The Cathedral of Chartres, dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre Dame) and situated approximately 80 kilometers from Paris, is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in France and a popular place of pilgrimage due to the presence of the Sancta Camisa, a tunic said to have belonged to the Virgin Mary and given to the church in 876. (Modern research has revealed that the cloth is consistent with the type of fabric woven in Syria in the first century ad.) When the first cathedral burned down, the relic was feared lost. However, legends recount how three days later a priest miraculously emerged from the ruins with the relic intact. The (admittedly convenient) rediscovery of the Sancta Camisa increased the popularity of Chartres as a pilgrimage site and ensured financial support for the rebuilding of this important site of worship from all corners of Europe.
The pilgrimage to Chartres was at its height in the 12th century, and centered on the four great feast days associated with the Virgin Mary: the Purification, the Annunciation, the Assumption, and the Nativity. At these times, elaborate fairs were held in the area surrounding the cathedral, reemphasizing the importance the building played in the economic growth of the town. During the 11th and 12th centuries, Chartres was also an important intellectual center, known for its cathedral school, where Bernard of Chartres, described by John of Salisbury in the Metalogicon as the “most eminent Platonist” of his time, taught.
The history of the edifice is a complicated one. Already in pre-Christian times, the site was said to be a place of druidic cult. Archaeological research has revealed various strata of construction, with each church expanding on the former's foundations. Thus, the edifice as it stands today incorporates: (1) a 4th century Gallo-Roman wall from the first church; (2) remains of a 6th century Merovingian church under the choir; (3) a 9th century Carolingian crypt; and (4) an 11th century Romanesque crypt surviving from the church built after the great fire of 1040. After the devastating fire of 1194, the cathedral was rebuilt on the remains of the previous buildings. It was completed by 1230 and dedicated in 1260. Today, the cathedral is best known for its contrasting spires (one, a 105 meter pyramid spire dating from the mid 12th century, and the other, a 113 meter early 16th century flamboyant spire added to an older tower), its extraordinary nave (128 meters long and supported by flying buttresses), and stunning collection of stained glass, including the famous rose windows and the extraordinary blue “Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière,” representing the enthroned Virgin.
SEE ALSO: Gothic Church Architecture; Pilgrimage; Virgin Mary