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The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Chartres

Chartres is a small town (about 38k population) 50 miles southwest of Paris. In 1220 the Cathedral de Notre Dame was completed there, a gift of the pious citizens and other donors. For the intervening 800 years this edifice and the town where it resides has been giving spiritual and hospitable welcome to visitors from throughout the world. I recently took the train to visit Chartres on a very gray, chilly day.

What more can I say about the greatest of Gothic cathedrals that has not already been said?

It is the embodiment of the faith, intellect and engineering of the Medieval mind as explained in this short documentary from the Encyclopedia Britannica (that I highly recommend) made in the 1960s. What I can say is that I now look at the world differently since I have encountered the Symbolic World of Jonathan Pageau. It is not that I understand the pervasive symbolism of everything about the cathedral, but I realize there is meaning in the overall structure as well as each detail (watch the video linked to above). Consider one detail, in the incredibly ornate choir screen consisting of hundreds of stone sculptures there is a bishop holding his severed head. Perhaps this is the 3rd century martyr Saint Denis the Bishop of Paris. He is said to have continued to preach after he was executed. But also within the screen are headless figures that were spoiled during the French revolution. Or in an exterior sculptureChrist is supported by griffins, the protectors of treasure. I also observed that he famous labyrinth embedded in the floor was largely obscured with chairs and the ongoing restoration was evident in two adjacent sections of the ceiling.

The cathedral has a remarkable history of survival. The first church on the site dates to the 4th century. Four more had been erected and destroyed up to the late 12th century. “On the night of 10 July 1194, another major fire devastated the cathedral. Only the crypt, the towers, and the new facade survived. The cathedral was already known throughout Europe as a pilgrimage destination, due to the reputed relics of the Virgin Mary that it contained.…Reconstruction began almost immediately. Some portions of the building had survived, including the two towers and the royal portal on the west end, and these were incorporated into the new cathedral.” During the revolution the local Revolutionary Committee decided to destroy the cathedral with explosives. As the story goes, a local architect, consulted on how to best bring the edifice down, saved it by convincing the committee that the rubble would take years to clear away.  This story sounds a bit fishy to me, but the fact that the cathedral survived with only a few lost heads to statues is just one of its miraculous escapes. Like Notre Dame in Paris in 2017, “in 1836, due to the negligence of workmen, a fire began which destroyed the lead-covered wooden roof and the two belfries, but the building structure and the stained glass were untouched. The old roof was replaced by a copper-covered roof on an iron frame.” Perhaps the most interesting escape for the cathedral occurred during WWII. In the breakout from the Normandy beachhead in August 1944 the American 3rd Army under General Patton headed south and encountered German resistance at Chartres. The cathedral is the highest landmark for miles around the surrounding farmland. So on the morning of the 16th the general staff decided to destroy the cathedral because, they believed, it would make an ideal location to site the German artillery and for snipers. One staff officer, Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith Jr, recognized the abomination of this plan. He volunteered to confirm the danger posed by the cathedral towers. Taking a single volunteer driver with him, he skirted the German patrols and found the cathedral empty. He mounted the tower and hung an American flag and rang the bells to signal that the cathedral was safe. He died in combat later that day in the town of Lèves near Chartres.

Chartres, like many small French towns, is a delight in itself. The well preserved 1930s train station is the first hint to the visitor that the town has more to offer than only Medieval treasures. For example, in the business district there is a wonderful Renaissance era house. The covered market built in 1898 is in the style of Baltard in his use of steel. A more grand building is the public library (actually called with more accuracy a mediatheque). It was built as a post office in the 1920s in a neo renaissance style with art deco features. The only note off key for me was that the short walk on the main street leaving the station toward the cathedral is dominated by kebab stands.

My wish to LRC readers is to think of Chartres as a symbol of hope, a gift to humanity that is especially welcome during this holiday season. Think of the beauty that is possible by inspired human hands.Think of its unlikely survival through the centuries during the dark days we are experiencing now.

My photos follow below.

The imposing west entrance and the far from twin towers. The Christmas tree is a fitting symbol of symbiotic unity of the town and cathedral. The famous flying buttresses of Chartres.

Christ and the griffins, “the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. Since classical antiquity, griffins were known for guarding treasures and priceless possessions.”

The magnificent windows of the west portal. The restored choir looking toward the east end.

The Renaissance version of the comic version of the life of Jesus and Mary. What looks like a bishop, perhaps Saint Denis of Paris, who has not lost his severed head.

These heads were lost during the revolution. Evidence of the physical restoration in adjacent sections of the barrel vaulted ceiling.

The Renaissance era house and the covered market built in 1898.

The pretentious public library (actually called with more accuracy a mediatheque) and the train station.

The post The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Chartres appeared first on LewRockwell.

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