Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Cathedral of Chartres

by Zsolt Aradi


This article gives a brief description of The Cathedral of Chartres.

Larger Work

Shrines to Our Lady



Publisher & Date

Farrar, Straus and Young, 1954

There have come into being at intervals in time and space human works of art which fully express the civilization that has given them birth. Such were the Pyramids of the Pharaohs, the great temples of the Aztecs, the pagodas of China, the Parthenon of Pericles. Few will deny that for the Christian civilization of the West this perfection of expression was reached in the great medieval cathedrals of France; were nothing else to remain, they would suffice to make us understand this civilization in its most essential reality. And before such masterpieces even those who do not share the beliefs of the builders of these marvels must admit a stronger impression than mere aesthetic appreciation: Henry Adams describes it as the realization of "an intensity of connection never again reached by any passion whether of religion, of patriotism, or of wealth; perhaps never even paralleled by any single economic effort except in war."

In a single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral category. By way of a modern yardstick, these edifices if built today would cost around three billion dollars. There was no material return expected from this capital investment; in a sense the age that built the cathedrals invested even its money in the supernatural.

The vital force then that brought these shrines into being was nothing other than the Christian faith with its far-reaching traditions. To the artists and the people who built the cathedral, it was the House of God, the Bible in images, and a canticle to praise. The least of its stones bears witness to this faith in a God who became man, who died and rose again. The Virgin was the compassionate mother who, every toiler was sure, would plead for him too, since he felt himself unworthy to approach the feet of her Son.

So all-pervasive was this feeling that Henry Adams could write: "Nearly every great church of the 12th and 13th centuries belonged to Mary, until in France one asks for the Church of Notre Dame as though it meant cathedral; but not satisfied with this, she contracted the habit of requiring in all churches a chapel of her own, called in English the Lady Chapel, which was apt to be as large as the church was, but was always meant to be handsomer; and there behind the high altar, in her own private apartment, Mary sat receiving her innumerable suppliants."

Among those cathedrals dedicated to Our Lady and among the shrines of France, the Cathedral of Chartres stands out in unparalleled significance, both as one of the most venerable sanctuaries in Christendom, and as the most perfect and intact example of the Gothic style. In a unique way, it was the expression of the age that gave it birth, the daughter of the spiritual climate and the collective conscience of the theocentric Middle Ages. Chartres did not spring spontaneously from the earth; rather its roots plunged deep into the centuries that preceded it, back through the Dark Ages to Roman times and perhaps even beyond…

It is said that the early Christians of the place found there a grotto enclosing the statue of a seated woman with her child upon her knees; there the Druids paid honor to the Virgini Pariturae, the Virgin who would give birth to a Divine Child. In the early fourth century a Christian church was built over the grotto, but this church was damaged by fire several times. About 1020, Bishop Fulbert invited all the sovereigns of Europe to continue the building of the cathedral, but three more fires interfered with the progress of the work. The rebuilding of the present edifice was begun around 1195 and by 1250 it had been entirely rebuilt in dressed stone and, it was said at the time, "needed to fear nothing further from temporal fire until the Day of Judgment." Its overall appearance at the time of the cathedral's consecration in 1260 was much as we see it today: its magnificent vault, its luminous interior, its beautiful rose- and other stained-glass windows with their nearly four thousand figures, are the finest in the world; its porches and windows represent in magnificent picture and symbolism the life and attributes of Mary.

How was it built? We can again leave this description to Henry Adams: "When it was started, everybody in the region, in the nobility and the court of France, participated in the common effort. The people who at that time lived in a unity of purpose, when called by the Queen of Heaven to create this new home for her, immediately were caught by passion. And passion can be stilled only when satisfied. Every piece of stone was carried there by human, not mechanical, effort. And it was not built by slaves or serfs as the Pyramids or other monuments of the ancient non-Christian worship. Peasant and king, queen and bourgeois maiden believed in the importance and necessity of putting his or her physical, material and spiritual effort into the cathedral."

After the completion of Chartres, the Virgin as Queen and Mother was gracious with those who built her home. For some hundred years, Chartres has seen many miracles and millions of pilgrims. And although there have been some periods in which the Virgin has looked down "upon an empty church on a dead faith" she has never deserted Chartres. In modern times there have been few years that have not brought in addition to sightseers and art lovers, hordes of suppliants to her feet.

The object of these pilgrimages to Chartres is threefold: to venerate 1) the statue in the crypt of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre, modeled after the figure honored by the Druids; 2) the statue of the Black Virgin, Notre-Dame-Du-Pilier in the upper church; 3) the reliquary said to contain the veil of the Virgin that once belonged to Charlemagne, and was transferred from Aachen to Chartres in 876.

At Chartres, the Virgin continues to accept the instinctive love, faith and devotion of mankind. And few who come for whatever reason can fail to agree with the words of Henry Adams, great grandson, and grandson of two American presidents, a man of the world and product of the almost faithless nineteenth century, who standing in this cathedral avowed:

"If you are to get the full enjoyment of Chartres, you must for the time believe in Mary . . . and feel her presence as the architects did, in every stone they placed, and every touch they chiseled. . . . One would admit anything that she would require; if you had only the soul of a shrimp, you would crawl to kiss her feet."

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