Monday, July 23, 2012


Sunday, July 15 we traveled to Chartres, a little town southwest of Paris. On Monday we took a train to Reims, a larger city, but also located within the Ile-de-France. This small region of France is where the architectural style we know as the "Gothic" was born at the abbey church of St. Denis, north of Paris (today a suburb). After a series of Early Gothic buildings, such as Notre Dame, the style developed into the High Gothic at Chartres before it was further elaborated in the 13th C. at the Ste. Chapelle (see earlier "Pre-Louvre Excursion" post), Reims Cathedral and elsewhere.

Unlike when we were in France in 2000, I now teach this period of architecture and despite my rather anti-medieval (or at least medieval = lesser) graduate school "Renaissance indoctrination," I find that I love this period of building. It's daring, beautiful, original, style-conscious, at times architecturally rule-breaking, and intimately linked to this small region of France. So, this trip we saw more Gothic architecture with a focused, knowledgeable eye and it was truly wonderful. Our moments spent in these special spaces are among my favorites of the entire trip.

Below I share some of these special places through photos.


The facade (front) of St. Denis was started in the later 1130s by the Abbey's abbot, Suger, one of the great patrons of the 12th C. Here he and his architects introduced the first Gothic facade. What makes it Gothic? (Ahem, putting on my professorial hat...)

1. Portals surrounded by sculpture integrated into the architecture (however, largely reconstruction today due to significant damage during the French Revolution)

2. Two towers. Today it's missing its left tower due to a lighting strike in the 19th C., but it was originally completed with two following a long tradition in church building.

3. The division of the facade into three vertical and three horizontal strips.

4. The rose window

It is the combination of these together that is new--all of these elements were seen on previous buildings, but not combined like this. As you will see below, this new combination is the root of all large Gothic facades.

Here at Saint Denis in 1140, Abbot Suger added the area you see above, which is known as a chevet (the apse, choir and ambulatory together) or the east end of a Gothic structure. This area introduced the use of large stained glass windows to illuminate the altar and halo it, as it were, with a ring of light. Nobody had seen anything like it! When this part of the church was dedicated in 1144, all the key archbishops and bishops of France attended and then they went back to their own parishes and built their own Gothic structures insuring the rapid, wildfire-like spread of the style.

Sitting here in this spot I enjoyed thinking of the wide-eyed bishops and archbishops in awe of the way the walls, usually so thick in the churches they knew, had all but disappeared only to be replaced by glass and colored light. Then, each collectively saying, "I want one!"

View down the choir of St. Denis, where the upper structure of the building dates to the 13th C.

This building still houses the remains of France's patron saint, St. Denis, who was martyred on Montemartre and reputedly walked, head in hand to this spot for his final rest. Several sculpture of the decapitated saint may be found here.


Our first glimpse of Chartres, as it dominates the city skyline.

Dave in front of the facade, which is actually Early Gothic. The rest of the building burned during a disastrous fire in 1194, the same year the city began rebuilding on the site in the High Gothic style. The cathedral houses the miracle-working veil of the Virgin, which also survived the 1194 fire. This was interpreted in two ways by late 12th C. citizens of Chartres: the veil's miraculous nature was confirmed, and given its survival, it must mean the Virgin was in fact, communicating that she wanted a new church! Money flowed in from local guilds, aristocrats, the monarchs of France and smaller parish churches under Chartres control.

The building was finished by 1225, including its sculpture. This feat in itself is a kind of Gothic miracle in a period where building often drug out for a hundred years at one site.

One set of elegant statues (jamb figures) from around the facade doors. These are Old Testament kings and queens and represent the best preserved Early Gothic architectural sculpture anywhere! I love the way they appear to levitate while looking kindly out on church-goers. Note the elongated proportions. Believe it or not, all of this would have been brightly painted originally.

Huge Early Gothic windows in the facade of the cathedral, which also survived the 1194 fire. I show you a detail below, which is closer in color to the way the windows look in person. Cameras just can't capture the jewel-like light quality of the stained glass, but this detail comes close. This is taken from the center window, which depicts Christ's infancy and early life.

Below are three images of the choir. The next two photos also capture a bit of the space right in front is the transept (the cross arm of the building) and the nave (main body of space into which one enters), which are pitch black. This is due in large part to the fact that these areas are dark today. Indeed, a major restoration campaign is currently underway on the interior of Chartres that will literally make us see this building in a new light. Chartres was originally painted a light peachy ivory with white grout lines. In the 19th C. dramatic "restorers" removed what was left of the paint and two generations (at least) of medieval scholars have learned about and taught (this is how I learned it) that Gothic cathedrals were cool, uniform structures that revel in their stonework. This is true, but not the larger picture. These cathedrals were riots of color, not reserved modernist spaces.

Today restorers are returning Chartres to its earlier--and somewhat shocking--appearance, as the photos below document. I am both excited to see it finished and nervous at the outcome--the last image shows faux marble detailing that isn't at all what I would expect to see in a Gothic structure...I found this both fascinating and slightly unnerving. Is this how people felt when the Sistine was cleaned? The Chartres I knew is about to disappear.

And yet, looking at the creamy, ivory walls with their white accents it becomes obvious how the paint worked WITH the glass to magnify the light's reflections, and the windows appear to float in space. Of course this is how it looked! (But I eagerly await the academic explanation of the faux marbling in the lowest story, which you see at the bottom of images 1 and 3 below...)

REIMS (pronounced like France, but drop the F and give the R a little throaty roll. However, it's pronounced--as I learned from a train employee in Paris, ("in France we say...")--as the French say France, that is the A sounding like "aw.")

The beautiful rolling farmland and countryside zipping by the train en route to Reims, which is in the northern part of the Ile-de-France. Note the low dramatic sky. The clouds moved as fast as we did.

This was both of our first visits to Reims. I was extremely excited to see this building, which I regularly teach and have admired in slides as (in my humble opinion) the most beautiful facade of any Gothic cathedral in France. This trip confirmed that! The Reims structure took 100 years to build, from 1211-1311, and was started in the High Gothic style, but finished in the later Gothic style current at its completion, the Rayonnant. One key feature of this later style is the triangular area over the door, which was solid stone with sculpture at Chartres and is now stained glass.

This group of sculpture below is among the most famous of the Gothic era and comes from the right side of the center door, which you see above. From left to right are the Annunciation (Gabriel and the Virgin) and the Visitation (Virgin and St. Anne). They were carved by two separate sculpture workshops, hence the difference in the Virgin's appearance. Again, all of these would have been brightly painted and indeed, some faint paint was still visible behind the figures, who are over life size.

As the second tallest complete Gothic cathedral in France, Reims' 125 foot tall vaulting makes one feel tiny! Note the people down the nave in the shot below for a sense of the scale here.

This structure is much darker than Chartres on the inside, even with a great deal of clear glass in its nave (some added intentionally while other windows are post-WWI replacements when the building was heavily bombed).

The steep proportions of the cathedral are easily appreciated in the side aisles. Below is one side aisle, followed by a detail of the glass, from the other side aisle. This is the glass over the side aisle's front door. Beautiful!

American John D. Rockafeller paid to rebuild Reims in the wake of WWI. Some of the devastation is still visible on the cathedral's front, especially on the left door where sculpture are particularly battered. It's obvious when seeing the structure that it has had a "harder life" than Chartres, and yet it remains a glorious building.

I don't think we ever were able to decide which of these two cathedrals were our favorites--Chartres or Reims. I felt lucky to be able to see them both and so close in time to one another.

The two cities holding these churches are also delightful. Chartres in particular is a jewel and we enjoyed one of the best meals of our post-Italy trip in a small restaurant there that overlooked the cathedral.

No comments:

Post a Comment