine light penetrates. The decoration is dominated by verticals which take the view of a parishioner upwards, to the heavens.

The person entered into the cathedral meets a huge labyrinth. In medieval churches it was not exceptional, but in times that considered themselves more enlightened, labyrinths were simply destroyed. They were considered “pointless amusement and a waste of time” in the words of a priest who lived in Chartres at the end of the 17th century.

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Meanwhile, there could be nothing in the Christian temple that did not have deep meaning and symbolic significance. The labyrinth denoted both the way of the cross of Christ himself and the journey of man through life. Pilgrims would prayerfully crawl through it on their knees (261 meters!), which took almost an hour.

Also the labyrinth reminded of the ancient history of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur (remember the guiding thread?) and thus symbolized the struggle of good and evil in the labyrinths of the soul, and at the same time the guiding role of the church.

This symbolic meaning is confirmed by the absence of dead ends and forks. There is only one winding path, which just as inevitably leads to the goal, as life’s path leads to death. And the exit of the labyrinth to the temple corresponds to the Christian understanding of death not as the end, but as the beginning of a new, eternal life.

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Interestingly, the distance from the center of the labyrinth to the front door is almost identical to the height of the rose window above the same door. This coincidence also contains important symbolism. When all the buildings fall to the ground on Judgment Day, the rose window will fall to the labyrinth, the earthly will merge with the heavenly and the world will transcend time and death.

The main facade


Another characteristic feature of medieval cathedrals were stained glass windows. Unlike labyrinths, they are better preserved today, although many masterpieces have been lost in the fires of fires and wars. The last time Chartres stained glass windows were saved from destruction was during World War II.

The ensemble of stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral is unique. It took centuries to create, as stained glass windows are an immensely labor-intensive and correspondingly expensive job. They were made not only to the order of the clergy. Often the customers were shops or guilds, who determined the content of the composition and put a kind of signature in one of the bottom corners of the window. Even today in Chartres, apothecaries weigh medicines in The Miracles of St. Nicholas, axes are knocked by carpenters and wheelwrights in The Story of Noah, and smiths shoe a horse in the composition on atonement for sins.

The expressive beauty of stained glass lattices, often having an independent artistic value, draws attention. But the most important thing is the color, harmonious to the point of music, all-permeating and living its own life. Local craftsmen knew the secret of a special color called “Chartres blue”. And indeed, the basic tone of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows is deep blue. Blue symbolized the spiritual beginning, the high spheres, the incorporeal unreal world. But other tones are strung on top of it, like harmonious intervals of a solemn chord on the dominant note.

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The stained glass windows served as a bible for the illiterate. Not everyone could read in those days, so the sacred history was introduced “by pictures. To understand stained glass windows was easy: one should start from the bottom left corner, move to the right, then go up “a line” and so on: from left to right and upward, that is, to the heavens. Thus, for example, the window on the Passion of Christ and His Resurrection begins at the bottom left with the scene of the Transfiguration, continues with the story of the execution, the position in the tomb and the Ascension, and ends with the appearance of Mary Magdalene and the meal at Emmaus.

Even a book-length volume would not be enough to describe all 173 Chartres stained glass windows with a total area of over 2,000 square meters. So let’s pay attention to almost the most famous image – “Our Lady of the Blue Window” late XII century. In its solemn stiffness, vertically extended figure, sculpture drawing we guess the features of the outgoing Romanesque style. But Mary’s gaze, in the words of the domestic art historian E.I. Rotenberg, is full of confident strength and benevolence, and in the drawing we can already feel the living lines of life. “Before us is an image presented in a halo of solemn representation, but without the former inaccessibility – the distance between him and the viewer loses its former irresistibility.

Yes, the cathedral drags, it is as if it has power over people, elevates everyone who enters, gives strength to their spirit. All kinds of arts merged in the Gothic temple to demonstrate the ancient power of the earth coming down from below and the divine grace coming up from above. And today’s skeptics and atheists are as indifferent to the impact of the temple’s solemn harmony as were medieval pilgrims and parishioners.

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