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In April 2015, my son and I went to Paris. My daughter, who’d recently moved there, was busy one cool rainy weekday, so he and I took the train to Chartres, about 60 miles southwest of Paris. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres was built between 1020-1220 and has survived at least five fires, the French Revolution, and World War II. In 1939, the stained-glass windows were removed and hidden.
Then in August, 1944, the Allies issued a destruction order, believing the Germans were using the spires as observation posts. During the five-day battle for the town, Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith and his driver went behind enemy lines to the cathedral, reporting that there were no German troops.
The destruction order was withdrawn. Griffith retreated to nearby Lèves and commandeered a tank. He was killed that same day in the returning German rifle and rocket-launcher fire.
He was posthumously awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross, and the Croix de Guerre avec Palm, the Legion of Honor, and the Legion of Merit from the French government. These are my son’s pictures as my small camera was no match for his Nikon.
The cathedral’s South Transept rose window, crafted between 1225–1230, is 34.5 feet in diameter, and is dedicated to Christ. The five windows beneath it feature the Madonna (in the center), flanked by Luke, Matthew, John, and Mark, sitting on the shoulders of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
A close-up of the South Transcept rose window, with Christ in the center, surrounded by angels. The two outer rings of twelve circles feature the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse, carrying phials and musical instruments.
The West Portal rose window, above the cathedral’s main entrance. Dating from 1215 and 39 feet in diameter, the window depicts the Last Judgment, with Christ as Judge in the center circle. The inner ring of twelve paired circles feaures angels and the Elders of the Apocalypse. The outer ring shows the dead emerging from their tombs, while angels blow trumpets to summon them to judgment.
This was my son’s favorite window because the holy man is wearing a skirt made of fish. As one apparently did in the 1200s. The guard who gave us a personal tour showed him the best place to stand and aim way way way up to get the picture.
A major cleaning/restoration of Chartres Cathedral began in 1997, as 800 years of smoke and debris from candles, oil lamps, and previous fires were carefully removed from the limestone walls and ceilings, statues, and stained glass. The project was finally completed in 2018. This cleaning was controversial as many thought the building should remain in its darkened state, despite the fact that the cathedral was originally designed to be a place of light and hope, not gloom and decay.
The Chapel of the Martyrs, in the Chevet (the east end of the Cathedral), has been restored to its original state.
The choir screen was added between the 16th and 18th centuries. The stone screen has forty niches with statues depicting Christ’s life. It is almost 20 feet high and about 328 feet long, and was created to separate the choir from those attending services.
Oops … some more saints missing their heads … and only partially tidied up.
Because this April day was cloudy and rainy, much of the cathedral’s interior was dark. But several of the more important icons and reliquaries were well-lit. One of the most controversial restorations is the (formerly) Black Madonna. Her skin darkened by centuries of smoke and dirt, the Black Madonna was a focal point in the cathedral for thousands of pilgrims. But she was dramatically transformed after cleaning. Again, this restoration was faithful to the original statue. As the New York Times pointed out, the statue was commissioned as a copy of an earlier Madonna named Notre Dame la Blanche … or Our White Lady.
Mary’s veil has been venerated at Chartres since 876 after Charles the Bald gave the church fathers the relic he’d inherited from Charlemange, his grandfather. The veil was (supposedly) worn by Mary on the day of the Annunciation. During the Revolution, the cloth was removed from the cathedral and cut into several pieces. Today the only remaining piece is in this reliquary, specially designed to protect against humidity and light. And thieves.