Visit the Cathedral
What should one see?
The Interior – Architecture: a Revelation
The architecture of the Cathedral takes us by surprise from the very first moment. Take some time to appreciate the immense edifice, built between 1194 and 1220 – have a seat in the chairs of the nave – feel the immense volume and take in the bright atmosphere.
The spirit of the 13th century can be found here with an authenticity which can be found nowhere else.
You will quickly be able to measure the balance and strength of both vertical and horizontal lines: the pillars soaring toward the vaulting and keystones above. The lime whitewashed walls from the 13th century have been preserved.
You can also appreciate the different angles while standing in the transept. Or walk (as its name designates…) in the ambulatory. Here in Chartres, its particularity is that there is a double ambulatory with a beautiful row of central pillars ‘en palmiers’. With the constantly changing light, this is a privileged place for artists.
Visit the Exterior
The façade has two spires, which is central to Chartres’s identity. The ‘old spire’ to the right dates from 1160: when the project was completed, it was one of the tallest edifices in the world. Even today, the greatest designers are fascinated by its ‘lines’ soaring between Earth and sky. The ‘new spire’ to the left was completed between 1506 and 1513, after a fire had destroyed the older, wooden belfry. This spire, which is built in the ‘flamboyant’ Gothic style, boasts a wealth of decorative elements.
You can discover the great North and South façades (around 1210) which add to the massive silhouette to the Cathedral.
You can walk through the gardens behind the Cathedral (open until dusk). From this vantage point, the Cathedral appears to be a great ship surrounded by flying buttresses.
Chartres Cathedral is known for its stained-glass windows throughout the world: a most remarkable and large collection, covering 2,500 m2 and includes more than 3,500 figures.
The three stained-glass windows of the West façade and “The Blue Virgin”, which are the oldest, are not to be missed. It is in these windows that we can see the famous Chartres blue: a lighter, sky-blue color which is stunningly translucent.
All of the other stained-glass windows (or almost) make up a collection which was completed in less than 30 years (around 1200-1225). In these windows, the blue is darker and is balanced by striking reds and touches of lighter colors.
Take the time to walk around a bit: the geometric forms which make up the panels, as well as the decorative backgrounds, are different from one window to the next. As was the choice of colors and setting of the different stories: no repetition is possible… It is difficult to remain unmoved by such vibrancy of color.
It is interesting to “read” at least one or two stories found within the stained-glass windows, which give us a better understanding of the designers’ and artists’ mindset of the 1200s: it is a very accessible exercise when we know the “plot”, and oftentimes children are the best “readers”.
Finally, the Cathedral boasts three rose windows of great dimension. You can see how the light and colors evolve throughout the day, giving each one its own ‘personality’.
Three great sculpted portals are highly recommended for a visit.
The main portal is the oldest (around 1150) and it is here where Gothic sculpture was born. We can see the figures were crafted with a rigid demeanour…. with just a hint of a smile. Photographs of these ‘statue-columns’ are included in all art encyclopaedias. Do not miss them.
The sculptures are better understood with a guide, even more so than the windows, who will show you how the ensemble ‘addresses’ great spiritual questions.
The North and South portals complete the sculptural scene. You will undoubtedly privilege the North Portal which has already been restored. Art amateurs experience love at first sight for the great prophets seen here.
Places of Prayer
The main place of prayer in the Cathedral is around ‘Our Lady of the Pillar’ where locals, pilgrims and tourists gather. You can offer a prayer intention as you approach the statue. Oftentimes these intentions are joys and pains of life for which we think about while praying to Mary: this prayerful setting is an important part of the cathedral.
Masses take place every day, where all are welcome and to receive communion – or just have a seat and watch if you are not a believer. The Cathedral is known for offering wonderful moments of sacred music: pipe organ and song.
The liturgical setting, designed by the artist Goudji (1992), is crafted of silver and semi-precious stones.
The Cathedral Crypt: the oldest areas of the Cathedral. It is an immense space which makes one think sometimes that there are ‘two superimposed cathedrals’.
The Choir Screen: a stunning sculpted Renaissance frieze which visitors find as one of the most amazing elements of the Cathedral to discover.