While I had been to Chartres France before and of course visited its majestic cathedral, I didn’t remember how much of a spiritual presence it had, inside and out. Spending time in the Chartres Cathedral was one of my favorite experiences on a recent fall “Spiritual France” tour, which included homes of famous saints, cathedrals, churches and cemeteries throughout Normandy and Brittany. With her 4,000 sculpted statues, 5,000 figures and artisan craftmanship steeped in 12th and 13th century design, the Cathedral pretty much has everyone at “hello.”
It’s no surprise that its listed and registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The cathedral touts a number of impressive facts, but the one that is bound to impress any American is that the first cathedral was built as far back as the 4th century, with the oldest relics dating back to the 9th century with the crypt of Saint-Lubin. Several buildings were then rebuilt on the same site.
After a fire in the 11th century, Bishop Fulbert had a new cathedral built. Today, all what remains of this cathedral is the crypt, the third largest in Europe after Saint Peter’s in Rome and Canterbury. In 1134, most of the city was apparently devasted by a fire, however the cathedral was thankfully saved. A new facade was built afterwards and completed between 1150 and 1155, the Old Tower roughly around 1170.
If those “date” stats aren’t enough to impress, how about its sheer size? The North Tower (New Bell) stands 112 meters tall, the South Tower (Old Bell) is at 103 meters and the total length of the nave extends to nearly 33 meters.
Below is a shot of the cathedral at night during the “Light Show.” Be sure to read my separate post that focuses on the Chartres Light Show alone. It’s an experience you’ll not want to miss.
The main facade has conserved the original 12th century Royal Gateway and its large picture windows, as well as the south tower and the lower sections of the north tower. The nine sculpted gateways (the Cathedral’s three gateways on each side) allow you to see the precision of the artists and sculptors of the time. The images show “catechism in images” — there are more than 4,000 sculpted figures in total.
The use of candles throughout create a translucent effect in various parts of the cathedral.
The candles combined with the powerful presence of the saints and figurines represented throughout in stone, granite and stained glass, could be part of the reason why the cathedral exudes more spirituality than a lot of cathedrals and churches I’ve spent time in the past.
Then there’s the stained glass, which is a combination of moving, awe-inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful. They sparkle in various tones depending on what the light is like in the cathedral at any given time. With 172 in total, they cover 2,600 square meters with roughly 5,000 represented characters.
The stained glass inside the walls of Chartres represent the richest collection in Europe both in terms of their age and beauty. Mostly representing the times of the 12th and 13th centuries, with the 12th century being most known for that period’s use of bright blue, which you’ll see throughout the stained glass images below.
The mark of their donators appears on them: the coats of arms for the important families or scenes describing specific trades or corporations.
Each year, the cathedral receives roughly 1,300,000 visitors from around the world, eager to feel the same strong spiritual presence of Chartres as I felt on that very special afternoon. For roughly 300,000 of those visitors, they are there as an act of faith and for others, they visit for a myriad of reasons, some of which include spirituality and religion, culture and arts.
Throughout the year, pilgrims from France and foreign diocese and parishes from around the world visit the cathedral. One worth noting is the annual mass in Tamil for 5,000 Paris-region residents originally from Sri Lanka.
It’s also known for its having the International Organ Festival every year. In addition, the Grand Prix de Chartres attracts international virtuosos and there are special organ recital events throughout the summer and fall months.
The Chartres Must See Checklist includes:
- Notre Dame Cathedral (Saint-Peter Church, Saint-Aignan Church, Rechevres Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church and Saint-Andre Collegiate Church).
- Fine Arts Museum for large collections of Vlamincks, earthenware, ancient tools and enamels.
- International Stained Glass Center – see my separate write up on this place…I absolutely loved the experience and this is a must do before leaving Chartres.
- Archaeology Museum – explores the local daily life of inhabitants and craftsmen since the Neolithic period through the 20th century.
- The Picassiette House – it was built between 1930 and 1962 with broken pieces of earthenware and crockery and as such, is a unique example of Naive art. I really wish i had time to see this – I absolutely love the creativity behind this house.
- TEA – have tea here because it’s one of things you do in Chartres. Be sure to order a macaroon with it. Teas of Chartres include Blue Tea, Lights of Chartres Tea, Kiss of Chartres Tea and Henry IV Tea. I had to mention this since I’m a huge fan of teas as many who know me will know. It could have something to do with the years I spent living in England.
- Take a Cooking Lesson – I would have loved to do this. The tourism office can help you set this up – email resa at orchartres dot fr. The cooking sessions occur in the prestigious setting of La Maison du Saumon.
- Antiques – if you have room in your luggage or don’t mind shipping, take a walk on the wild side, the ancient wild side that is, by visiting their more than ten antique stores in the center of the city. Antiquities available include furniture, paintings, jewelry, ornaments and art objects.
- Flea Market – I’m a sucker for markets — any and all of them, so worth mentioning for your list if you love them too, is the year-round market they have on the fourth Sunday of each month on Epars Square.
- The Old Town – the old town is charming. You can meander and weave in and out of the old districts, best to do by foot of course. Head down the Jardin de l’Eveche, where you’ll get a stunning view of the city. You’ll get there by following the Rue des Ecuyers, cross over the stone bridge which crosses the Eure River and then walking past some of the ancient half timbered houses you’ll pass along the way. There are some interesting thematic guided tours which help educate you about the city’s archaeological heritage.
Also a fun discovery are two very cool 3D immersion apps which allow you to take a 3D tour of the sanctuary as the inhabitants of ancient Chartres experienced it 2,000 years ago and to discover the development of the site of Guillaume Gate and its barbican from Antiquity to present day. To download both, type in Saint-Martin-au-Val in Situ and Chartres La Porte Guillaume In Situ in the App Store and Google Play search engines.
Be sure to check out our Brittany/Normandy food & wine section (and posts), as well as our general section on Brittany/Normandy. And, of course for the passionate about all things France, we have quite a bit of content in our France section as well as Paris.
Note: My trip was hosted by the French Tourism Board, however all opinions expressed are entirely my own.