1. It’s located to the southwest of Paris
Chartres Cathedral is located in the town with the same name, just 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the southwest of the city of Paris. Chartres is a relatively small town with a population of around 40,000, but its history dates back to Roman times.
It used to be one of the main towns of a Celtic tribe called the “Carnutes” during the Gallo-Roman period. Back then, the town was referred to as “Autricum,” a name referring to the “Autura” river, now the “Eure.”
The cathedral is by far the most prominent landmark in the town and is also the seat of the Bishop of Chartres.
2. It’s considered to be the epitome of French Gothic art
The church, which is also referred to as the “Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres,” has been recognized in France as a “Monument Historique” since the year 1862.
In 1979, it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its high cultural value. It has been described as a masterpiece and the high point of French Gothic art.
This really means something in a country so rich in wonderful Gothic architectural structures.
3. Multiple cathedrals were built on the site since the 4th century
It’s estimated that at least 5 cathedrals have occupied the site since the 4th century. The original church was built against the fortified Gallo-Roman wall of the town of Autricum but destroyed somewhere in the year 743.
Danish pirates set fire to the second church in 858 and the third church was destroyed yet again by fire in the early 11th century.
4. Construction of the current cathedral started in the 12th century
The 4th church was built in the Romanesque architectural style halfway through the 12th century and some parts of this structure were incorporated into the church we see today. If it wasn’t for the fire on July 10 of the year 1194, Chartres Cathedral would most probably have remained a Romanesque church forever!
Even though the fire destroyed most parts of the church, the south tower and the royal portal on the western part of the church were incorporated into the new Gothic church.
5. Most of the Gothic church was constructed within 26 years
One of the most fascinating facts about Chartres Cathedral is that the new church was completed within 25 years. Construction had started shortly after the fire demolished most parts of the Romanesque building in the year 1194 and the church was completed by the year 1220.
Considering the size of the structure, this was an extraordinary achievement. Here are some of the church’s stats:
- Length: 130 meters (430 feet)
- Width: 32 meters (105 feet) / 46 meters (151 feet)
- Nave: height 37 meters (121 feet); width 16.4 meters (54 feet)
- Floor area: 10,875 square meters (117,060 square feet)
- Height of south tower: 105 meters (344 feet)
- Height of north tower: 113 meters (371 feet)
Despite the church being largely completed in the year 1220, the finishing took a whole lot longer. Therefore, the church was only consecrated in the presence of King Louis IX of France in the year 1260.
6. The northern spire was built in the early 16th century
One of the most intriguing facts about Chartres Cathedral is that we can clearly see the different architectural styles reflected in both towers of the church. The Romanesque south tower was constructed between 1144 and 1150 and is in remarkably excellent shape.
The north tower was completed much later between 1507 and 1513 in the Flamboyant Gothic style which features elaborate decorations and fascinating pinnacles and buttresses. It was built then because lightning had demolished the original south tower in 1506.
7. It was the venue for the coronation of the King of France in 1594
At the end of the 16th century, both Reims and Paris were occupied by the Catholic League during the French Wars of Religion. Reims Cathedral had been the venue for royal coronations since the first Frankish King Clovis in the 6th century.
The importance of Chartres Cathedral was emphasized on February 27, 1594, because it became the venue of the coronation of King Henry IV of France on that day.
8. The church was nearly destroyed with explosives during the French Revolution
During the French Revolution, many churches were destroyed completely or partially. A prime example of this was the church that was demolished around the Tour Saint Jacques in Paris, while the tower was left standing.
A mob of revolutionaries attempted to destroy parts of the cathedral but ended up being stopped by the people of Chartres who considered the church to be a very important historical monument.
When a committee of revolutionaries was assigned to take care of the destruction of the cathedral, they asked a local architect how they should place the explosives to perform a controlled demolition.
His answer saved the building because he told them it would take multiple years to clean up the mess of such an endeavor that it wasn’t worthwhile. Because of this, the church still stands in pristine condition today!
9. A similar faith nearly awaited the cathedral during World War II
The second man who single-handedly saved Chartres Cathedral was American Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. During the Battle of Chartres between August 16 and 18, 1944, he received instructions to destroy the cathedral because it was assumed the towers were being used by the enemy as a range for artillery.
Griffith didn’t give the order to destroy one of the most fascinating monuments in France and wanted to inspect the site first. Because he did, it turned out the church wasn’t being used by the Germans and because of this, it wasn’t destroyed.
Unfortunately, he died the same day on August 16, 1944, in a nearby village during combat.
10. The 3 portals of the church are richly decorated with sculptures
There are 3 magnificent portals which are all richly decorated with sculptures and reliefs, mostly depicting biblical stories. The western portal, also referred to as the “Royal Portal,” is the one that dates back to the original structure and was completed between 1145 and 1155 and mainly focuses on stories related to Jesus Christ.
The northern transept portal is dedicated to stories from the Old Testament, and the portal on the southern side is dedicated to events that happened after the crucifixion of Christ.
Both these portals were constructed somewhere in the 13th century.
11. Some of the stained glass windows date back to the 12th century
Another magnificent feature of Chartres Cathedral is its stained glass windows, some dating back to the original structure built halfway through the 12th century. The 3 windows, which were completed in the year 1145, have been restored in the 13th and 19th centuries.
There are also 3 large rose windows that date back to the early 13th century and are in remarkably good condition.
12. The crypt below the cathedral dates back to the 9th century
One of the most amazing facts about Chartres Cathedral is that the oldest surviving structure dates back to the 9th century! This section is located below the cathedral and is called the “Saint Lubin Crypt.”
This old crypt is surrounded by a huge crypt referred to as the “Saint Fulbert Crypt” which was completed in the year 1025. This crypt, which is U-shaped and forms the base of the current cathedral, has a total length of 230 meters (754 feet), making it the third-largest crypt in Europe behind that of St. Peter’s Basilica and Canterbury Cathedral!
13. There’s a huge 12th-century labyrinth located within the church
The interior of the church features a labyrinth that was created in the early 13th century. This wasn’t an uncommon feature in Gothic cathedrals but most were destroyed because it was assumed they formed a distraction from practicing the religion.
The labyrinth isn’t a maze because only 1 line can be followed. It’s a metaphor for walking the right path on the way to salvation in the Christian religion. Once a week, the chairs in the nave are removed so people can follow the path of the labyrinth in the church!
14. It still attracts Christian pilgrims because of a famous relic
Apart from admiring the fascinating towers, the sculptures and reliefs decorating the portals, and the magnificent interior of the church which includes a choir wall featuring 200 statues in 41 scenes, the church is still an important destination for Christian pilgrims today.
It has been since at least the 12th century because it’s a very important relic in Christianity called the “Sancta Camisa.” This relic is believed to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Jesus Christ’s birth.
This veil is displayed in a section called the “Chapel of the Martyrs” within the church.
15. The cathedral is used for an amazing light show
Chartres is a historical city and the local government has found an amazing way to promote its rich heritage. They do so in the form of a light show referred to as “Chartres en Lumières” which simply means that the most important monuments in the city are bathing in light every night.
As you surely expected, Chartres Cathedral is the centerpiece of this fascinating spectacle!