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Destination: Chartres Cathedral

March 4, 2007


Medieval Chartres considered itself the chief sanctuary of the Virgin in Western Europe. The source of this eminence was the “tunic of the Virgin”, a piece of cloth thought to have been worn by the Virgin and given to the Cathedral in the ninth century…

Then they took the holy tunic
From the Mother of God, who departed –
A noble gift once at Constantinople.
At Chartres, a great king of France,
Called Charles the Bald from infancy,
Gave it to [the Church of] Chartres,
Which is still thought to have it.

The Lady who wore it
When she bore the Son of God
Thought it would be put
At Chartres, in her main church,
And that it would be preserved
In the place of which she is called the Lady.

– From a Latin poem of 1262 by Jean le Marchand

From Chartres Cathedral, Edited by Robert Branner, WW Norton & Company, New York, 1969

What is the oldest shrine to Our Lady? The answer is Notre Dame de Chartres—the famed Chartres Cathedral in France. This, perhaps the greatest Gothic Cathedral of all, located fifty miles southwest of Paris, was built above the first shrine ever dedicated to the Mother of God.

The original shrine at Chartres was a prophetic shrine built by pagan Druids, before Our Lady was born. This shrine was built “to the Virgin who would have a Son.” They had a statue of Our Blessed Mother and her Divine Son. This statue was placed in their shrine 100 years before Our Blessed Lord’s birth. Later, when early Christian missionaries reached Chartres, Christianity was joyfully received by the pagans there!…

From “The Oldest Shrine to Our Lady”, Monks of


In manifesting the underlying principles of the Catholic faith, liturgical art is integral to both the lex orandi (mode of prayer) and the lex credendi (mode of belief) of the Church.

The age-old axiom lex orandi, lex credendi originated with the solemn pronouncement of Pope Celestine I, legem credendi statuit lex orandi, regarding the definition of Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God. Then, as now, the liturgy of the universal Church praised Mary as the “Mother of God” and Pope Celestine called the Nestorians heretical for challenging an article of faith that was so deeply ingrained in the prayer life of the Christian community. His words implied that the liturgy of worship is a chief instrument in the perpetuation of true doctrine. Many centuries later, Pope Pius XII, in his 1947 encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, pointed out that the reverse is also true: Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi (the true faith must establish the mode of prayer). In short, what the Church believes and how she prays are intrinsically one—and the liturgical arts form a part of this union. Once the doctrine of the Divine Motherhood of Mary was proclaimed at Ephesus, art came immediately into play. When the Basilica of Santa Maria Magiore was raised at this time in Rome, it was adorned with mosaics depicting the life of Our Lord and the Blessed Mother in accordance with the then-defined doctrine.


By the High Middle Ages, the cruciform church, its exterior covered with scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, and the lives of prophets and saints, reached its zenith in the Gothic Cathedral. These churches were a visual lesson in medieval theology. To quote again from art historian Irwin Panofsky, the task of the cathedral builder was… to make reason clearer by an appeal to the imagination; [he] sought to embody in stone and glass the whole Christian knowledge, theological, moral, natural, and historical, with everything in its place and with all that no longer found its place suppressed … a Summa Theologiae to be visually apprehended.”

Between the years 1140 and 1280, some eighty of these magnificent structures were built and dedicated to the Most Holy Virgin, as had been the great Basilica of Santa Maria Magiore in Rome in the fourth century. The driving force behind the Gothic movement, and its abundant use of imagery rising heavenward in ordered hierarchy of splendor, was the Promethean figure of the Abbe Suger (1081 – 1151) of the Benedictine Abby of St. Denis on the Ile de France. In contrast to the visual austerity of the burgeoning Cistercian piety, and basing his love of beauty in the service of God on the writings of Dionysius the Pseudo-Aeropagite , Abbe Suger not only affirmed the popular devotion of venerating images, but extolled splendor in liturgical settings as an aid to raising mind and heart in contemplation of Divine Truth:

“When out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to the higher world in an analogical manner.”

This perception of Suger–that the soul ascends to contemplation of supernatural Truth through contemplation of natural beauty–became an accepted part of the Roman Catholic tradition and was echoed in philosophic terms by the thirteenth century Scholastic, Duns Scotus: “It is impossible for our mind to rise to the imitation and contemplation of the celestial hierarchies unless it relies upon the material guidance that is commensurate to it.”

Of all these great cathedrals, perhaps the most perfect exemplar is the cathedral of Chartres, southwest of Paris. At this shrine to the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the visual fusion of the lex orandi and lex credendi is complete. The two towers, God and creation, stand stage right and stage left as in a Byzantine icon. Between them is the Rose Window –Mary, the Rose (perfection) of Creation. She is, in the words of Dante: “the rose in which the Word was made flesh.” (Paradiso XXIII). From the entrance which is dominated by Mary, the eye is drawn along the aisle right up to the sanctuary where Christ Himself is offered up daily at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Henry Adams, a non-Catholic, looked up at the Rose Window of Chartres and exclaimed “[It is] a jewel so gorgeous that no earthly majesty could bear comparison with It…Never in seven hundred years has one looked up at this Rose without feeling it to be Our Lady’s promise of paradise.” (Mont -Saint Michel and Chartres)

On the floor of the cathedral, bathed in the light of the great Rose Window, a forty-foot labyrinth is engraved in the pavement. Contrary to some modern speculation, in medieval times the labyrinth was a symbol of the dark forces ascribed to Hell. This certainly holds true for the labyrinth at the great Marian Cathedral of Chartres. At the center of this configuration an inscription, now lost, read: “This stone represents the Cretan’s Labyrinth. Those who enter cannot leave unless they be helped, like Theseus by Ariadne’s thread. The analogy was clear to the medieval mind: to escape the entrapment of the bestial demons, one must place one’s destiny in the hands of the Woman, Mary.

From “Art & Liturgy: the Splendor of Faith” by Hamilton Reed Armstrong (abridged version here )


The cathedral was not designed or built in a cultural vacuum. It is interesting to note that both Panofsky and Raddings and Clark make connections between learning and architecture. Although these authors do not agree at every point, they do each establish this link. For example, each points out that the scholastics were the first to organize arguments into sections and sub-sections. This is seen in contrast to the “books” that were previously used (one is reminded even of Euclid). This tendency is manifested architecturally by the uniform divisions and subdivisions of the space. Clearly the floorplan of Chartres embodies these subdivisions. Using similar arguments, these authors argue for a strong connection between the state of learning and architectural style during this period. Recall that by the time work on the present cathedral was begun (1194) the school at Chartres had a well-established tradition. Otto von Simson points out that at the time of the building of a new cathedral there was already a strong Neoplatonic tradition at the Chartres school, a tradition that focused around mathematical and musical studies. He notes, that “The masters of Chartres, like the Platonists and Pythagoreans of all ages, were obsessed with mathematics: it was considered the link between God and the world, the magical tool that would unlock the secrets of both.” He goes on to give examples of how the scholar Thierry of Chartres used geometry and arithmetic to help bring out aspects of theology. For example, von Simson points out that for Thierry, the equality of the three persons of the Trinity is represented by the equilateral triangle. Thus, at Chartres, anyway, there is already a strong disposition toward a high view of mathematics and we should not be surprised to see this incorporated into the building…

From “Mathematics at Chartres Cathedral” by Richard Stout


Emile Male, the French art historian, said all French cathedrals, except Chartres, “seemed intended to throw into relief some particular truth or doctrine … “Chartres, he said, is “the whole thought of the Middle Ages made visible.”There are estimated to be 10,000 statues outside the cathedral. That is all the more remarkable when one sees the interior which is barren, except for the aesthetically out-of-place Baroque altar. And, while some speak of the “brilliance of Chartres,” that brilliance resides high up in the clerestories, where pencil-width edges of light-bearing glass sparkle in the gloom. In the nave itself, there is what has been called “a somber twilight.”

This twilight creates a relative myopia, which lasts for at least an hour after one has come inside. One can make things out, but not distinctly. What light there is, is strained through the famous cobalt blue and red windows, colors which, curiously enough, give the least visual acuity.

Like other cathedrals’, the windows at Chartres are enormous, and consist of twin lancets surmounted by an elaborate rose. There may be more than one hundred and forty-three windows all told, each forty-feet high; and though this form is repeated at Amiens, Paris, Auxerre, Reims, and Ourscamp, and though the ground plan at Chartres has no closer proximity to a standard plan than the cathedrals of Paris and Reims, the same effects are not obtained in the other cathedrals. At Chartres, everything is perceived in a diffused, pervasive coloristic darkness. And, in the ambulatoire of Notre Dame de Paris, even on a sunny day, one can scarcely see his hand before his face.

We know that the schemata for cathedrals was worked out by theologians, and that the majority of Gothic theologians held (with Dionysius the Areopagite) that the Ineffable can be expressed in concrete form. However, at Chartres, there developed a brand of hybrid Platonism which characterized human understanding and truth in such a way that it became difficult to distinguish between a mystical experience and an intellectual perception.

If intellectual perceptions and mystical experience become indistinguishable, one can live in the mind, and thereby experience God. Dionysius may also be the source for this. In Mystical Theology II.1, he speaks of rising to that Void, where God is utterly Alone, as

… ascending upwards from particular to universal conceptions, we strip off all qualities in order that we may attain a naked knowledge of the Unknowing … that we may begin to see that super-essential Darkness which is hidden by the light that is in existent things.

There is an interesting reference in one of the sermons of John of Salisbury, bishop of Chartres from 1176 until his death in 1180, in which he speaks against those Scholastics who doubt everything, “… even their own senses and their memory.” It may be that the bishop was speaking against sanctions held by his own monks; it is impossible to tell in context. However, we do know that later medieval mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, under what they said was the influence of Dionsyius the Areopagite, referred to God as “the Great Nihil.”

Mystical Theology II.1 begins by saying:

Unto this darkness which is beyond Light, we pray that we may come and may attain unto vision through the loss of sight and knowledge, and that in ceasing thus to see or to know that is beyond all perception and all understanding (for this emptying of our faculties is true sight and true knowledge) and that we may offer Him that which transcends all things the praises of a transcendent hymnody….

That is: giving up sight and knowing physical realities, or things of this world, we rise (intellectually? spiritually?) to the plane of Darkness where God is Alone, where subject and object disappear, as we become like God:

… in proper truth we do but use the elements and syllables and phrases and written terms and words as an aid to our sense; inasmuch as when our soul is moved by spiritual energies unto spiritual things, our senses, together with the thing which they perceive are superfluous when our soul, becoming God-like meets in the blind embraces of an incomprehensible union the rays of unapproachable light.

What we perceive, even at that level of existence, is not God, Who is similar to Himself and to nothing else, but the greatest possible similitude. And what is the difference between “seeing” the Rays of unapproachable Light, while locked in the blind embraces of the union with them, and being on that plane of super-essential divine Darkness which is hidden by the meritricious gaudiness of the lights of created things? None. One is rendered sightless by both. The two concepts are used complementarily. What we perceive is not God, but His effects: Rays of light in the first instance, and the thick Darkness-Beyond-Being in the second.

Extramission, Plato’s theory of optics, is the source of Dionysian light metaphysics; but the light of physical things hides God from us, as we have seen. By shedding that light, we can rise to that Darkness where God is Alone.

If the theologians at Chartres were attracted to the notion that there is no difference between mystical experience and intellectual perception, does it not seem likely that they would have tried to find a way to make that mystical experience and the material world of their cathedral merge? Since they chose to use glass which gives the least visual acuity, and since they could have had clear glass, which was also available, and since a myopic condition which lasts for an hour or more results from their color choice, does it not seem likely that the coloristic darkness is purposeful? But, if purposeful, what is its meaning?

It could be analogous to the stripping away of the senses that Dionysius discusses. However, there is another possibility, which is to be found in examining the windows themselves, the only source of what little light is admitted into the cathedral at Chartres.

Of the sixteen twin lancet formations, eight rosettes show an image of Christ, blessing. He appears in two of the windows in exactly identical form. Since the rosettes themselves are symbolic of the Virgin Mary, does it not seem possible that Christ is to be seen as literally within His Mother’s symbol; or to put it another way: Christ is symbolically present within His mother, not yet born.

The cathedral itself has nine doors, three on the west, three on the north, and three on the south, or three times three, a mystical number signifying perfection. Hence, what one enters at Chartres is an earthly example of the Heavenly Jerusalem. From the time of Fulbert, in the llth century, scholars of Chartres identified the Heavenly Jerusalem as the Bride of Christ, whom they regarded as the Virgin Mary.

Therefore, it is possible to interpret the interior of Chartres’ cathedral as the interior of the Virgin herself, the womb of the Mother of God. The light which falls into that space, in at least eight instances, is Christ Himself, blessing…

From “Pseudo-Dionysius’ Metaphysics of Darkness and Chartres Cathedral” by Laurence J. James


See also:
Wikipedia: Cathedral of Chartres
New Advent: Diocese of Chartres

San Jose State University: Virtual Chartres Cathedral
University of Pittsburgh: Digital Research Library
UNESCO: Solemn World of Lights: Chartres Cathedral

Athena Review: Chartres Cathedral and its Stained Glass
Time Archive: Chartres 1260-1960
Christian History Institute: Chartres Cathedral Burned but Key Relic Survives

Site devoted to the collection of gifts in order to restore the Chartres’ cathedral (in French)


  1. Jacques CLEMENT permalink

    It is the most eloquent and instructive article I have ever read on this very mystical place that any visitor shoud have read before visiting this holy shrine dedicated to Mary the Mother of God for all Roman Christians an more! Congratulations to the Writters! Jacques

  2. Robin permalink

    Especially wavin for the author of this post, as this is the best article i ever had read on Chartres cathedral.

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