The more time spent inside, outside and in the environs of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres the more puzzling it all becomes. Different theories exist about how the cathedral was built, what the iconography and images represent and whether it expresses a sacred geometry. The building is the result of several building campaigns and incorporates elements of the 12th and 13th centuries, a tower of 1509, a rood screen of 1514 and a baroque statue of the 18th century.
Fire destroyed an existing tower in the early 16th century, hence the replacement. The entire building was threatened with a more thorough going destruction during the French religious wars, the Revolution of 1789 and the Second World War. Somehow it has travelled through time to reach us today.
The cathedral is part of the period of large-scale construction from the 12th century onwards and there are many fine examples more or less extant; Reims, Rouen, Canterbury, Tours, Bourges and many others. Although Chartres has been altered it is relatively unspoilt and retains much of the 13th century stained glass windows and much of the original sculpture work. Some of the intention of the original builders can still be read.
The expansion of construction in the 12th century included not only cathedrals but abbeys, monastic churches, tithe barns, watermills, fortifications and much else. This assumes that there must have been a general development of the productive forces, a surplus which could be used to pay for construction costs – labour, raw materials and machinery – and a skilled class of craft workers with an accumulation of technical knowledge.
Cathedrals are considered to be urban artefacts, developed by town based bishops and archbishops as potential counter-power to that of the monasteries and their orders. The organisation of the church in this period is complex and fluid. Most of the leading clergy were intimately connected to the magnates and aristocratic families which ruled Europe. To what extent the cathedrals represent ruling class rivalries, and rivalries between Popes and local interest is much harder to determine.
The church in this period represented a Europe-wide organisation and administrative power. Like all successful ruling organisations it operated with a great deal of flexibility and adaptability. It was never a rigid monolith but it was a form of state, albeit a state without its own army. How it managed to create and maintain ideological hegemony is yet another question. It was a rich organisation, a major land and property owner. It had several other sources of income including rents, tithes, indulgences and pilgrimages.
The church carried the messages of the Bible and the life of Christ and yet it was influenced by the Greek philosophers from its early foundations. This influence changed over time, but again in the 12th century, there were intense discussions about the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, the role of free will and the development of natural philosophy.
This however was within a wider set of social ideas which were saturated with superstition. The church had incorporated many earlier pagan myths and rituals. The Greek and Roman gods were replaced by saints who covered occupations, events, social functions. The calendar of church activities was based on earlier rites which were rooted in the cycle of the seasons. How the peasants understood or related to Christianity is not properly known. There were many holy days throughout the year and the church played a powerful role in the moral discipline of the population and marking the key events of birth, marriage and death.
This is all surface.
What is less well understood is what the obscure or enigmatic messages might be. And it must be remembered that the medieval period was one in which riddles and puzzles were part of the idiom of the time.
There are intensive sculptures around the three main entrances. These include the signs of the Zodiac, a sculpture of Aristotle, scenes from the work and life of the peasantry.
There are figures from the 12th century carved in stone. The way the women’s hair is plaited, the folds of their gowns, their expressions, locate their origins in a certain time and space. The dominant imagery is of Christ; the beginning of time, the time of Christ and the end of all time.
Inside, a vast space, it seems as if the everything is held up in the sky by a force that counters that of gravity. But careful examination reveals the massive pillars which are the core of the whole structure. The stone provides the foundation of the drama and it is the glass which provides the lyrics of the play. The intensity of light changes from moment to moment and gradually throughout the day as the earth moves in its orbit. Each stained glass window reveals a story; the Temptations of Christ, the victories of Charlemagne. At certain times blue, red, yellow and green glass create coloured patterns on the stone work as the sun shines through. Here the mysticism of the art combines with the power of carefully hand finished stone blocks.
The whole edifice, the sense of completeness, harmony and totality moves people to this day. One wonders what the impact must have been through earlier centuries when people’s lives where much more intimately entwined with the dazzling messages being expressed here. Not even kings had palaces of such grandeur. What must have been the impact on those who lived in the hovels?
Each generation must see this anew, find their own meanings in the shape, the glass and stone. How many of those meanings approximate to what the original builders and their clerical masters intended? Perhaps it’s now possible to see The Theory of the Four Movements and Fourier’s ideas about the unconscious sexual energy of the universe.
Even after several visits the overwhelming sense is of one’s own ignorance. It is as if stepping into all the world’s knowledge in one place and having few clues as to what the language is that’s being used. The air is moved by people who walk around, kneel and pray, stand motionless looking at the glass high in the clerestory. There is scaffolding being erected and this creates huge steel crashes which echo around the roof and arches.
A great joyous cheerful group of school children are sitting on the steps of the north porch. I guess they are about 10 or 11 years old. The teacher mesmerises them as she explains the exterior of the church. She transfixes myself and several other on-lookers who become captured by her spell. Everyone is listening intently to what she says.
Inside the cathedral there are groups of nuns. They have a sense of style and fashion reflected in how they wear their headscarves and their choice of trainers. They walk around and take photographs with their mobile phones. One or two lean their heads together and speak in low voices to each other and then laugh. Others look austere and puritanical.
An elderly man is having a long conversation with a priest. The church and religion have always played a role in trying to mend and salve the broken psychologies of humanity. This happens still. It is only here that the sinners can be saved. Religion has always been a form of therapy. All religions attempt to answer the immense questions; what is life, what is death, why is there life at all?
A man leaning on his walking stick stops and looks at me. He says, ‘Bonjour monsieur’ and I reply in kind. He sits in front of a mass of burning red and white candles by a statue of the Virgin Mary. He does not kneel or put his hands together in prayer but he looks to be weighing things up as he sits there.
The chairs are removed and the labyrinth can be seen. People walk around it, some remove their shoes, a woman stands in the centre with her hands open in meditation.
It is Friday afternoon and the scaffolders are finishing for the week. They check and tighten and occasionally bang a pole with a hammer. They wear blue tunics and bright yellow trousers with reflective bands on them. They are all Black guys, part of the same firm. When they are satisfied that the job is done one of them stands facing the altar, looking for some time and then carefully takes a photograph on his phone. As the scaffolders leave the building they walk out backwards looking at the structure they’ve created.
The most peaceful time for the cathedral and perhaps the most religious time is in the evening. Most of the tourists have gone and the school trips have long departed. People come in for the service. I sit in the nave and watch it all. Then I move towards the crowd of people and become part of it. The service is in French but it can be followed. Then comes the communion and a whole range of people go up to receive it. Here one can feel something universal and human. This could be described as spirit. This is the moving and intriguing. And perhaps this idea – and potential practice – of being human and the universal experience is the basis of not just our personal salvation but of the future of humanity.
To add an overtly political point; it must be considered which political ideologies strive towards the liberation of humanity, of classless society, of universal equality, peace and justice. And which political ideas are based on private property, class divisions, bigotry and hate.
The communion is over. Many people look towards the east of the church and the immense rose window. They sing a short song, everyone sings. It ends with
….Le Notre Dame de Chartres’.
Peace and silence and people slowly depart. There was little light inside the building now. But it was not a sense of gloom but of awe, mystery and life.