Reflecting the Divine: Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, France

The sun’s rays entering the nearly 27,000 square feet of stained glass windows of Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral create thousands of colored shards that bathe the interior in ethereal beauty. But beyond this earthly splendor, every one of the more than 175 glorious stained glass windows inspire and encourage worshipers to venerate the Virgin Mary and look up to God.

Located just 50 miles from Paris, Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, “is one of the most authentic and complete works of religious architecture of the early 13th century,” according to the UNESCO website.

A church has been on the current site since around the fourth century, after which at least five churches have been built due to war or fire. In 1194, fire devastated most of the early Gothic cathedral that had been built in 1145. But the crypt and west façade remained intact.  

An important relic, once owned by Charlemagne, also survived the fire: the Sancta Camisia (Latin for “holy tunic”), the silk undergarment that many believe Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus. Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald presented the relic to Chartres in 876. Roman Catholics felt that the unscathed relic was a sign of encouragement for them to build an even more beautiful cathedral to venerate the Virgin Mary.

Today, the High Gothic style of architecture that dominates the cathedral is the result of 26 years of rebuilding it after the 1194 fire. Highlights of the High Gothic style include elaborate sculptural reliefs, high vaulted ceilings, vast amounts of stained glass, and flying buttresses, which are exterior stone reinforcements necessary for bearing the immense stained glass windows’ incredible weight.

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The cathedral demonstrates the evolution of Gothic architecture. Most of it’s architecture is from the High Gothic period, but early Gothic style can also be observed, such as on the west façade (pictured here with the two towers). (Petr Kovalenkov/Shutterstock)
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With its elegant early Gothic architecture, the west façade is one of the few mid-12th-century features to survive the 1194 fire that destroyed most of the cathedral. (Andre Quinou/Shutterstock)
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The 15th-century astronomical clock. (Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock)
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On the royal portal of the west façade, elaborate sculptural reliefs depict religious scenes. Christ is enveloped in an ellipse called a mandorla, symbolizing his divinity. Symbols representing the evangelists surround him. (Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock)
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The Coronation of the Virgin Mary is represented in the north transept sculptures. (Rosemarie Mosteller/Shutterstock)
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The nave consists of an arcade at the bottom, then a triforium (an interior gallery), and up high is a clerestory, which allows light to enter the church. (Pit Stock/Shutterstock)
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Centuries of soot and grime had blackened the walls of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. In this 2018 photograph of the nave, conservators cleaned and painted the walls white and shades of beige and yellow to reflect medieval decoration. (The top-left and top-right corners of the image show walls yet to be restored.) (Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock)
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One of the most important relics in the cathedral is the Sancta Camisia, Latin for “holy tunic.” This is the silk undergarment that many believe Mary wore when she gave birth to baby Jesus. (Valery Egorov/Shutterstock)
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One of the oldest stained glass windows in the cathedral is the “Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière,” or “The Blue Virgin” window. The upper window dates from around 1180 and shows the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne as she holds Christ on her lap. His hand gesture signifies a blessing. (Cynthia Liang/Shutterstock)
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A detail on “The Blue Virgin” window shows several scenes of how Christ lived his life. (Pack-Shot/Shutterstock)
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In Vendôme Chapel, the stained glass showing the coronation of the Virgin Mary dates from around 1415. (Ivan Soto Cobos/Shutterstock)
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The Last Judgment is shown in the west rose window, which was created around 1215. (Anyamuse/Shutterstock)

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