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Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will analyze Chartres Cathedral as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture.
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An overview of Chartres Cathedral in France.

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Hello, I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell and today's lesson is about Chartres Cathedral. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind line as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to go to learn today are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe some of the formal characteristics of the portal sculptures at Chartres, explain the influence of humanism on the design elements of Chartres, and describe the appearance and subject matter of some examples of stained glass at Chartres.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. A rose window is a circular window, especially seen in Gothic church architecture. Flying buttress, associated with Gothic church architecture, an exterior segmented semi arch that relieves load bearing walls. Nave is the space extending from the narthex the transept with aisles on both sides.

And the big idea for today is that Chartres Cathedral is a classic example Gothic architecture and contains some the best examples of Gothic stained glass in the world. And the time period that we're looking at today is a short one. Not that short, 1134 to 1260 AD.

We'll be focusing on Chartres, France today, which is very close to Paris. There's Paris, and there's Chartres, just a bit southwest. Chartres Cathedral is another beautiful example of Gothic architecture in France, although in all honesty I really can't find an example that isn't a beautiful example. But what's important about Chartres is how its stained glass windows are, for the most part, completely original. To have survived in the elements for roughly 900 years is nothing short of amazing, only surpassed by the actual artistry of the windows themselves. And we'll get a chance to look at those in just a moment.

So we'll begin with the exterior of the building. Clearly labeled right there. This is the Western facade of the church. And the Western facade of cathedrals was the primary entrance, as they are arranged west to east. It was a standard three portal entrance, and the tympanums are all filled with religious imagery. What we haven't had a chance to see yet are the sculptures that adorn the supportive jambs that flank the doorways of these churches.

Chartres has a rather interesting style in the in the engaged portal sculptures of Old Testament kings and a queen, who are ancestors of Christ. And the saints Martin, Jerome, and Gregory, as well as Saint Theodore, who's not pictured here. He's kind of cut off. They're rather naturalistic in their appearance, yet unnaturally elongated, possibly to fit the length of jamb itself.

Now these sculptures, like others such is the Christ as Beau Dieu at Amiens Cathedral and the visitation jamb sculptures at Reims Cathedral, which are all in France, show the influence of humanism that penetrated this age, sometimes referred to as the Proto-Renaissance, and contributed to the rise of humanism during the actual Renaissance.

Finally, on the exterior we can see examples of the flying buttress supports that enabled the wall to function as a support for stained glass rather than a support the weight of the building itself. And that's a unique characteristic of Gothic architecture.

The inside of the church is where we see the full effect of the walls filled with colored glass. And we'll look at that in a moment. But it's worth pointing out the unseen at first numeric symbology that exists at Chartres Cathedral. So take, for example, the three portals in the Western facade of the image I showed you before. So why three? Three is an important number, as it represents the Holy Trinity in Christianity. Father, son, and Holy Spirit.

Now four is another important number. It represents the four cardinal directions of earth. North, east, south, and there's west, where the facade is. So 3 plus 4 represents the union of heaven and earth. And the resulting number is 7, which is found in several groupings within the church such as the seven bays within the apse. Now this is another example of the scholasticism present in the architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries.

So the windows inside did more than just bathe the interior of the church in light, although they did a very nice job of that. They were filled with narratives or iconography important to the Church and its history, and that of Christ's history. The narratives were elaborate in the windows that lined the nave, which is seen here, because they were closer to people and they could be seen in detail. Patterns of icons were easier to see from a distance. So the rose window that was located in the north transept describes the ancestry of Jesus and Mary.

The windows that lined the nave each had a theme. For example, the Charlemagne Window, which is not shown here, depicted a narrative about Charlemagne that includes his departure from Spain as well as the depiction of the donors that allowed for its expensive construction, in this case the local furriers. Other donors included the baker and carpenter. And donors were important because these windows are incredibly expensive.

The Jesse Tree, which is shown here, is another example depicting the important ancestral lineage of Christ. This time it's displayed vertically with the image of Christ located at the top.

This final example is of the Virgin and Child and Angels Window, more commonly called The Blue Virgin Window because of her blue robes. The Virgin Mary is enthroned with Christ in front of her and a dove near her head, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Now the bottom three rows depict two stories. The first two rows depict the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turned water to wine, and the last row of that set depicts the temptation of Christ.

So that brings to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe some of the formal characteristics of the portal sculptures at Chartres? Explain the influence of humanism on the design elements of Chartres. And describe the appearance and subject matter of some examples of stained glass from Chartres.

And once again, Chartres Cathedral is a classic example of Gothic architecture and it contains some of the best examples of Gothic stained glass in the world.

And there you go. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes of "Chartres Cathedral"


(0:00-1:33) Intro, Key Terms, BIG IDEA

(1:34-2:01) When in History? and Geography Lesson

(2:02-4:02) Exterior of Chartres

(4:03-5:23) Numeric Symbology

(5:24-7:08) Interior of Chartres

(7:09-7:54) Review, Wrap-up, End

Key Terms

Rose Window

Circular window, especially seen in Gothic church architecture.

Flying Buttress

Associated with Gothic church architecture, an exterior segmented semi arch that relieves load bearing walls.


The space extending from the main entrance to the narthex with aisles on both sides.


Chartres West Facade; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chartres.jpg Chartres Nave; Creative Commons:http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chartres,_Cath%C3%A9drale_Notre-Dame-F_274.jpg Chartres Rose Window; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chartres_-_cath%C3%A9drale_-_rosace_nord.jpg Jesse Tree Window; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:France_Chartres_JesseTree_c1145_a.JPG Virgin and Child and Angles Window, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chartres_-_cath%C3%A9drale_-_ND_de_la_belle_verri%C3%A8re.JPG Old Testament Kings & Queens; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Figures_from_Cathedral_of_Chartres.jpg Saints Martin, Jerome and Gregory, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Saints_Martin_Jerome_and_Gregory.JPG; Old Testament Kings and Queens, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Figures_from_Cathedral_of_Chartres.jpg; Image of France Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EU-France.svg; Image of France Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EU-Italy.svg