Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres

Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres

Date ca. 1145-1220; rebuilt 1194; left spire 16th century

Movement Early Gothic (West Facade), else High Gothic

Located at Chartres, France


The Notre-Dame Cathedral at Chartres represents an incredible historical account of the Gothic movement, giving crucial insight into the evolving tastes that took place during a relatively short period of time. Much of the structure was destroyed during a great fire during 1194. The Western facade and portal (known as the Royal Portal) remained intact and today represents Early Gothic tastes. The rest of the structure, save for a few elements which survived, like the Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière stained window, were rebuilt and represent the more sophisticated tastes of the High Gothic movement.


The Royal Portal

Early drawings show a significant similarity between the portals of Chartres and Saint-Denis. This sculptural program pictured above (of the West or Royal Portal) has taken a sharp turn from the fantastic, apocalyptic ones of Romanesque churches—figures are less stylized and have been given additional bulk; no scenes of the Last Judgment are to be found. In the central tympanum, the four symbols of the evangelists flank Christ in Majesty, with the twelve apostles below and twenty-four elders carved into the outer archivolts; in the right tympanum is Christ’s birth, surrounded by symbols of liberal arts; to the left, Heavenly Christ is surrounded by the zodiac and symbols of their corresponding labors.


Jamb statues extend to the very ends of the portals and help to emphasize the program’s overall continuity. Though still elongated like the trumeau of Saint-Pierre, the jamb statues here are considerably less stylized. Further, unlike portal statues in the Romanesque era that were carved in relief, these are carved totally in the round, accentuating their naturalism. The figures represent Old Testament royalty and prophets; their incorporation was meant to attest to the spiritual inheritance of the rulers of France, tying the secular and spiritual realms together. The façade is composed of units of two and three. As at Saint-Étienne, the structure thrusts upwards.


High Gothic Influence After the Fire of 1194

When the rest of the structure was  rebuilt following 1194, Chartres was the first fully developed High Gothic church. Quadripartite vaults have replaced sexpartite vaults, allowing for a greater sense of rhythm throughout the nave. With quadripartite vaults, support shafts did not need to alter in size, each pier having the same number of columns and colonnettes. Here at Chartres, a wide side aisle is employed to allow for the great amount of pilgrims passing through to witness the supposed remnants of a tunic of the Virgin Mary; this aisle continues into the apse and forms an ambulatory, from which radiating chapels form. No upgallery was included.


Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière

Chartres contains much of its original stained glass. Its purpose was meant not necessarily to transmit outside light, but rather to diffuse it in a jewel-like quality, creating an ethereal environment within the cathedral.  Refer to the image of “Our Lady of the Beautiful Window” below [ca. 1170 (framing panels are 13th century), height approx. 17′]. Amazingly, it survived the fire of 1194. Individually stained glass pieces were placed together (much like the tesserae of a mosaic) with the use of intertwining lead strips.


North Transept and Portals

This transept (ca.1204-30) was devoted to the Virgin Mary. Bar tracery has been employed for the rose window of the north transept, allowing for a greater amount light to shine through while giving the facade a more delicate, lace-like look. In the upper section of the tympanum (ca. 1210), Mary is crowned by Jesus (Coronation of the Virgin), while below in the lintel, we see her on her death bed in the left register, then ascending to Heaven with angels in the right (Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin). As with earlier Gothic portal sculpture, the figures here carry significantly more bulk than their Romanesque predecessors; further, the amount of figures have been reduced, allowing each to take upon a more individualized status and giving the overall program a cleaner composition.


South Transept and Jamb Columns

The separation of jamb columns [ca. 1215-20, left-most figure (St. Theodore) ca. 1230] from their sculpture decorations has been accentuated—the columns themselves have been reduced to the background, hidden behind canopies and figures that, while still cylindrical, take upon a more naturalistic appearance. Even the difference between these four figures is vast—St. Theodore stands with contrapposto, his central axis in a classical S-curve; further, he has been given a true, horizontal platform to stand upon, while the figures to the right stand upon slanted shelves and are propped upright with no contrapposto or curved central axes.