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Chartres, Possibly Europe’s Greatest Gothic Cathedral

Chartres, France

The great cathedral at Chartres captures the Europe’s 13th-century “Age of Faith” like no other church. Here, Europe’s largest surviving collection of medieval stained glass acts as picture book, illustrating the entire Christian story.

Complete Video Script

Another great side trip from Paris — marked by another glorious building — this one dedicated to God rather than some king or noble — is the city of Chartres. Here we see not the extravagance of rich elites, but the extravagance of medieval piety. A sight, which, for centuries, heartened the weary spirits of approaching pilgrims.

To this day, visitors come to Chartres to see its cathedral, and they find that the city itself is a delight. And wherever you are in Chartres, its massive cathedral seems to loom overhead. For over 800 years the church has attracted travelers and inspired those who visit. The earlier church burned in 1194. It was rebuilt so quickly and lavishly that it has a much-appreciated unity of architecture, statuary, and stained glass. It captures the spirit of the 13th century — the so called “Age of Faith” — like no other church.

The architecture is Gothic — which was all the rage in the 1200s. Gothic architects create a skeleton of support with columns, pointed arches, and buttresses so that the walls no longer need to support the heavy stone ceiling, but are freed up to hold windows.

Chartres is most famous for its stained glass and statues. It’s like a picture book of the entire Christian story, told through its art. In “The Book of Chartres” — as some nickname the church — the text is the sculpture and windows, and its binding is the architecture.

The individual figures create a cohesive ensemble, and in this case — in a cathedral dedicated to Notre Dame (or “our lady”) — it all leads to Mary. Here she is on her deathbed. Then, angels gently whisk her upward, so she can sit on the throne with Jesus in paradise, where she’s flanked by angels and crowned Queen of Heaven.

The nave is vast — over 400 feet long, and the widest in France. And the Gothic structure allowed for plenty of windows.

Chartres contains the world’s largest surviving collection of medieval stained glass, with over 150 early 13th-century windows. The light pouring through these windows was mystical and encouraged meditation and prayer. Stained glass was used to help teach Bible stories to the illiterate medieval masses.

While the faithful back then may have been illiterate, understanding the rich symbolism in each of these windows inspired them to live their dark and dreary medieval lives with hope.