According to art historian Emile Male, “Chartres is the mind of the Middle Ages manifest.” Begun in 1020, the Romanesque cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1194; only the south tower, west front and crypt remained. Inside, the sacred veil of the Virgin relic was the sole treasure to survive. In a wave of enthusiasm, peasants and lords alike helped to rebuild the church in just 25 years. There were few alterations after 1250 and, unlike other cathedrals, Chartres was unscathed by the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution. The result is a Gothic cathedral with a true “Bible in stone” reputation.
The 13th-century labyrinth, inlaid in the nave floor, was a feature of most medieval cathedrals. As a penance, pilgrims used to follow the tortuous route on their knees, echoing the Way of the Cross. The journey of 262 metres (851 feet), around 11 bands of broken concentric circles, took at least one hour to complete.
The glory of Chartres is its stained glass. Donated by the Guilds between 1210 and 1240, this dazzling collection of stained glass is world-renowned. Over 150 windows illustrate biblical stories and daily life in the 13th century (brings binoculars if you can). During both World Wars, the windows were dismantled piece by piece and removed for safety. Some windows were restored and re-leaded in the 1970s but much more remains to be done.
Reading the windows is both an art and a spiritual exercise. Each window is divided into panels, which are usually read from left to right, from bottom to top (from earth to heaven). The number of figures or abstract shapes used is symbolic: three stands for the church; squares and the number four symbolise the material world or the four elements; circles represent eternal life.