Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Notre-Dame de Chartres (Chartres Cathedral)

On Sunday, April 19th, 2009, we took the train from Paris to the medieval city of Chartres so that we could visit Notre-Dame de Chartres, one of the best known Gothic cathedrals and hear the organ at high Mass. Before purchasing train tickets, I was careful to checked various websites to see what was scheduled for the day and to learn what information they had to offer.

As soon as we entered the front door and stood inside, my heart sank. None of the websites mentioned anything about the cathedral's entire choir being blocked physically and--more importantly--visually. Scaffolding immediately behind the altar (under the crossing) rose from the medieval to the vaulted ceiling, and enormous sheets of plastic stretched the height of the majestic choir. Once built, cathedrals obviously require steady maintenance, but I only wish I had been warned. However, I hope that these pictures will also hopefully suggest that even with the heart of the cathedral unavailable, there is much that can be seen, enjoyed and treasured.

Challenges faced all visitors with cameras: on this cloudy rainy day, with many of the grand windows blocked, there was only a fraction of the customary natural light. I shot at ISO 1,600, hand-held without flash (in order to be unobtrusive). Once your eyes adjusted to the more dim light, you could see the outlines of the beautiful ribbed vaulting in the aisles.

A beggar patiently stood by the cathedral's open door, between the interior's darkness and the more bright daylight outside. Every cathedral has its faithful beggars, always has, always will.

During Mass, we sat near a beautiful candle on one of the nave's pillars. I liked the interplay of the candle's light and light coming through the cathedral's stained glass window, with its deep blues, reds and greens.
At the conclusion of the organ's performance after Mass, I went forward to the crossing to see the present altar area. I was worried to notice that one of the bishop's attendants had mistakenly left this beautiful silver vessel for incense at the base of one of the central pillars.
The beautiful lectern, from which the sermon was delivered, has gold sculptures which reflect light wonderfully.
Other pillars have bases which are about as high as a medieval person's waist. The stones have been highly polished by centuries of casual touching by millions of hands.

Given the dark lighting in the nave, I spent most of my time in the apsidal ambulatory which goes around the choir. A number of chapels radiate from this ambulatory. In the afternoon, light reflects softly from the well-worn paving stones in the ambulatory.

Most chapels are relatively open to the ambulatory, and several were important places for prayer throughout the day. There were many pilgrims that Sunday, not just tourists but people who came to pray.

Ever since cathedrals were built, candles have played an important role in cathedral life. So many were used for lighting in the middle ages that officials decreed all candles should be made of at least 50% bees wax, and preferably 100%. This was very expensive, but it cut down on the pollution caused by burning oil and fat, and kept the interiors brighter longer.

One apsidal chapel was closed for repairs, but the lighting coming through the protective plastic sheets was fascinating.

We did not have access to the Chapter House, but we could see the stairway leading from the apse's ambulatory to the higher, exterior Chapter House. This is where the monastic community met daily to hear someone read another chapter from the Rule of St Benedict. Those who follow the rule are generally known as Benedictines.