Monday, November 29, 2010

Cathedrals--oh, My!

I was told before leaving for Paris that we should not miss seeing the Chartres Cathedral.  AND that we should not miss the tour that was given by Malcolm Miller--the resident expert on everything you wanted to know about Chartres.  It was a 50 mile train ride from Paris, but Kara and I were intrigued, so we decided to go and learn all about Chartres. 
    The town of Chartres is a mix of old and new...however, the old town is pretty much clustered around the 1000 year old cathedral. The cathedral is impressive--very much on the WOW scale of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Our expert, Malcolm Miller could be described as a crusty old Englishman, complete with thinning white hair and a light dusting of white on his navy blazer's shoulders!  His whispers can be heard from afar, and when donning his mike for our lecture, well,  lets just say that he wasn't afraid of letting the other guides know how he really feels!  As a young man coming out of World War II, he was so taken with the Cathedral and it's history, that he decided to make studying it a life long pursuit.  For the past 45 years, he lives 10 months out of the year studying and giving lectures about the Chartres Cathedral.  He gives two lectures a day and is famous for hardly ever repeating himself!
      The cathedral is impressive.  It is huge.  It is a ancient marvel that is hard to comprehend given the implements that were available in the 1100's to construct such a massive building.
Both outside and in, it is filled with ornate sculptures that depict biblical scenes, apostles and saints.   There are stunning stained glass windows that tell biblical stories and depict the life of Christ.  Did you know that the windows and the sculptures were the means used to teach pilgrims about Christianity?  The cathedral is a living monument to Christ and the scriptures!
     To make a long story short, prior to 794 AD, there had been several cathedrals constructed on this same property...all of which were destroyed either by fire or war.  Malcolm said that when the the 794 cathedral was rebuilt, it was given an ancient relic.  (Apparently most of the famous cathedrals built in the middle ages almost always had an ancient relic to encourage pilgrim visits and was a valuable source of income for the church.)  The relic was something belonging to a saint and was believed to have the power to intercede on their behalf.  The Chartres relic was given by Charlemagne's grandson in 896 AD.  It is called the Sancta Camisia, a garment supposedly worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus.  This relic still exists today and has been proven by modern day science to have been woven in the 1st century AD.  What is remarkable about this relic is that it survived a major fire that destroyed most of Chartres in 1194.  The people despaired that the relic had been destroyed, but a miraculous event occurred three days after the fire.  Some priests, along with the relic emerged from the cellars of the cathedral's crypt unscathed.  It was considered a miracle and a sign from Mary that that this cathedral must be rebuilt.  Malcolm said that had the relic not survived in this manner, Chartres would have never been rebuilt! 
     The Chartres that we see today was completed in 30 years.  Thirty years?  This is unheard of--considering that the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took over 200 years to complete.  The miracle of the Chartres's Sancta Camisia truly inspired the artisans and workmen with uncommon zeal.
     Inside the structure you are impressed with the majesty of the columns.  The inside of most Gothic cathedrals today are covered in black soot from hundreds of years use of candles and cooking fires. (Apparently when pilgrims came they would camp inside the cathedral!)  When you enter inside, you are struck by how dark and gloomy the interior is.  However, it was a thrill to witness the stunning renovation taking place at Chartres.  They are in the process of cleaning the stone, which dispels the dark and gloomy atmosphere and breathes light and life back into to structure.  It is difficult to describe the difference it makes to the majesty of the building.  (By the way, the French government have declared that they will no longer allow live candles inside the cathedral--just the electric ones, in order to preserve the restoration.)
How amazing is this restoration?
In addition to it's ancient relic, this cathedral has almost all of it's original stained glass windows.  Each individual pane of glass is about 6 feet high--and the colors are bright and intense.  An interesting fact is that in order to pay for the many windows, patrons were found from all walks of life.  Furriers, bankers, carpenters all contributed a do we know this?  In each window there is usually something put in the scene that shows who the contributor was. For example, in the Assumption Window, there is a customer being served by a shoemaker!
Chartres also has a beautiful labyrinth maze on it's floor that is still in use today.   On the day that we visited, it was covered with chairs.  Apparently, it is only uncovered on Fridays and during the summer months.  Unsure as to it's original use, many walk it today in quiet contemplation.
Chartres Cathedral was a joy to visit and certainly worth the time, travel and money to visit.  Would I go back?  Absolutely--who wouldn't want to see this beauty in all of its restored glory?

PS:  Of course we went to Notre Dame in Paris.  That is also a must see.  Kara wanted to climb up it's 387 steps to the tower and see what Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame would have seen.  (I preferred the contemplation of sitting down inside!)  Unfortunately, we arrived after after 4:30 pm and the stairway was closed.  She was really disappointed!

The flying buttresses were built to keep the cathedral from collapsing!

We also went to the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in the Mon Marte District of Paris.  It is a  young cathedral, only about 200 years old.  But it is breathtakingly beautiful inside and out...and the view is fabulous!

Can you find Kara?

Too bad the day was a little doesn't do the view justice!

We also went to Saint Chappelle.
Saint Chappelle is a small chapel, built in the 1300's to house the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ and other ancient relics attributed to Him.  It also has much of it's original stained glass and the chapel is unique in that  stained glass windows are on three sides of the chapel, allowing light to fill the room. (It should be noted that Notre Dame decided to take the Crown of Thorns relic for their own.) 

One could spend their whole time just visiting the many cathredrals in France.  Each has it's own story and charm.  Kara and I were thrilled with the few that we visited.