Chartres Cathedral: A Faithful Survivor Who Escaped Destruction Three Times

Editor’s note: While Fort Worth Friday columnist Eric Prokesh is in France soaking up the art and architecture, he dropped off this dispatch at one of the country’s most incredible historic sites, Chartres Cathedral. Enjoy!


During the French Revolution a mob attacked Chartres Cathedral and began destroying the sculpture on the north porch, but was stopped by a larger mob of townspeople. The local Revolutionary Committee decided to demolish the cathedral and asked a local architect to locate the most effective places to place explosives. He saved the building with the cunning trick that the large amount of rubble created by demolishing the church would clog the streets so much that it would take years to clear them.

Chartres Stalwart Survivor
North Portal of the Chartres Vandalism Demonstration

One can only imagine what we could have lost if the vandals had only managed to try their hand at carving, as they had done in other places in France. Like Sainte-Chapelle, where the lower part of the upper chapel is almost entirely a 19th century reconstruction.

The acephalous figures of Chartres would have been rhapsodized as studies in the revival of ancient drapery like certain Gothic versions of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. And we would have lost something irretrievable – one of those moments like the Arena Chapel in Padua, where art, if not history itself, suddenly leaps forward. As stunning as the interior of the glass-curtained edifice is, it’s the exterior sculpture where the action takes place.

Chartres Stalwart Survivor
Chartres: East Portal

Comparing the east portal to the north, one is struck by a profound change. Impressive as the portal is, the figures are types, but as studies in drapery they have progressed. But, ultimately, they are types that are familiar to us from sites like Reims Cathedral.

Chartres Stalwart Survivor
Chartres Cathedral: North Portal

Now admire this 13th century beauty. First, it is feminine and, more importantly, it conveys a sense of inner life and intelligence that elevates the status of women, alongside the esteem and reverence of the cult of the Virgin. The figure dances enough with elegant twists or counter postwhich in the short term would become stereotyped, but here captivatingly fresh.

It is generally believed, partly because of the delicacy of the drapery, that the sculptors of Chartres had seen and observed Roman sculpture.

Chartres on fire

Chartres Stalwart Survivor

On Saturday, June 4, 1836, sparks flew from the stove of the plumbers who had come to weld in the attics of Chartres, triggering a great fire which devoured the framework of the cathedral and the lead tiles of the roof, ravaging the interior of the two bell towers, and the melting of the bells before it could be brought under control.

Saved from destruction on the morning of June 5, thanks to the resolute and determined efforts of firefighters and residents, the smoking ruin of what then remained of the Gothic cathedral presented dilemmas parallel to the problems that beset the restoration of Notre-Dame.

Should it be restored with a timber frame like the original, or should advances in iron construction be used to speed up the process and ensure a more fire-resistant skeleton?

By this time the churches had passed from the ownership of the Catholic Church to the state. The former inspector general of historical monuments, Ludovic Vitet, then deputy and rapporteur of the commission, is in charge of the reconstruction of Chartres. It was quickly decided to employ a modern iron frame, partly to reduce combustibility. Work began in 1837 and was completed four short years later in 1841, echoing today’s ambitions to restore Notre-Dame, where the roof will be framed as it was originally: in a forest of wood currently being crushed and transported through a vast network throughout France.

Like the current restoration of Chartres, the choice of the metal frame had its contemporary detractors. Victor Hugo wrote:

We will make an iron roof, a sad expedient, which, fortunately at least, will not be seen from the outside.

Chartres endangered by the war

At the end of World War II, as the Americans approached Chartres, they believed the cathedral was being used by the Germans, particularly for sniper and artillery fire from the steeples, and plans were drawn up. made to shave it. She had already been stripped of her glass before the occupation for safekeeping. Colonel Welborn Griffith was ordered to enter the building to confirm the presence of the enemy. He found himself unoccupied and was thus saved a third time from destruction.

Chartres is once again controversial

The ongoing restoration is still controversial, with many feeling that something has been lost and the new look looks garish and garish. It has been known for centuries that Gothic churches, including their statues, were painted over and restorers claim they simply brought 80% of the original colors to the surface by removing later buildups of grime, soot and grime. plaster.

Similar findings and conforming restorations occur in Gothic sanctuaries in France and Germany. it was partly to inspect the ongoing restoration that I made a pilgrimage after many years to this sacred site.

I discovered a rather subtle change resulting from cleaning the interior of its age-old grime and reintroducing a feeling of light and jubilation. Seen in person, the introduction of color is a rather subtle affair with the walls reading a soft biscuit color rather than the deeper mustard impression given by some photographs. And unlike the press, the work is in progress – far from done with perhaps only half done at this point.

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