Chartres

By Epiphanius Wilson

[36]

For many a mile over the rich cornfields of Beauce, of which ancient district Chartres was once the capital, the spires of Chartres are visible. The river and the hill constitute at Chartres the basis of its strength in long-forgotten warfare; its walls in piping times of peace have been leveled into leafy boulevards, but it may still be entered through one of the antique gates that survive as memorials of its former fortifications.

The cathedral itself is one of that group to which belong Amiens, Rheims, Bourges and Notre Dame de Paris. It is noted for its size, magnificence and completeness, and contains in itself, from its crypt to its highest stone, an exemplification of architectural history in France from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. We may suppose that Christianity was first published in the Beauce province by the same apostles, Savinienus and Potentienius, who had evangelized Sens and the Senones. Their disciple, Aventin (Aventinus), is recognized as the first Bishop of Chartres, and as the builder of the first cathedral which stood on the site of the present building….

The naves, the north and south transept portals, and the choir belong to the thirteenth century, the north tower to the fifteenth, and the magnificent jube, or screen, which runs round the choir, is evidently sixteenth century style, being an example of that Renaissance employment of Gothic details, of which we find such glorious counterparts at Rouen and Albi. The western facade of Chartres is plain in comparison with those of Amiens or Rheims. The voussures of the three central portals are comparatively shallow. Above them are three lancet windows which resemble windows of the Early English Style. The rose-window, beneath which the lancets are placed, is of great dimensions and effective tracery. The highest story of the front between the towers is screened by a rich arcade, over which rises the gable point.

This arcade, or gallery, is intended to break the abruptness with which the pointed roof rises between the two spires. These spires are different in design, the southern tower being much earlier than that at the north. The southern spire, in its austere simplicity and exquisite proportions, is certainly the finest I have seen in France, and can only be paralleled elsewhere by that which rises like a flower-bud almost ready to burst over Salisbury plain. The northern tower is very much more elaborate, and reminded me of those examples with which the traveler becomes so familiar in the many churches of Rouen. The richly crocketed gables, the flying buttresses and pinnacles which run half way up this spire, while they adorn it, seem to stunt the profile and rob it of its towering altitude, just as is the case with the western spires of St. Ouen. Yet this northern tower is considerably higher than the ancient one at the south, being 374 feet high, while the more ancient spire is only 348. The other dimensions of the church are as follows: It is 420 feet long; 110 feet wide; its height from ceiling vault to pavement is 115 feet. The modern tower was built by Louis XII. in 1514, the architect being an inhabitant of Beauce, a certain Jean Texier.

The carvings in the west front of the cathedral are examples of the beginning of French sculpture, as it emerges from the severity and rigidity of Byzantine types. The human figures are long, slender, and swathed almost like mummies in their drapery. The faces are strongly individualized and seem to be portraits. While these statues must be attributed to a period previous to the middle of the twelfth century, we see in them the originality of French genius struggling to break away from the fetters of Eastern precedent.

Viollet-de-Duc thinks that these faces belong to the type of the ancient Gaul; the flat forehead and raised arch of the eyebrows, the projecting eyes, the long jaws, the peaked and drooping nose, the long upper lip, the wide, closed mouth, the square chin, the long wavy hair are neither German, Roman, or French. There is a blending of firmness, grandeur and refinement in these wonderful countenances, each of them apparently copied from a different model. They are crowned and nimbused as the kings and saints of antique France. A more impressive gallery of illustrious personages is nowhere else to be found.



[36] From "The Cathedrals of France." By permission of the author. Copyright, 1900.