The cathedral in Chartres, known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres), is widely thought to be the high point of French Gothic art and architecture. This remarkably well preserved cathedral, which survived both the French Revolution and World War II, is the last of five that were erected on the same location since the 4th century AD built between 1194 and 1250. Chartres Cathedral has always been an important place of pilgrimage; pilgrims today being attracted to the labyrinth. Tourists are attracted to the exquisite 13th century frescoes and stained-glass windows.
By good fortune, the Cathedral was spared destruction by local townsfolk during the French Revolution and by the actions of an American Army Officer during World War II.
In 1939, the stained-glass windows were removed to safety. Allied forces believed the Germans were using the spires as an observation post and so orders for the destruction of the Cathedral were issued. A Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith challenged these orders and went behind German lines and established that the Cathedral was not being used by German soldiers. The orders to destroy the Cathedral were withdrawn, but sadly Colonel Griffith killed in action on 16 August 1944 in a town not far from Chartres.
Today the Cathedral remains the seat of the Bishop of Chartres, and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the World who come to admire the architecture and stained-glass windows. But large numbers of Christian pilgrims have been coming to Chartres since the 12th Century – they come to worship the Sancta Camisa, believed to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary during the birth of Jesus Christ.
In 1979 Chartres Cathedral was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
Facilities at Chartres Cathedral:
Despite the Cathedral being a functioning church, the town of Chartres is a popular tourist destination and consequently tourists are well catered for. The Cathedral itself has basic facilities, but there are a range of restaurants and souvenir shops nearby – and of the souvenir shops in front of the west façade has toilets for public use, for a fee.
Chartres Cathedral is open daily from 8:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night. The crypts are only available to visitors who take a guided tour – these are not available on Sundays and public holidays. The last opportunity to climb the tower is at 5:30 pm. The chairs in the nave are cleared on Fridays to enable the maze on the floor to be seen and walked.
Restoration of Chartres Cathedral
For about a decade the cathedral has been undergoing a substantial restoration programme. Work began on the exterior of the beginning in 1997, with the north façade (1997 – 1999), followed by the south façade (2007 – 2008), then west façade (2008) including the gallery of the kings (2010 – 2012). From 2008 until 2015 a major cleaning of the architectural features and sculptures inside the cathedral was carried out. The cleaning and making safe of the world-famous stained-glass windows has been ongoing since 1986.
The cleaning process produces quite a stark change in the look of the church. As seen in the photograph below. Here you can see a bright section of the ceiling that has just been cleaned, next to the still blackened ceiling that has yet to be restored. The restoration of Chartres Cathedral has been controversial to say the least.
In this 2015 article in the British Independent newspaper, the age-old discussion about whether layers of ‘dirt’ accumulated over the centuries should be removed was rehashed. With positions so fundamentally and diametrically opposed, this is not a debate that will ever be settled.
A much more interesting aspect of the restoration work at Chartres Cathedral is explore in a recent New York Times article. The great cleanup at Chartres did not just remove layers of dirt from the walls and ceilings of the church, but also the dirt on certain works of art. This included the so-called ‘Black Madonna’. After a bit of a scrub, Madonna and her child are now ‘white’, literally changing the face of the Madonna pilgrims have been worshipping for centuries.
Those who object to the restoration argue that the cleaning process is removing the cultural memory of the building. The restores say they are saving that building. Read the Article Here.
The ceiling inside the cathedral, showing a portion that has already been cleaned next to an uncleaned section (July 2015).
Where is Chartres Cathedral?
Chartres Cathedral is in the medieval town of Chartres, in the Centre region of France.
Paris to Chartres Day Trip
The town of Chartres is not that far from Paris. Depending on the train, journey is and hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. Trains leave Montparnasse Station regularly – usually one every hour throughout the day, and a return journey costs around €28.
Chartres is about 20 minutes further along the same train line as the town of Maintenon. It is here you will find the beautifully restored Château de Maintenon, the residence of Madame de Maintenon who became Louis XIV’s second wife. The two can easily be visited on the same day, and it would not necessarily have to be a long day.
Alternatively, take a 6 Hour Guided Tour of Chartres from your base in Paris.
Photographs of Chartres Cathedral
Coming in to the old Medieval city of Chartres at Port Guillaume, you pass by some beautiful timber-framed buildings,
and get wonderful views of the cathedral on the hill.
Although the cathedral is the main attraction, and it has a dominant position that can be seen for many miles beyond the town, there are other attractions that should not be missed. The 17/18th Century Palace for the Bishops of Chartres, just behind the Cathedral, is now the Fine Arts Museum, houses a collection of paintings, sculptures and other objects and documents that cover the town’s history. A number of the bridges that cross the Eure River are Medieval. The most notable being Port Guillaume, which has the remains of the town’s Medieval gateway flanked by towers. Photographs of the Medieval remains at Porte Guillaume: