Monday, July 8, 2013

Chartres Cathedral in 18 Photographs

Chartres Cathedral is one of the most intact Gothic cathedrals that still exists today.  It somehow missed destruction through fire, revolutions, and war.  Because it has survived upgrades and updates, it gave a unique sense of place for what it was like to be in a Gothic cathedral.  Sainte-Chapelle gives you the full effect of a royal Gothic chapel, but Chartres is different.  It was a pilgrimage church and one that you can see the evolution from Early Gothic to High Gothic as it was constructed.

But today, it is undergoing a controversial restoration that robs visitors of the sense of place it once had.  I generally support restorations that preserve items from damage or to a certain period in time.  But this restoration creates a false appearance.  The interior was never cream.  This brightness causes the stained glass windows to lose their drama.  While a soot-covered interior wasn’t original, it spoke to its history as a continuously used structure.

I narrowed down my gazillions of photos to 18 that capture the exterior and interior, the original and the restored.

Exterior Architecture



The western facade shows the heavy late Romanesque tower on the right compared to the light Gothic tower on the left.  The rose window is very small compared to the other sides as it was the first one built.


The southern side is much lighter and window-filled thanks to the use of flying buttresses.


The northeastern end shows the nodules on the apse created by small side chapels.  These allowed pilgrims to visit relics without interrupting Mass, or they could be used for private services.

Exterior Sculpture



A grotesque to the left of the central door on the west end.  It looks like a monkey holding a crab being strangled by a snake.


Engaged columns, or jamb sculptures, featuring biblical royalty and different patterns on the right side of the central western portal.


A sundial on the southwestern corner of the cathedral.


The tympanum over the central portal of the western facade features Christ seated in majesty surrounded by the four Evangelists and other biblical symbolism.

Interior Architecture



The crossing and choir were blocked off with scaffolding and tarps, but you can clearly see that the eastern end, that has been restored, is much brighter than the western end.


You can clearly see the difference between the restored groin vault, on the left, in the northern side aisle compared to the original groin vault, on the right.


View of the western facade from the scaffolded and tarp-covered crossing.


There is a labyrinth on the the floor of the central nave.  If you were unable to go on a pilgrimage, you could walk the labyrinth as a spiritual pilgrimage.

Original End Stained Glass 



On the western, unrestored end of the cathedral, the midday sun really made the stained glass pop against the dark walls.

Restored End Stained Glass



The restored choir and apse are cream and white.  While the rainbow reflections add some color, the windows lose their contrast.


The bosses on the rib vaulting have been gilded on the restored end but not the ribbing themselves so it looks unfinished.


The windows that suffer the most are the grisaille panels.  These are clear panes in patterns or areas of clear panes surrounding colored panels.  The bright walls with the grisaille washes out the scene in this window.

I hope these photos gave you a feel for both the “original” look of the church and the newly restored look.  What do you think?  All photos were taken on my iPhone 4.

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6 Responses to “Chartres Cathedral in 18 Photographs”

  1. 1

    Jenna — July 9, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

    I haven’t been to Chartres, but of course, it’s at the top of my wish list. I didn’t know about the restoration. You know, there are so many cathedrals that have those bright interiors in Europe that I never really thought about it…I suppose they were restored recently, too.

    • ehalvey replied: — July 10th, 2013 @ 9:41 am

      I think many were restored before art historians knew they were originally painted or they couldn’t make out a clear artistic program to restore. Or they were restoring it to a pre-war state.

  2. 2

    Lesley Peterson — July 9, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    Thanks for the peek inside, Erin! I remember the old ‘sooty’ interior. But as a place of worship and not a museum, restoring Chartres is an act of devotion for its congregation as well as necessary maintenance of a UNESCO world heritage site. I liked the ‘austere’ interior of Chartres when I saw it years ago but realize now that was a false impression. If Chartres’ interior was originally polychromatic, the restorers may be adding even more color:o

    • ehalvey replied: — July 10th, 2013 @ 9:31 am

      I didn’t see any plans for polychrome. I feel like it’ll be the Getty Villa, where the windows will die against the bright walls. And the windows are a major draw.

      Of course, a soot-filled interior isn’t great either…if they had gone for a gray wall maybe?

  3. 3

    Danielle — January 6, 2014 @ 11:03 pm

    The cathedral of Chartres is the oldest in France. It dates back to the late 12th century. I saw it 30+ yrs ago and I loved it. There is a bas relief of the life of Joan of arc (my heroine)all around the interior walls in back of the alter section. There is also the life of Christ in the same genre in the front interior walls if my memory serves me right.

    I also saw “La Maison Pique-assiette” It is a small property that used to belong to the street sweeper when they swept by hand and had a stick broom and a cart where they put the stuff they swept up. He gathered a lot of broken potery and plaes and stuff adn he recreated the city of Chartres on the walls of the perimeter of his property. When I saw it back in the 70’s his wife still lived there but I read somewhere that the city had declared it a monument in its own right. The entire house is done in that kind of art. I remember seeing the bed stead all decorated and the little chapel. It is really interesting to see. Je ask any one in Chrtres and they will direct you to it. You might even google it.

  4. 4

    Hugh Hunter — August 27, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

    An ambition of many years was fulfilled last week when I visited Chartres cathedral from Paris. The exterior was breathtaking but entering through the west front the effect of the restoration of the choir became horribly apparent. I don’t think for one minute that the cathedral interior ever looked remotely like this. The most magnificent stained-glass windows in existence now have, in the choir, a garish and unsympathetic background to compete with. I have visited many great cathedrals, mostly our English ones and can honestly say that none has been vandalised in such a way as Chartres. It’s such a wonderful building, it just doesn’t deserve this. Incidentally, do visit the church of St. Pierre while you’re there; it’s an absolute jewel of Gothic architecture.

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