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Posts Tagged ‘sublime’

Chartres: Unification of the Sublime and the Mundane

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 @ 07:12 PM  posted by Mark

Chartres in Noonday Fog

When I arrived at the Cathedral of Chartres, after an hour and a half on the train, I looked up and thought, great, another Gothic relic exactly like the thousand others I see every day walking around Paris. But Henry Adams did write a whole book on this cathedral, and he said that you have to sit with it and feel what it was like to inhabit this space in the 12th century, when it embodied a worldview that unified the mundane and the sublime through religious mystery. Since this is one of the most beautifully preserved buildings of the middle ages, with almost no reconstruction done to it since 1194, it’s possible to use it to imagine your way back through the centuries as people would actually have seen it, right from the beginning. And it is supposedly one of the most beautiful buildings ever built anywhere, according to people who have seen a lot of buildings in a lot of places.

So I walked around it. Walked inside it. Climbed the bell tower. Walked around it again. Went inside and sat down. And the thing that isn’t apparent at first blush slowly emerged, that this church is so simultaneously rococo in its flourishes and so symmetrical in its design that the beauty of its order and the sheer audacity of its ornamentation create a space that is at once soothing, harmonious and overwhelmingly energetic. Most of its stained glass windows glow with multifarious colors and surprising details (almost two hundred separate windows depicting nearly 12,000 scenes have survived intact from the 13th century, and some date from the mid 12th century), and the nave in particular is so pleasing to the eye in its arches and vaults that it became difficult for me to look away (I spent an hour trying to leave the chapel). Afterward, I roamed the town, which was charming and quiet, with the River Eure running through the village center, and I stumbled upon the less famous Gothic church in Chartres (St. Pierre), which is even older, built around 1000, though much less spectacular. After a late lunch/early dinner, I went back to the main cathedral and circled it a few more times, accidentally attended a mass in an underground chapel on one side of the church and then headed back to Paris as the tower bell chimed the official end of the day.

It was a bitterly cold day, and even at noontime the highest towers were shrouded in fog, giving the feeling that the cathedral was literally emerging from the mists of the late middle ages. The combination of delicate beauty, perfect symmetry, audacity, innovation of design, the sheer mass of the cathedral, and the labor required to build it offers an experience that approaches the sublime.

Since the day was so foggy, there wasn’t enough light to make the stained glass glow enough to come through my little pocket camera lens, but here are some pictures of the environs. I’m pleased with the eerie glow of the cathedral in the mists and artificial light at the end of the evening.

View from the Old Cloister

Chartres from the North Tower 1

Chartres from the North Tower 2

The Nativity Inside: Catholics Love the Blue-Eyed Jesus

Above the Crypt

The River Eure downtown

The Cathedral from Town as Night Fell

Disappearing into Darkness