08 February 2010


The filmmaker Wash Westmoreland has the uncanny ability to find images to illustrate my innermost thoughts — often before I’ve had a chance to think of them. This is how he sees the light at Chartres.
Photograph by Wash Westmoreland©

Among the many resolutions I made but did not keep when I moved to France was to make an annual pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres: it’s nearly five years since I set foot there. But this week, chance brought me to its door, on a sunny afternoon, when there were few tourists about and, as we made our approach by car, the Cathedral rose up majestically above the surrounding farmland, like a great frigate on the high seas. I hadn’t planned the visit, but how could I resist?

The Cathedral is built on a hilltop, and such is the esteem in which it is held by local landowners that, not only in town but in the surrounding countryside, as well, nothing stands taller. Depending on which route you take, you will always get this unobstructed and awe-inspiring view. It is especially impressive on those days when the light is golden, the sky steely, and the fields all amber and emerald. My luck this time wasn’t quite so good, yet I know what medieval travelers must have felt, as they drew near the town and saw what is still the principal landmark in the area.

Between my first visit, as a high-school student in 1977, and my second, in the early 1990s, I studied the Cathedral, as part of an art-history course in Gothic architecture. My professor required that we be able to distinguish, from a single photo of a statue or a piece of stained glass, one saint from another, and to identify the church it came from. Though I passed the course, nowadays I know only the most famous saints by their most familiar attributes (Wheel = Catherine), and the surest means of telling which cathedral they’re from is to go there.

And so, as I contemplate their mysteries, it’s clear that, if I’d just look a little longer, and think a little harder, they’d divulge their secrets. I might even be able to name the Old Testament kings.

This visit to Chartres was a pit stop, really, and afforded me minutes, not hours, to study. I concentrated on inspiration — breathing in the atmosphere. The best part of this is to play in the light that shines through the stained-glass windows, and it was here at Chartres that I understood the significance of that light to the people who worshiped here first.

In the Middle Ages, most people owned no glass of any kind, least of all on their windows; the properties of colored light (so humdrum to us who are surrounded by neon, television, computer and movie screens, and so on) were exotic to my ancestors, and the colored glass must have resembled the jewels of kings, which peasants seldom saw at all.

So they came to Chartres, which rose higher than any other building they knew or thought possible, its masses of stone majestic and yet not heavy, climbing purposefully toward the unreachable heavens. And once inside — on sunny days — the people might stretch out their hands to see their skin splashed with red and gold, and even bleu de Chartres, in light that moved with the sun, slowly. Do you wonder that they took this for proof of God’s grace?

For that matter, do you wonder that, on my first trip to France, I learned to genuflect and to make the sign of the Cross, because I wanted to be part of whatever had made anything so magnificent? Nowadays I simply accept that art is my religion, and that, by sheer coincidence, many churches are also temples of art.

Since I first saw the place, the stones of Notre Dame de Chartres have seemed washed with India ink, but on this visit I noted that a cleanup is underway, and parts of the church interior are as bright and white as if brand-new. I’m not entirely happy with the prospect; so far the results are a little too perfect, and one thing we admire about Chartres is the sublime imperfection of the place, starting with its mismatched towers.

The old dark stones seemed to throw the stained glass into sharper contrast, and to carry us back to the (literal) Dark Ages; the cleaned stones look more like a modern replica than like the real cathedral. And since Viollet-LeDuc, we’ve had the chance to see, in a few privileged locations (as at Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris), the kinds of wall paintings that the medieval French used to decorate their holy places: I’m not sure the original congregants would have approved of the bright, bare stones, either.

But I’ll reserve judgment. Airiness and light were among the principal goals of the architects of the great cathedrals. Maybe the cleanup will help us to appreciate the degree to which they succeeded.

Sometimes I try to imagine the conversation at the city council, back in the twelfth century, when construction of the cathedral was first proposed. “We’re going to build a gigantic church; it will require the efforts of the whole town, and in all likelihood, the project won’t be completed when our grandchildren themselves are grandparents. We’ll never see the fruit of our labors.”

This in itself would provoke no complaint, but the fact that, in Chartres and elsewhere, other grandiose churches had been built, only to burn or collapse, would surely have been discussed.* In the case of Chartres, someone must have mentioned the Veil of the Virgin Mary, a relic that miraculously survived a couple of fires in the church. Was this not a sign that God had elected the people of Chartres, and that it was their duty to build something magnificent?

Besides (someone undoubtedly said), a cathedral would be good for tourism. It still is. Chartres does have other economic engines, but they don’t compare with Notre Dame. For example, each time I come to town, I take coffee or lunch at La Reine de Saba (the Queen of Sheba), next-door to the cathedral. It’s a nice little restaurant, and reasonably priced, but it would not be a regular stop on my itinerary if its terrace weren’t a few meters from the south transept. Even in bad weather, the view is sublime.

I didn’t see Malcolm Miller on this visit. He’s an English art historian who, many years ago, consecrated his life to Notre Dame de Chartres, not like a priest but like a husband. Today, in the twilight of that marriage, he knows by loving heart each and every detail of his spouse’s body and soul. He’s written several books, and he gives little one-hour tours of the cathedral, balancing the needs of the uninitiated, the dilettante, and the expert.

I took his tour once, when a friend was visiting from Texas, and what impressed me most, perhaps, was this: Miller wasn’t bored by his own spiel, after all these years and several recitations per day.

Even when Miller’s not around Chartres, I think of him. I wonder whether I will ever know anything — or anyone — the way he knows that cathedral. Yet it’s not my competitive spirit (far from it) that keeps bringing me back.

*NOTE: After all, the flying buttress isn’t something you invent because it’s pretty. You resort to it after other methods have failed: it is what prevents a very high wall from falling outward, as many walls presumably did, prior to the distinctive innovation.


Girl From Texas said...

Well researched and detailed historical fiction does exist on many of the topics you imagine(who built this, why, what were their thoughts, plans,etc) in Ken Follet's novels Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Each book is 1000+ pages, but they are enjoyable reads. Anyone with the fortitude to wade through Proust could do it.

William V. Madison said...

Perhaps you're right, but I'm betting that people at fancy cocktail parties aren't nearly so intimidated when one tells them one has just finished reading Ken Follett.

Girl From Texas said...

Speaking of which, I am reading Proust was a Neuroscientist, and enjoying it immensely. Basic premise : art and literature have long understood basic components of the human mind, which science is only now beginning to understand. Great chapters on Whitman, George Eliot, Escoffier, Cezanne, Stravinsky, Virginia Woolf, et al.