‘Bon continuation’ at Chartes …

From my charming apple farm gîte, where the farmer proudly tells me that he has a remarkable 38,000 apple trees, I take the local train to Chartres for a couple of euros each day.

Chartres is a lovely town, with an extensive old town area. The Chartres old town is rather up market compared to Bourges, where the medieval streets were quite run down in places.  In contrast Chartres is clean and well kept, quite classy really.

Half timbered

Notre-Dame de Chartres stands fully visible in an open, sunny square with plants and seats before it, and elegant cafes and shops nearby. The whole makes Chartres very attractive to the eye.



There is a very pleasant ‘parcours’, a trail, you can follow around the town, past the cathedral and its gardens and down by the Eure river below, where there are ancient hump-backed bridges, lavoirs, and water mills.   All very picturesque.

Light in choir

I decide to attend a morning mass in the cathedral as it will have a choir singing Gregorian chants. When I go, however, the choir is not the band of robed monks I imagined in the sumptuous choir area, but about ten old and faithful regulars in a side pew. Nevertheless they sing enthusiastically and some of their chants do sound beautiful.   The enthusiastic choir leader keeps trying to get me to join in more convincingly but I simply cannot follow the latin leaflet and so have to avoid his eye.

I have never attended a Catholic mass before so this is all new to me. There are few attendees this morning when the rotund priest enters in lime-green robes with an altar boy of about twelve in simple white. The choir starts up. The first thing that happens is that the priest circles the small congregation with a silver bowl and sprinkler and the next thing I know I am heavily doused. My hair and glasses are dripping, my jumper is very wet. Well, I think, it can only be a good thing to get drenched in Holy Water, he must have thought I needed it.

As the choir continues to chant and the priest goes about some preparatory rituals a second, younger altar boy of about nine runs onto the scene from the side. He is dishevelled and the priest has to sort out his cowl and collar. You can see his trainers beneath the white robe. The priest raises a finger as he whispers something to the boy, who stares into the distance with a blank, disheartened expression. Somewhere in the pews around me a mother is feeling mortified.

There are some readings then we all sit as the choir sings again, the priest between the boys. The late arrival starts fiddling with the rope belt on his robe which had been hurriedly tied and is coming loose. I will him to keep his hands still.  No good, and he gets another telling off. I fall in love with this altar boy.

There is considerable ritual in the service which follows, it seems extremely active to me. The altar boys are kept very busy running for this, getting that, holding papers up, passing books, ringing bells. I wonder why the priest can’t open the books or hold the paper up himself.   I wonder about these little boys being involved in the church service, is it indoctrinating the young, or is it giving them a positive introduction to their religion from an early age? Is it any different to me attending Sunday School when I was little? – which I loved because we always did a lot of colouring in, but which actually did teach me all the bible stories.

The priest offers the host to the congregation, no wine I notice, which is intriguing as in the Church of England there is always bread and wine shared.

I try to feel a sense of the moment, I try to catch something of the divine, but it eludes me and I am not touched. It is not about the language, I understand most of the French priest’s words, there is no heart in this particular service for me.   I can see, though, that the devout around me DO experience something of deep meaning for them.

Later I am still looking around the cathedral when the next service starts at 11H. There is a larger congregation at this more agreeable hour, and a different priest is swinging incense around. Why didn’t we have incense earlier? All these mysteries.

Arches & light

Chartres Cathedral is said by some to be the most beautiful cathedral in France. It is world renowned as the ‘most complete and preserved of all gothic cathedrals’ and is particularly famous for its stained glass windows. And I see why. Whilst I do not have the jaw-dropping experience I had in tall, galleried Bourges, the windows here are exquisite and many people sit and simply gaze at the oldest rose window, the one that stands over the labyrinth. For below it there is a triptych of stained glass which is truly remarkable.

Rose & tryptich

All of the windows in the cathedral are tremendously colourful and very expressive. Some are sponsored by their 12th and 13th century patrons who feature in the lower sections of the windows where drapers, blacksmiths, apothecaries and wine merchants go about their work.
Stained glass blue

There are 176 windows, covering 2,600 square metres, and the amazing thing is that somehow they have survived events, weather and wars for centuries.   I particularly admire the story of Noah with its pretty rainbow in the middle.

The ‘Chartres blue’ in some windows, made from cobalt oxide, is particularly famous, and is shown to best effect in the magnificent Blue Virgin in the ‘Notre-Dame-de-la-Belle-Verrière’ window, which is said to attract visitors from around the world.

The Blue Virgin

The cathedral is also renowned for its 4,000 statues, especially the tall, thin ones which are rare and seem to be stuck flat around the columns, their details are said to be ‘close to perfection’.

King & Queen
I particularly like these ladies.

Church ladies

The cathedral’s carved portals, its sculpted choir screen and the largest crypt in France are also highly regarded. All in all Chartres deserves its reputation as a masterpiece of gothic art and I lose track of time as I spend several hours exploring and admiring it.

Side view 1

Choir ceiling 1

The ceiling of the choir

Rose & other windows

I go back to Chartres at night to see the celebrated lights. I have a purely magical night, and one can feel that the other people walking around experience the magic too. I have seen Lyon’s ‘fête de la lumière’ which is breath-taking, but here the light shows played onto the cathedral to music have a different, more mystical and emotional quality. Some buildings are decorated with still lights, but on the sides of the magnificent cathedral, the light shows are animated and the moving illuminations are, quite simply, a wondrous joy to behold.   Thank you, Chartres.

–  +  –

Lumiere 3

Lumiere 1

Lumiere 5

Featured image 1

Lumiere 2

Blue red close

Blue door

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