“What moves me most in this church is the feeling of wisdom which overcomes me.”
Chartres as an Inspirational Place
In the 9th century, Chartres received the gift of the sancta camisia, the veil that Mary is said to have worn during the Annunciation. Thus Chartes, owning one of the most important relics of the Occident, became a central place of pilgrimage to Mary. Destroyed by many fires, the church was rebuilt in rising dimensions. Finally, at the beginning of the 13th century, the best builders, stonemasons, and glass artists of the age created this synthesis of arts that made cultural history – a milestone of the Gothic.
The intellectual basis for this Gothic building was created at the School of Chartres. The prime-age of this school started in 1006 with Bishop Fulbert.
The striving for the “entire world” which integrated also pre-Christian knowledge (e.g. Pythagorean, Egyptian, and Celtic elements) was born with the hope to more and more distinctly comprehend the “Divine Order of the World”. Building the cathedral was to visibly shape this newly achieved spiritual conception of the world: a reflection of Creation, a compendium of Christian belief and life, and a cosmos of renewal built of stone and glass.
Inspiration for the Present
The cathedral of Chartres has its intellectual foundation in the universal, theological, and philosophical approaches of the School of Chartres. This school reached its apogee in the years 1000 – 1200. In its worldview, as well as its implementation in the Christian faith and life, it breathes a view that at times the institutional church has lost nowadays. Thus the message of the Cathedral today relates to the desire of many people for a holistic view of the world in which human beings are involved in the Laws of Creation.
Awarness of Form, Rhythm and Measure
The builders at the time considered themselves as earthly representatives of the great “Heavenly Builder”. This belief led to the desire to emulate “divine rules” in all human construction and design. In cathedrals, God’s Order as manifested in Creation should show the purest form possible. Thus buildings arose in which harmony appeared to be congealed in stone. Musical number proportions are reflected in the structural geometry. In dealing with polarities such as compression and resolution, light and dark, up and down, the right measure was sought and balance achieved.
Chronological rhythms such as day and night, the lunar cycle, or the course of the year were of great significance and manifested in countless depictions. This rhythm is why the cathedral today is often, when observed, felt as arranging and structuring. It awakens a longing for a consciousness of form, rhythm, structure, and freedom.
Balance of Opposites
Most people, when entering the cathedral of Chartres, feel a structured swinging harmony despite or perhaps because of the contrasts. There are towers that reach into the sky, wells dug deep into rock, interior heavy pillars that stand firmly on the ground and in lofty heights that grow into the vault. And there are more contrasts within.
The medieval builders mastered the art of bringing the polarities into balance at a high level. The structure of the architecture in form and function obeyed a magnificent context and was supported by the sculptures and the window images. This constructed order is most impressive to today’s visitors through the sonority of the music.
It is the perceivable balance between interiority and exteriority that is met between the wisdom of the passing theological Platonism and Aristotelianism’s emerging clarity and sophistication. The building in Chartres was constructed during this small window in history, at the beginning of the 13th century, when both philosophies flowed into each other.
Today’s world overemphasises exterior aspects – the visible, measurable, and material things. This causes many people to find a need for a better balance between interiority and exteriority and between vita contemplativa and vita activa.
Values as a foundation
The knowledge of the builders and iconographers of those days was possible only through extensive studies of the past and a strong vision motivated and supported by a deep faith which they named “Heavenly Jerusalem”. Even today, when entering the cathedral, the life attitude of those builders is noticeable – it is integrated in the stream between past consciousness and future vision. This leads to a sense of responsibility and self-entitlement which in turn creates a distinct canon of values and rules. Lasting values require continuity and discipline which are possible only
through a secure foundation with standing values.
This may be a further reason for today’s fascination with this building. Values continue to loose significance and many feel detached as autonomous individuals act egocentrically.
Consciousness of Tradition
Through its images, the cathedral of Chartres conveys a deep respect and admiration for its ancestors and tradition: For example, four glass windows show the evangelists as young men seated on the shoulders of four exalted, large, and standing prophets. Associated with this theme was a statement that the evangelists, as dwarfs on the shoulders of the giant prophets, could see further – but only because they were carried and lifted by them.
Thus the old becomes humus for the new and enables growth – and through layering, history is created. Such a view leads to a strong awareness of the universe not only in its geographical expansion (horizontal), but also in its dimension as regards to content and time: from the past through the present and into the future (vertical).
A Building for Mary
Early in ecclesiastical history, Mary was elevated and became a symbol of the Church. The cathedral Notre-Dame-de-Chartres is explicitly dedicated to Mary. This was further affirmed through the gift of the sancta camisia, the robe of Mary (also referred to as the veil) in the 9th century. A multitude of sculptures and window representations show Mary in various facets: Mary as virgin, as child bearing, as Mother of God, as suffering, and also as the Black Madonna and Queen of Heaven. To this day, for believers, she has the role of mediator and advocate. She is the saint for all mothers and fathers in this world; who each in their own way know the possibilities and dangers for their children on earth.
The depictions of Mary in Chartres unite so many aspects and qualities that she appears as an archetype for the female per se and as a personification of the female aspect of the Divine. Rediscovering Mary in this complexity is an important stimulus in the present day. It makes for a deeper understanding of the roots of our Western culture.