An exceptional ensemble of stained glass, the largest collection in the world…
When one says Chartres, one thinks of stained glass windows and ‘blue of Chartres’, that of the 12th and the other of the 13th century.
There is nothing better, to be initiated into this art, this know-how, this story told, than to come and be impregnated with these lights, this aesthetic, this historical testimony, this spirituality, to live an extraordinary experience. You will then be able to feel the “wow!”, the thrill that every visitor expresses when entering, looking up and accepting to walk inside this Marian vessel…
Chartres has established itself as the capital of stained glass
Approximately 2500 m2: this is the largest complex that the Middle Ages left us. The stained glass windows of Chartres, with the exception of those on the Western facade (which date back to the middle of the XIIth century) and later works (XIVth, XVth, XIXth, XXth centuries) were all made between 1205 and 1225.
They are striking for their unity : you entre into an immense book imagined by theologians (the ‘screenwriters’) and glassmakers (the ‘directors’) of the time.
The Gothic Spirit
Evidently, the stained glass corresponds to the widening of the window openings. The structures invented by the builders of the 1200s allow more light to enter : now the stories continue on the windows from the sculptures found on the walls.
The XIIIth century stained glass used colored glasses: metal oxides, added when the glass is still being fused, allow for a range of colors to be obtained. The pieces are cut with a hot iron, according to the desired design. On certain pieces, fine details are painted onto the glass with a brush, in ‘greyscale.’ This allows for features such as faces and drapes to be realized. The pieces are then embedded into a network of plumb creating panels of approximately 1 meter on the sides which are then mounted on an iron frame.
Several workshops of master glassmakers practiced and refined these techniques, developing their unique marks of style. Differences in technique can give clues to recognizing between artisan’s styles, or to tell if the whole piece was done by the same one. There were probably a dozen artisans who participated in the work present at Chartres.
The Enchantement of Colors
The stained glass windows in the cathedral recall the precious stones which decorate the walls of ‘Celestial Jerusalem’ as according to the book of the apocalypse: sapphire, ruby, emerald, …
This combination of color is mesmerizing to look at, and it changes with the light. Regulars know that such a window is worth waiting for the afternoon and enjoying the milky light during spring. Another beautiful time is the light of dawn in winter time…
Symbolically, this suspended light is that of God. Let us not forget that in the eyes of men during the Middle Ages, the functioning of light was mysterious: it is on the side of the intangible and the spiritual. On the other hand, colors are a reflection of human activities and emotions. Thus, for thinkers of the 13th century, the stained glass windows were a metaphor for humankind: people expressing all their diversity, but all with the same lighting.
More than 170 Stained Glass Windows
The stained glass windows on the upper floor ‘exalt’ the great figures of the Christian faith: prophets, apostles, and saints of various eras who marked the spirits and whom the faithful prayed to. There are Moses, Aaron, Saint Peter, Saint Jacques, Saint Martin, Saint Nicholas… All are several meters high.
More accessible for viewing, the stained glass windows on the lower floor tell stories: twenty to thirty panels, surrounded by geometric designs, tell us all the important episodes of the Christain faith: it is a scenography, such as used in films. These stained glass windows are read from bottom to top – from left to right.
Remaining are the rose windows, ‘fireworks’ designed for the glorification of Christ and Mary.
Here, almost everything is intentional. The colors are chosen for their symbolic meaning. When we take the window axis, new meanings appear. In reality, each stained glass window can even be read at four levels: historical (let yourself be guided by the script shown), allegorical (often allusions to Christ), moral (how to react in your social and personal life), anagogical (glimpse into the beyond).
A World to Explore
Not a single guide knows all the stained glass ‘by heart’ – you have to remember the story first to understand the sequence of scenes, the role of each character, the twists and turns. Where does this scene take place? Why are they making these gestures?
These stained glass windows invite us to deeply reflect on what history means and how it relates to us now: on faith, on social relations, on the meaning of life. And often behind the scenes, we find (very) current concerns…
Stories and More Stories
Taking the time to discover the stained glass windows means identifying faces that we find more moving than others. It is to appreciate the natural background: sky and trees or the architectural background: walls and columns. It is to signal an object placed in the background; or an unexpected gesture.
Chartres is an expansive gallery that transports us to the medieval world.
Find all the photos on this page in a clickable version:
Interactive animation of the stained glasses
Scroll through the windows of the cathedral: the stained glass windows are progressively put online in our interactive animation.
Vivid colors, accurate gestures, rich decorations: when the scenes scroll before our eyes, they still amaze us 800 years later. The texts take us to the heart of the action, with sometimes unexpected keys to reading. The characters come to life again – we are transported into the authentic universe of the Christian Middle Ages…