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No. 958:
The Book of Chartres

Today, we read a great book written in stone and glass. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've finally reached Chartres Cathedral. There it is! The first and finest High-Gothic church. The Romans once built here. Then a series of churches, each grander than the last, rose -- one upon another. When fire damaged the cathedral that stood here in 1194, it was a sign to the people of Chartres that their protector, the Virgin Mary, wanted a still grander church on this spot.

Whether or not that's what Mary really wanted, it's what she got. Technologists came from all over France. They threw heart and skill into creating such size, intricacy, and lasting beauty as to set the standard for Gothic architecture ever since.

Much of what I see at Chartres I'm prepared to see. Then the unexpected: we meet Malcom Miller, who came here from England 38 years ago and fell under the spell of 21,000 sqare feet of stained glass, still brilliant after 800 years. It's the finest there is, and he knows it better than anyone. We sign up for his tour.

Chartres, he explains, was the Oxford/Princeton of the medieval world -- a great learning center and library. And where is the library? Why, all around us! For an hour we read some of the 10,000 images of saints, sinners, and common folk who tell their stories in stone and glass from every wall, window, and doorway.

Example: The story of the Good Samaritan, told from bottom left to top right of a window in the nave. The pictures, evocative and wordless, draw us in. First picture: a group of shoemakers pools money to pay for the window. Then the story: a man leaves Jerusalem and is beset by thieves who mug and strip him. A priest and a Levite pass him by. Finally a despised outcast -- a Samaritan -- stops to give aid. And you know the rest.

The parable ends with the Samaritan promising the innkeeper to come back and settle accounts. But we've read only half the the window! There follow layers of interpretation -- the parallel between the robbed traveler and outcast Adam. The Samaritan's promise to return becomes the promised second coming. It's subtle, and it's all acted out by a huge cast of accurate medieval figures. (My wife counts 52 humans, one donkey, and a snake.)

These are no Saturday afternoon cartoons for uneducated peasants. This is serious scholarship for a smart public who, in a world with few books, doesn't read. The cathedral begins by assailing the senses with a vast and blurred symphony of color and space, shape and light. Once caught, we're drawn into its seemingly infinite library of artistic and architectural detail.

And I think about the practical, unlettered people who made this place -- who shaped a living book that reaches out across eight centuries and speaks to us with eerie eloquence.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Miller, M., Chartres Cathedral (with photos by S. Halliday & L. Lushington). New York: Riverside Book Co., 1985.

Chartres Cathedral is named the Church of Our Lady -- Notre-Dame. It houses a peculiar relic: the purported garment worn by Mary when Christ was born. Or was it worn at the Annunciation? The story changes. It was given to Charlemagne by the Empress Irene of Byzantium. The relic is still there today, but no one seems greatly concerned with questions about its authenticity. The importance of the garment is symbolic.

Clergy took the garment into the Carolingian crypt below the cathedral during the fire of AD 1194. When they emerged with the relic unharmed, it was taken as a sign from Mary that she wanted the old Romanesque cathedral rebuilt. In 1220, as the new Gothic Cathedral rose from the ruins, William the Breton wrote:

Mary, the Mother of God, desired to rebuild the church in
Much more praiseworthy form, especially for her own sake.
... A miraculous accident happened,
Through the fury of Vulcan. She gave him leeway to ravage,
So that ... this ruin would give a reason for building a new house.

Much the same thing had happened back in AD 1020. The Carolingian cathedral, built in 876, burned. That, too, was taken as a sign. The Romanesque cathedral replaced it and stood until 1194, when fire destroyed a good part of it. Large portions of the Romanesque building of 1020 have been incorporated into the present cathedral. Thus, when you visit the cathedral, you see parts that are over 1200 years old and parts that are just under 1000 years old. The architectural and artistic integrity of the building was formed just after the fire of 1194, and other changes have been made since -- like the grand 18th-century altarpiece.

The cathedral's most distinctive features are its two asymmetrical steeples. Oddly enough, the earlier and plainer of the two was part of the earlier Romanesque church, and and the slightly larger flamboyant one was added in the early 16th century.


Chartres Cathedral as seen from the streets of Chartres
Photo by John Lienhard

Chartres Cathedral as seen from the streets of Chartres


Figures from the right-hand side of the north portal of Chartres Cathedral
Photo by John Lienhard

Figures from the right-hand side of the north portal of Chartres Cathedral


Three typical panels of stained glass in Chartres Cathedral
Photo by John Lienhard

Three typical panels of stained glass in Chartres Cathedral