Located in the city of Chartres, fifty miles southwest of Paris, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres was begun around 1194 and essentially completed by 1260. It is considered a marvel of architecture and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture anywhere. It is famed for the preservation of most of its original elements including the famous stained glass windows. Famously the destination for religious pilgrimages, Chartres Cathedral continues to draw visitors from around the world.
The beauty of Chartres is world-renowned. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Named for the Virgin Mary, the cathedral is home to the Sacta Camisia, a garment believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary and received by Charlemagne as a gift during a stay in Jerusalem. People have made pilgrimages to the church to view this relic since the Middle Ages. Chartres Cathedral is not the first gothic structure built on the site. Previous churches were destroyed fires. The present cathedral was dedicated to King Louis IX in 1260. During the Middle Ages the cathedral was the center of the town’s life and served as the religious and even economic center as evidenced by the marketplace that existed around and sometimes within its walls.
Chartres Cathedral is designed in a Latin Cross, called a cruciform, located on a hill rising above the town. The cathedral is the first example of a structure to showcase flying buttresses as a major element of the design’s appearance. The flying buttresses were essential, of course, to support the nave’s height (118 feet) and the immense size of the clerestory windows. The single aisle running through the nave measures ninety-two feet. The ambulatory, located on the east end, features five semi-circular chapels. The roof of the cathedral is a pale green. The church is often photographed from its west front entrance which also features the spires.
Chartres is famous for many reasons, but its mostly original stained glass windows are often viewed as the crowning beauty of this illustrious structure. The windows date to the early 1200s and represent one of the most complete collections of medieval stained glass found anywhere in the world. The cathedral boasts 152 original windows (out of 186). Some of the windows, like the north rose window, were donated by royal figures like Blanche of Castile. The cathedral features three rose windows in all that portray Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Last Judgment. Chartres is also famous for its ancient stone floor which is decorated with its original labyrinth dating to 1205. The single path through the famed labyrinth is 964 feet long and was typically practiced by contemplating monks.
Chartres is additionally noted for the beauty of its sculptures like the monumental screen which is constructed around the choir. The porches and entrances of the cathedral feature statues holding swords, books, and crosses. West façade statuary depicts the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The Royal Portal features kings and queens. Chartres has a total of nine portals. The statue of the Madonna, known as Notre Dame de Pilar, is among the cathedral’s best-known works. The cathedral remains one of France’s most famous landmarks.