Paris and Provence (Part 4): Chartres

In May, we took a relatively long (2 week trip) to France, spending a few days in Paris and then visiting friends in Provence. We decided to take this journey by a combination of driving and rail travel.

Please find the first three parts of this multi-part post here, here, and here.


Chartres is easily accessible from Paris by train, with frequent service and a journey of about an hour. And the famous cathedral is just a few minutes walk from the train station.

The cathedral was the most important building in the town when it was built, and it remains so today.

The current cathedral was not the first one on this site – the prior one was devastated by fire in 1194. The cathedral was already well known as a pilgrimage site, due to the reputed relics of the Virgin Mary, and tourism was therefore an important part of the town’s economy. Reconstruction began almost immediately, with surviving features of the old building incorporated into the new one. Major portions of the new cathedral, including the stained glass windows, the exterior sculpture, and the roof, were completed in 1220 – amazingly fast for the time.

Those of you who have visited Chartres may remember a somewhat dark interior, broken by the light coming through the magnificent stained glass windows. In recent years, the columns of the nave (central aisle) have been cleaned and recoated with cream and ocher – what scholars believed to be the original colors. The renovation was controversial in some quarters – people had gotten used to the dark. Only the center aisle has been recoated. Even so, the light-filled nave sets off the stained glass windows to even better effect than they did before. It’s quite remarkable.

The stained glass windows are the most notable features of the cathedral. Many date from the 13th C restoration; some are even older. The cathedral has been fortunate to escape the vicissitudes of modern warfare. During the French Revolution, an attempt to destroy the cathedral was stopped by a mob of angry townspeople. During the battle for France during the latter stages of World War II, an American general questioned an order to target the cathedral; the order was rescinded when the general was able to demonstrate was not, as had been thought, being used by German snipers.

These days, the windows are constantly maintained – during any given time period, there are always some windows closed off for cleaning, repairs and, when necessary, careful restoration. They represent one of the most complete and best preserved set of medieval stained glass in Europe – one of the few places where you can see the windows largely as they appeared in medieval times.

The use of stained glass in France was not new – stained glass had been used in churches since the 5th C. But the prevailing Romanesque style of church construction left few spaces for windows. The cathedral of St. Denis in Paris, completed in 1144, about 50 years before the start of the current cathedral of Chartres, was the first to feature large windows in the new Gothic style. And construction of the great cathedral of Notre-Dame began in 1163, although the first phase was not completed until 1250. But the techniques for building such structures were still new and cutting edge.

The windows are notable not only for their sheer number – there are 167 of them – but also for their artistic quality. The colors used, especially the famous cobalt blue, were astonishing for their time and influenced cathedral building all over Europe.

Many of the windows illustrate Bible stories, in a way that was easily understandable to local citizens, most of whom in medieval times would have been unable to read or write.

One of the most famous windows, the Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière, incorporates part of a stained glass panel that survived the fire of 1194.

Although the cathedral is best known today for its stained glass windows, the sculptures on the entrance portals are also of astonishing quality.

The interior includes a series of 40 sculptural frames along the choir wall, depicting the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, completed between the 16th and 18th C. These sculptures have only recently (2022) emerged from a major restoration – I don’t recall seeing them on previous visits.

After our cathedral visit, we found a delightful small restaurant on the site of an old mill. A wonderful meal, and the perfect capstone to an artistically astonishing day.