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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Chartres Cathedral and its Stained Glass

          Roman Chartres: The ancient town of Chartres lies on a plateau on the west bank of the Eure River, in a region originally inhabited by the Carnutes, a Late Iron Age Celtic tribe who gave Chartres its name. Chartres was a main center for the Druids, priests of the Gallic religion, and a regional capital of Celtic France. Along with warriors, the Druids, whose name means "finding the oak tree, " were one of the two privileged classes of ancient Celts. According to Julius Caesar's accounts of the Gallic Wars (Bk VI, ch. 13-14), the Druids gathered once a year at the sacred center of the Carnutes in an oak grove with a well, where they settled legal disputes and religious questions. This same oak grove would become the future site of Chartres cathedral (fig.1).

          Captured by Caesar after the 52-51 BC revolts of the Carnutes, the Gallo Roman town was named Autricum or civitas Carnotum. Excavations at the Place de Halles have revealed remains of a Roman road 9 m wide, along with Gallo-Roman houses of types also found at Place Pasteur in Chartres. Evidence of an amphitheater on the slope of the plateau was found directly beneath the church of Saint-Andre. Remains of the forum or public square, as well as two aqueducts, have also been discovered on the north side of the plateau. Two Gallo-Roman cemeteries lay in the northwest and southeast sections of the ancient city, and another possibly in the southwest (Bedon et al 1988).

[Fig.1: The west façade of Chartres cathedral (photo: Athena Review)].

          In the Middle Ages, as the population of Chartres increased, the town walls were extended towards the valley. The modern town center, known as the Place des Épars, borders the old medieval ramparts. The medieval city was divided into an upper part containing the cathedral, and a lower part linked to trade and other riverine activities. Numerous gabled houses, some still extant, were also built alongside the river during this period, including the so-called Maison de l'Homme Sauvage ("The House of the Savage Man"). Within the walls or ramparts, neighborhoods grew around the twelve gates of the city; two of the most important being the Porte Châtelet, and Porte Sainte-Jean.


          Chartres Cathedral and its Chronology: By the 4th century, the first Christian church was erected at the foot of the Gallo-Roman wall surrounding the inner town, near the old Druidic well and oak grove. At this time, Adventius was recognized as the first bishop of Chartres.

          Due to frequent fires, the church was repeatedly rebuilt. In AD 743, the original 4th century church was burned by the Duke of Aquitaine. A second church was then constructed, later to be burned along with the town in 858 by Danish Vikings. In the wake of these 9th century Norman invasions, Bishop Giselbert rebuilt and expanded the church.

          Today the 9th century crypt of St Lubin, including mural paintings (fig.3), is still preserved under the choir of today's Gothic cathedral.This building, in turn, was destroyed by fire on the night of September 7, 1020. The same year, Bishop Fulbert (960-1028) initiated the construction of a large Romanesque basilica, probably with 3 aisles, and containing a choir complex with an ambulatory, adjacent chapels, and possibly a transept. The upper church, which measured 108 m in length and 34 m in width, had nearly the same dimensions as the later Gothic cathedral.

[Fig.2: Mural painting in the 9th century Crypt of St. Lubin (photo: Athena Review)].

          After a fire in 1134 destroyed both the town of Chartres and the west front of the cathedral, rebuilding began in 1145 with the construction of a new west façade. (figs.1,3). Just as originally planned at the slightly earlier church of Saint-Denis, two flanking towers were combined with a tri-partite portal zone, decorated with an abundance of sculptures, and a crowning rose window. Whereas at Saint-Denis, the three portals were clearly separated by dividing abutments, the western entrances of Chartres cathedral, known as the "Royal Portal" (fig.3) formed a unified whole, connected by a horizontal band or frieze of sculptures running across the entire portal zone.

          The sculptures and reliefs of the celebrated west façade at Chartres were probably executed between 1145-50. The three lancet windows above the portals were completed ca. 1155-60, and the uppermost level including the rose window in 1210-20. The 106 m tall south tower, regarded as a masterpiece of late Romanesque art, was begun ca. 1144 and completed, with its spire, ca. 1160. The north tower, completed around 1150, had its spire added much later, between 1507-1513. In 1150, the north tower consisted of only two stories and had a lead-covered roof.

          The Romanesque crypt was exceptionally large, taking up space under the choir as well as the nave. The size of this crypt is only surpassed by those of St. Peter's in Rome and Canterbury Cathedral in England. Between 1150 and 1194, the walls of the crypt were reinforced, suggesting the Romanesque church above was undergoing major restoration before the disastrous fire of June 1194. (Freigang 2003).

          This fire, which destroyed much of the town, left only the new west façade (fig.3) of the cathedral undamaged. Efforts to construct a new cathedral in the Gothic style were aided by the pope's legate, then in Chartres. Within thirty years, between 1194 and 1235, the main parts of the new cathedral were completed. This included the 3-aisled nave, the 5-aisled choir and its adjacent chapels, as well as the transept. The transept's north and south porches were furnished with an elaborate series of sculptures. The exceedingly high nave, 16.4 m wide between the piers, is supported outside by three-tier flying buttresses, with the lower two arcs joined by colonnettes or thin columns. A 13th century labyrinth can be found within the nave. Pilgrims would follow the difficult route of 262 m around 11 bands of concentric circles as a way of redeeming themselves, echoing the way of the Cross on their journey. The walls of the nave were structured in three horizontal zones - arcades on the ground floor, a triforium with four arcades each in the middle, and a clerestory on top. The clerestory consisted of pairs of lancet windows topped by a small round window. This window, or oculus, anticipated the design of classic Gothic tracery windows.

[Fig.3: The "Royal Portal" of the west façade (photo: Athena Review)].

          Although nearly completed by 1235, the new Gothic cathedral at Chartres was not consecrated until October 1260. Minor work performed on the cathedral afterwards included additions to the north tower, with a third section added during the second half of the 13th century. In 1507, master mason Jean Textier, known as Jean de Beuce, added a late Gothic flamboyant spire to the tower, replacing a wooden version destroyed in the fire of July 26, 1505. A small pavilion at the foot of the tower, also constructed by Jean de Beuce in 1520, contained the mechanism of a clock more than 18 ft in diameter.

          In 1793, destructive assaults due to the French Revolution, led to the desecration of the Virgin's Tunic, and the burning of the 16th century statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the Church. During the Revolution, Chartres, like Notre-Dame in Paris, was used as a Temple to the Goddess of Reason. Otherwise, the cathedral survived untouched, and the late 19th century sculptor Rodin referred to it as the "Acropolis of France."

          Stained Glass: Whereas the new Gothic style rapidly asserted itself in cathedral architecture, stained glass windows showed a continued Romanesque influence for several more decades. The west lancet windows at Chartres, which belonged to the earlier cathedral damaged in the fire of 1194, retain Romanesque traits in their composition and the arrangement of dress folds. These three windows, installed at the beginning of the Gothic era (ca. 1145-1155), are devoted to the life of Christ and the fulfillment of the prophecies. Influenced by the stained glass at Saint-Denis, the right window represents the Tree of Jesse; the left window illustrates the story of the Passion in twelve episodes, known as the Redemption cycle; and the central window portrays the childhood and life of Christ (Incarnation cycle).

          By the beginning of the 13th century, the influence of the Gothic style on stained glass windows was increasing. Stained glass became a narrative medium, and church windows, as Suger had advocated, were a ready source of instruction for the illiterate population. Stained glass representations of the lives of saints had an important influence in the same vein as that of the literary work Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1275). An entire window in the chevet chapel dedicated to the life of St. Martin showed, in 33 glass panels, many scenes including that where the saint divides his cloak with a freezing beggar, and the dream where Christ appears with the same cloak. Other saints whose lives are portrayed in the stained glass at Chartres include St. Nicolas, St. Remy, St. Chéron, and St. Lubin.

[Fig.4: Water carriers in the window of Mary Magdalen (photo: Athena Review)].

        Today Chartres retains 152 of its original 186 windows, serving as the greatest treasure of medieval stained glass in France and the source of much of our knowledge about its manufacture. Amiens, by contrast, no longer retains any of its original medieval glass, and Reims preserves only a small portion.

       Other innovations in Gothic stained glass include experimentation with color. The blue known as Chartres Blue (which Violet-le-Duc compared to the blue of the autumn sky) was first used on the three Romanesque stained glass windows of the west front. This involved blue tones enhanced with slight traces of red. Recent discoveries have revealed that the use of sodium compounds in the glass made it more resistant to dirt and corrosion.

       The use of contrastive colors such as red, yellow, and green helped render the biblical stories more vivid. Such contrast is effectively used in the windows of the nave clerestory at Chartres which portray the enthroned Virgin. A parallel development to multicolored glass windows was the "grisaille" window (grey or uniform, from French gris), characterized by a very limited range of pale colors and a solitary ornament, or floral decoration. This type of window has its roots in Cistercian art that prohibited the use of colors, or the depiction of human figures. At Chartres, such grisaille windows were often combined with colored glass as in the story of St. Apollinaris, where the grisaille at the bottom of the window was inserted in 1328, replacing older panels.

          Artists and Benefactors: As was generally the case in the 12th century, nearly nothing is known about the individual artists who created the stained glass windows at Chartres. Only in a few instances are the names either mentioned in literary sources or a self portrait of the artist included in the window. Most artists of the period have only provisional titles reflecting a specific style or masterpiece. Two such artisans who worked at Chartres are known as the "Master of St Lubin," and the "Master of St Chéron" (Grodecki & Brissac 1984, Derembles 1993).

          All Gothic stained glass windows were individually endowed, and inscriptions or portraits on the lower window panel identify the benefactor of each window. The windows at Chartres thus provide insight into the role of royalty, the aristocracy, and guilds of tradesmen, all who helped adorn this great cathedral. The north and south transept rose windows show various allusions to the French aristocracy's identification with ancient biblical royalty (Dierick 1957; Erlande-Brandenburg 2003). In the north transept, a huge rose window shows Mary surrounded by angels, the kings of Judea, and prophets. Below the rose window, five lancet windows display Mary's mother, St. Anne holding her child, and four kings and high priests of the Old Testament (David and Solomon on the left; Melchizedek and Aaron on the right). The whole composition is combined with numerous smaller windows containing golden lilies on blue backgrounds (the arms of the French royal family), and a golden castle on red ground for the arms of the family of Blanche of Castille who ruled France when the cathedral of Chartres was built. The representation of a youthful king Solomon in a contemporary style of clothes and haircut may be a portrait of the young Louis IX, son of Blanche of Castille (Jantzen 1984).

[Fig.5: Masons and sculptors in the window of St. Chéron (photo: Athena Review)].

          The patronage of guilds, which also donated considerable funds for the decoration of the cathedral, was portrayed through scenes of their daily working life. A series of scenes showing guild workers from the first two decades of the 13th century adorns the lower part of numerous stained glass windows at Chartres. These include water carriers in the window of Mary Magdalene (fig.4), shoemakers in the window of the Good Samaritan, and masons and sculptors in the St. Chéron window (fig.5). Through such representations of various guilds on stained glass, typical crafts and trades of the Gothic era can be identified. In their choice of the window theme, it is thought that the guilds paid tribute to the patron saint of their corporation.

          Chartres cathedral is one of the great achievements of Western architecture. Its soaring proportions, wealth of sculpture, and glorious stained glass have had a profound effect on the preservation of medieval culture until the present day.


Bedon, R., P. Pinon, and R. Chevalier. 1988. Architecture et Urbanisme en Gaule Romaine, Tome 2. Paris, Éditions Errance.

Bony, J. 193. French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London. University of California Press.

Caesar. J. 50 BC. The Conquests of Gaul. (tr. S.A. Handford, 1951, revised in 1982 by J.F. Gardner). New York, Viking Penguin Inc.

Dermembles, C. 1993. Les vitreaux narratifs de la cathedral de Chartres. Paris, Léopard d'Or.

Freigang, C. 2003. Vom mythos mysticher Lichtarchitektur. Die großen Kathedralen. Gotische Baukunst in Europa (ed. U.A. Oster). Darmstadt, Primus.

Houvet, É. (revised by M. Miller) 2002. Chartres: Guide of the Cathedral. Chartres, Éditions Houvet-La Crypte.

Jantzen, H. 1987. Kunst der Gotik. Klassische Kathedralen Frankreichs. Chartres, Reims, Amiens. Berlin, Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

Jantzen, H. 1984. High Gothic: The Classic Cathedral of Chartres, Reims, and Amiens. (tr. J. Palmes). Princeton, Princeton University Press.

The above text appears on pages 46-47 of  Chartres and its Cathedral in Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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