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Chartres Cathedral, is a medieval Roman Rite Catholic cathedral located in Chartres, France, about 80 kilometres southwest of Paris. It is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The current cathedral, mostly constructed between 1194 and 1250, is the last of at least five which have occupied the site since the town became a bishopric in the 4th century.
The cathedral is in an exceptional state of preservation. The majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact, while the architecture has seen only minor changes since the early 13th century. The building’s exterior is dominated by heavy flying buttresses which allowed the architects to increase the window size significantly, while the west end is dominated by two contrasting spires – a 105-metre (349 ft) plain pyramid completed around 1160 and a 113-metre (377 ft) early 16th-century Flamboyant spire on top of an older tower. Equally notable are the three great façades, each adorned with hundreds of sculpted figures illustrating key theological themes and narratives.
Since at least the 12th century the cathedral has been an important destination for travellers – and remains so to this day, attracting large numbers of Christian pilgrims, many of whom come to venerate its famous relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ’s birth, as well as large numbers of secular tourists who come to admire the cathedral’s architecture and historical merit.
One of the few elements to survive from the mid-12th-century church, the Portail Royal was integrated into the new cathedral built after the 1194 fire. The central door was only opened for the entry of processions on major festivals, of which the most important was the Adventus or installation of a new bishop. The harmonious appearance of the façade results in part from the relative proportions of the central and lateral portals, whose widths are in the ratio 10:7 – one of the common medieval approximations of the square root of 2.
As well as their basic functions of controlling access to the interior, portals were the main locations for sculpted images on the gothic cathedral and it was on the west façade at Chartres that this practice began to develop into a visual summa or encyclopedia of theological knowledge. The three portals each focus on a different aspect of Christ’s role; his earthly incarnation on the right, his second coming on the left and his eternal aspect in the centre.
The left portal is more enigmatic and art historians still argue over the correct identification. The tympanum shows Christ standing on a cloud, apparently supported by two angels. Some see this as a depiction of the Ascension of Christ (in which case the figures on the lower lintel would represent the disciples witnessing the event) while others see it as representing the Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ (in which case the lintel figures could be either the prophets who foresaw that event or else the ‘Men of Galilee’ mentioned in Acts 1:9-11). The presence of angels in the upper lintel, descending from a cloud and apparently shouting to those below, would seem to support the latter interpretation. The archivolts contain the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the months – standard references to the cyclical nature of time which appear in many gothic portals.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Chartres Cathedral is the extent to which architectural structure has been adapted to meet the needs of stained glass. The use of a three-part elevation with external buttressing allowed for far larger windows than earlier designs, particularly at the clerestory level. Most cathedrals of the period had a mixture of windows containing plain or grisaille glass and windows containing dense stained glass panels, with the result that the brightness of the former tended to diminish the impact and legibility of the latter. At Chartres, nearly all of the 176 windows were filled with equally dense stained glass, creating a relatively dark but richly coloured interior in which the light filtering through the myriad narrative and symbolic windows was the main source of illumination.
In the ambulatory a stained glass window contains the twelve signs of the zodiac. On top in a four leaf clover, hence representing a form of cross, Christ is depicted in between the Greek letters alpha and omega. Donated by Thibault VI count of Chartres, in 1217, on behalf of Thomas count of Perche, this window illustrates the signs of the zodiac on the right hand side of the window, and the labouirs of the months on the left hand side.
The four central quatrefoils are split between the months and the zodiac. The upper part of the window contains a central quatrefoil of Christ in Majesty, below and on the left are panels depicting December, November, and September, and in the lower central quatrefoil is October. The right hand side of the window contains the zodiac signs of Capricorn, Sagittarius, and Libra, and in the lower quatrefoil is the sign of Scorpio. This next section contains on the left hand side panels depicting the months of August, June and April, July being in the central quatrefoil. On the right hand side are the zodiac signs of Virgo, Cancer, Taurus, and in the quatrefoil is Leo. The central quatrefoil depicts the month of May in its left hand side, and the next two panels on the left depict March, and February, whilst January is shown in the bottom quatrefoil. On the right we have Gemini in the top quatrefoil followed by Aries and Pisces, whilst the bottom quatrefoil contains Aquarius.
The chancel screen includes, on the south side, an impressive astrological clock dating from the 16th century. It told not only the time but the day of the week, the month of the year, the time of sunrise and sunset, the phase of the moon and the current sign of the zodiac. Its inner works were partially destroyed in 1793.