Chartres, capital of France’s Department of Eure-et-Loir, stands on the Eure River, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of Paris. An important center in pre-Roman Gaul, it was one of the sacred places of the Druids. Overrun by the Normans, the region later settled down, and late in the thirteenth century it became the appanage of Charles de Valois, who was briefly (1284–1290) king of Aragon and Sicily. François I made it a Duchy in 1528. Louis XIV granted the Duchy of Chartres to the House of Orléans, an arrangement that lasted until about 1850.
Chartres prospered in the Middle Ages because it possessed a precious relic—a piece of oriental silk believed to be the veil worn by the Virgin Mary during the birth of Christ. Chartres therefore became an important pilgrimage site, and the chapter of the cathedral established trade fairs to coincide with the four annual feasts of the Virgin. The late-twelfth-century Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady at Chartres, recognized, as “a reference point of French Gothic art,” is a milestone in the development of Western architecture because it employs all the elements of a new structural system: the pointed arch; the rib-and-panel vault; and, most significantly, the flying buttress.
Only the Royal Portal on the west front (1150–1175) and the crypt remain of the Romanesque cathedral commenced on the site of an earlier church in 1145. The remainder was destroyed by fire in 1194, and, not least because religious fervor was running high in France, construction immediately commenced on a new cathedral, a “turning point in Gothic architecture” that rose upon the foundations of the old. Financed by all levels of local society (which also provided much of the voluntary labor), most of the building was finished by 1223. The cathedral was consecrated in 1260
This Chartres was architecturally radical because the upper part of the walls above the arcades that separated aisles from nave was essentially stone frames for the expansive colored stained-glass windows, punctuated by the piers that carried the 112-foot-high (34-meter) quadripartite vaults. The lateral stability of earlier churches had depended upon massive masonry walls with frugal openings; here, there were diaphanous, luminous walls because the stability was provided by flying buttresses, used in a way previously unseen.
Flying buttresses, derived by the master masons by persistent experiment, are masonry arches that transmit the sideways thrusts of the stone roof vaults to vertical buttresses—in effect, very thick but very narrow walls at right angles to the building—constructed, against the outside walls of the aisles. The resultant force of the thrust and the tremendous selfweight of the towering buttresses created a stable structural system. Once hidden beneath the roofs, at Chartres the flying buttresses were exposed and decorated as a feature of the architecture. There was now available a construction system in which rib-and-panel vaulting (employing the pointed arch) was carried by piers and buttresses whose stability was ensured by the dynamic balance of thrust and counterthrust. These had been used in Durham Cathedral, completed around 1133, and the pointed arch had been exploited in Suger’s St. Denis a decade later. They reached a mature synthesis at Chartres in 1194, where, as one historian has observed, the master mason—sadly, he remains anonymous—“outlined new principles which would inspire all the great architects of the thirteenth century.” After Chartres, the builder-architects of northern Europe further developed the structural skeleton whose columns, arches, and flying buttresses liberated the wall from its load-bearing function. The inevitable result was that the interiors of the Gothic cathedrals became loftier and lighter, illuminated by vast expanses of stained glass. Of those transcendent spaces, Chartres was the forerunner.
The cathedral is celebrated for its 152—originally there were 186—stained-glass windows, dating from about 1200 to 1235, with a total area exceeding 21,500 square feet (2,000 square meters). Used to instruct the illiterate masses, most are replete with figures from Bible stories and religious legends; others propagandize the trade guilds and organizations that paid for them. The architecture of Chartres is also enriched with sculpture; in all, there are about 2,000 figures, some dating from the Romanesque church. These figures, too, are remarkably innovative, because they are among the earliest medieval carvings to depart from the iconographic renderings of human beings to impart individual features, the reawakening of a naturalism that foreshadows the rise of Christian humanism in Europe.
Chartres has altered only a little in its 800-year lifetime. Another fire damaged it in the twelfth century, and the northwest spire was hit by lightning and replaced between 1507 and 1513. The church survived the political and religious conflicts of the sixteenth century and, remarkably, those of the French Revolution (1787–1799). The roof was damaged by fire in 1836, necessitating replacement. The current problem is more insidious, and preservation programs are in hand to guard against air-pollution damage to the historic stained-glass windows.