The city of Chartres stands on a bold hill, rising from a wide plain on
the south-west of Paris, watered by the River Eure, a tributary of the
Seine. This commanding position was favourable for a fortified town, and
long before the Romans came to Gaul, kings had a stronghold here of
Chartres is dominated by its ancient cathedral towers, that rise grey
and massive, forming an outstanding landmark for leagues around. The old
low-built houses of the city are dwarfed by this mighty church, which
overshadows a number of twisting, narrow alleys of mediæval aspect. Many
of the houses in Chartres are weather-worn, and give an impression of
extreme age, and sometimes of decay. Parts of the town, it is true, have
been rebuilt and made modern; but one’s recollection is of an aged,
somnolent place, dreaming of its past, though it strives to advance in
line with progressive ideas of municipal improvement.
According to Mr Henry James, it is not so long ago that sedan-chairs
were used in Chartres; and during his visit in 1876, he saw only two
vehicles–the omnibuses of the rival hotels.
For the student of early Gothic architecture in France, Chartres is a
most profitable field. The older forms of the arch, the foliated
window-circles, the boldly decorated doorways, the twelfth-century
decorative details, and the massive, as well as the light, buttress can
be seen here in perfection. Few, if any, cathedral portals in Europe can
excel in richness those of Chartres. Here is to be seen the noblest
examples of twelfth-century sculpture.
After the Romans, the city was ruled by Christian princes up to the day
of Charlemagne. Before the tenth century, the first Christian church in
Chartres was burned down, and very little of the pristine fabric was
spared by the flames.
The pious Saint Bernard preached here, and many illustrious bishops
presided over the see. Henry V. of England came to the city; and so did
Mary of Scotland. There have been two or three notable sieges, and the
city was a scene of slaughter during the great Revolution.
The legends surrounding the first building consecrated to the Christian
faith in Chartres are numerous. Saint Aventin was probably the first
bishop of the see. Fulbert, who received tribute from a number of
monarchs, was the founder of the new cathedral, after the wreckage by
fire about the year 1021. There were two or three attacks from fire, for
Fulbert’s structure was seriously damaged in the twelfth century.
The crypt is part of a very early building. In the chapels are bare
traces of the old mural paintings, and several remarkable remains of the
more ancient edifice. The crypt forms a church in itself, for it
contains no less than fourteen chapels.
There are several points of difference between the early Gothic styles
of England and France, and height is a characteristic of the French
cathedrals; the architects delighted in lofty vaultings, and seemed to
vie with one another in attaining great height. Double aisles and double
flying buttresses are other features of the French Gothic churches,
distinguishing them from the churches of England of the same date.
The French pillars are heavy, and not so highly ornamented as those of
England. In the windows we find chiefly in France the lancet; and the
circle, with trefoils and quatre-foils, is a common form. Specimens of
round windows may be studied to advantage in the Cathedral of Chartres.
The most beautiful examples of early French Gothic architecture, in
detail, are the ornate portals, especially of the western façades, the
spires, the imposing towers, the rose windows, and the high vaulting.
The west front at Chartres is early twelfth-century work. Few façades
present such a bewildering wealth of decoration and of impressive
height. The windows are enormous, and the central rose window is
remarkably rich in design. Each of the three doorways is full of most
interesting statuary, with luxuriant decorations.
The north portal was once gilded and coloured, but this embellishment
has disappeared. Many figures adorn this doorway, and every one of them
will repay close inspection. The central door on this side is exquisite.
Another impressive front is on the south. Here are the statues of Christ
trampling on the lion, and of Christ as Judge. Innumerable figures
cluster on this porch. Every façade and doorway of the Cathedral of
Chartres is a gallery of statuary.
Very noble are the two huge towers. The north tower is the more majestic
of the two, and dates from the sixteenth century. It is literally
covered with delicious ornament and mediæval statuary. The south tower
is massive, but plainer, rising to a height of about three hundred and
fifty feet. It is adorned with some quaint symbolic figures. There were
once two immense bells within this tower.
The interior of the cathedral impresses by its vastness and height. A
wider nave is not to be found among the cathedrals of France, and the
aisles are proportionate in width. The eye ranges upwards to the
wonderful roof, with its opulent decoration, to the beautiful triforium,
and the tall, narrow windows of the clerestory.
The magnificent choir screen is finely sculptured. Among the host of
figures are the Virgin, Saint Joachim, and the Adoration of Wise Men.
Several groups, representing scenes from Scripture, deck the screen. The
effigies are far too numerous to describe in detail. There is a monument
within the choir, “The Assumption,” by Bridan. The pavement is of
In the south aisle of the choir is a tall stained-glass window of an
early date. Several of the painted windows were executed before the
fourteenth century, and these are to be seen in the nave, the
clerestory, and the transcepts. The chapels have several interesting
stained windows, fine roof decorations, and handsome portals. In the
sacristy there is a notable window; and in the ambulatory will be seen
the clothed figure of the Virgin Mary, one of the chief treasures of the
The sixteenth-century Church of Saint Aignan ranks next to the cathedral
in interest. It has a fine, but somewhat worn, front, still rich in
examples of Renaissance art. More than once fire has ravaged this
church, and during the Revolution the edifice was despoiled and damaged.
Saint Aignan is the burial-place of the bishop whose name it bears.
There are many stained windows in the church. The interior is in other
respects somewhat plain.
There are some interesting old churches in Chartres. In the Church of
San Pierre there are dazzling stained windows which should be seen by
the visitor, as they are among the finest examples in Chartres. There is
an old portal on the north side, and the great buttresses should be
noted. Many of the decorations of the interior were destroyed by the
There are some old houses of historical and architectural interest in
Chartres, and one will be seen near Saint Aignan’s.
The Museum is in the town hall. Among the objects of interest collected
here are some examples of tapestry that were formerly in the cathedral.
There are also many relics of the Roman days. In the library are several
Chartres is the birthplace of two poets, Desportes and Mathurin Regnier,
his nephew. Desportes, born in 1546, travelled in Italy and Poland, and
was court bard to Henri III. He died in 1606. Mathurin Regnier was a
poet of a higher order. He composed a number of fine satires and many
A general impression of Chartres is gained by following the tree-shaded
walk which surrounds the old town, a promenade that gives many
delightful glimpses of the plain and of narrow ancient streets, with
here and there a trace of the crumbling walls.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan