Aside from their wonderful, though non similar, cathedrals, Chartres and Le Mans, its neighbor, have much in common. Both have been possessed of a brilliant array of counts and prelates, both grew from a Celtic village to their present grand proportions through a series of vicissitudes, wars, and conquests, until today each is preeminent within its own sphere, and has become not only a center of ecclesiastical affairs, but of civil life as well.
The Counts of Chartres and of Blois, in the middle ages, were a powerful race of men, and should ever be associated with profound respect in English minds by the fact that here was the birthplace of Adela, the mother of King Stephen of Blois, and of Henry, Bishop of Winchester.
As for local conditions today, Chartres, while having grown to the state which it now occupies through events which have made it a city of mark, remains a somnolence, sparsely built town, with little suggestion of the progress of modernity. More frequently mentioned in the note-books of the traveler than Le Mans, it offers perhaps no greater charms. To be sure, its cathedral, by reason of its open situation and the charming quality and effect produced by its spires and its one hundred and thirty windows of colored glass, at once places it at the very head among the great ” show pieces ” of France; but it is in connection with Le Mans, scarcely eighty miles away and so little known, that it ought really to be studied and considered; which as a matter of fact it seldom is. The city is hardly in keeping with what we are wont to associate with the environment of a great cathedral, though this of itself in no way detracts from its charms. The weekly cattlemarket takes place almost before its very doors, and the battery of hotels which flank the open square present the air of catering more to the need of the husbandman than to the tourist; – not a wholly objectionable feature, either.
Beyond such evidences as an occasional sign-board announcing the fact that the hos telry possesses a garage, f osse, or what not for the necessitous requirements of the autamobilist, the inns remain much as they always were, mere bourgeoise caravansaries.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres jumps full into view immediately on leaving the railway station, though here it is to be noted that no delineation has ever been made by modern hand which shows its facade in its entirety. The roofs of the houses and shops around its base indicate no special squalor or poverty, as is the case with regard to some Continental churches, and there is a picturesque grouping of firs and poplars to the left which adds considerably to an already pleasing prospect. The whole grouping is, perhaps, none the less attractive than if the facade, with those extraordinarily beautiful non-contemporary spires, stood quite^ unobstructed. In fact, it is doubtful if many a monumental shrine might not lose considerably, were it taken from its environment and placed in another which might not suit its graces so well.
These really fascinating spires, famed of all writers, archeologists, and painters alike, are the clef by which the whole harmony is sounded. One cannot but echo, and reecho, all that has been said of them, though in a quandary as to which of the two is the more beautiful: the plain, simple, symmetrical, older spire, or that wonderful work of Texier’s, replacing another burned in 1506, which rises in gently sculptured and tapered ranges to a height which exceeds its companion by some twenty-five feet. No more appropriate or convincing wording could be given of it than by quoting Fergusson’s estimate, which sums it up as being ” the most beautifully designed spire in Europe, surpassing even Strasburg and Antwerp.”
It is rather a pity that from no suitably near-by point can one obtain a full view of the effect of the western facade. One poor little house seems ever to thrust itself into the ensemble, though it is today apparent that certain others, which must have cut into the front still more, have been cleared away. Clearly, with all its charm and beauty of detail, it is for its great and general excellencies that the cathedral at Chartres most impresses itself upon the memory.
Visitors today will have no easy task in locating Lowell’s “little pea-green inn,” in which he indited the lines, ” A Day in Chartres; ” as appreciative and graceful an estimate of an inanimate thing as ever was made in verse:
-The Grecian gluts me with its perfectness Unanswerable as Euclid, self-contained, The one thing finished in this hasty world.
But ah ! this other, this that never ends, Still climbing, luring fancy still to climb, As full of morals, half divined, as life, Graceful, grotesque, with ever new surprise Of hazardous caprices, sure to please, Heavy as nightmare, airy light as fern, Imagination’s very self in stone.”
Among the other attractions of the west facade is the Porte Royale, so called, the central doorway which was only opened for the entrance of the sovereign. It is decorated with the “signs of the zodiac” and ” symbols of the months.” Next in point of richness are the grandly effective north and south porches, with their triple doorways or portals, setting back some twenty feet from their jambs, which, as at Noyon, and in the smaller church at Louviers, are pierced with a transverse passage.
The north porch, with its range of three open-sided and deeply recessed doorways, has unmistakably debased tendencies, but is filled with sculptured statuary of more than ordinarily effective disposition, more remarkable for magnitude and ornateness than for finesse of skill and workmanship, or even as a detail of good taste.
The life-size statues of all three recesses are held aloft by pedestals, on pillars of twisted and of spiralled trunks, a formation reviled by Ruskin, but producing an effect much more pleasing than some galleries of effigies we have seen, where the figures appear as if hung up by the hair of their heads, or are clinging to the walls by invisible spurs at their heels, or, as is not infrequently the case, are standing or hung on nothing, as though they were graven of some bewitched magnetic stone. Here for the first time is seen, in the sculptured figures of the three great portals, the plastic forms which were to add so greatly to the Gothic architecture: male and female saints, Evangelists, and Apostles in great array, all somewhat more than life-size. Only one adverse impression is cast: that of petrifaction. The figures, almost without exception, appear as integral parts of the architectural fabric, rather than as added ornament. They are most ungainly, tall, stiff, and column-like, much more so than similar works at Reims, or at Amiens, where the sculpture has something of the vigour and warmth of life. The south porch, erected in the reign of Henry I. by Jean Cormier, partly from donations of Matilda, queen of the Norman Conqueror, contains a series of basso relievos, – seen also in the arches of the choir, – manifestly not of good Gothic principle, and one which is the very antithesis of the northern spirit, as the name itself implies.
The earliest portion of the existing church, the crypt, is that of a timber-roofed structure burned in 1020. It was erected early in the eleventh century by Fulbert, the famous Bishop of Chartres, also remembered – possibly revered – as being the prolific letterwriter of his time.
John of Salisbury was bishop in the next century, and under him were built the lower stages of the western facade and towers. In this church Edward III. called for the help of Heaven to aid his plans, and here Henry of Navarre was crowned King of France, a change of venue from Reims, where so many previous and subsequent coronations were held.
The interior gives a deal of the thrill for which one should always be prepared. The gloom, so apparent at first, slowly brightens as the eye becomes accustomed to the finely filtered light, which penetrates through the gorgeous coloured glass, a feature which ranks with the spires as a vivid impression to be carried away. Nearly all of this glass is of equal worth and attractiveness, being, with the exception of three windows of a late date, and a few uncoloured ones, all of the gorgeous thirteenth-century variety.
The whole mass of the clerestory throughout gives the effect of windows heavily hung with tapestries through which the outside light pierces in minute rays. This comparison is made advisedly, inasmuch as, regardless of the quality and value of the glass, it is composed mainly of those minute and fragmentary particles often more rich in colour than design.
There is little doubt but that the result of the deep rich blue, claret, and orange gives a first effect of insufficient lighting which would try an artist or photographer sorely, though not a detracting element in churches which would often appear cold and unconvincing were such an attribute lacking. There are also three magnificent rose windows of great size (thirty to forty feet), containing equally good glass.
A double ambulatory surrounds the sevenchapeled choir, which is further enclosed by a magnificent sculptured stone screen begun in the sixteenth century by Texier, who designed the marvellous north spire. The Vierge du Pilier of the north choir aisle, a fifteenth-century shrine, is the subject of great local veneration. The treasury contains a relique in the form of the veil of the Virgin, supposed to have been presented by Charlemagne to Princess Irene.
Other interior details of note are an eleventh-century font; the large crypt beneath the choir; the unequal level of the pavement of nave and choir; and the maze, which still exists in the nave. This last feature is a winding circular path some forty odd feet in diameter, and, in all, perhaps a thousand feet long. As a penance in place of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, ” the journey of the maze ” was performed by the penitent on his knees -taking perhaps an hour or more, according to the size and length of the path, which varied with different churches where they formerly existed. The other most notable example in France is at St. Quentin, northeast of Paris.