09. March 2005 · Comments Off on Chartres · Categories: General

I drove across France on secondary roads, one perfect golden September, when my daughter was just shy of five years old. We had packed our luggage into the VEV and left Athens for a new assignment in Spain, with the Hallwag driver’s atlas open on the passenger seat beside me, and Blondie contentedly curled up in the back seat, watching the world go by and listening to her mother mumble curses upon whoever had designed road signage in France. Everywhere else we traveled, directional signs bore the name of the largest city along the road or at it’s terminus. Easy enough, at the start of a day on the road, keeping in mind and an eye out for the arrow helpfully pointing the way in the direction of, say “Roma” or “Munchen” or “Augsburg”.

Not so in France, not on the little two-lane country roads, hop scotching from town to town. Following the road into each town, I would be directed helpfully into the “centre” where there would be a crossroads or worse yet, a traffic circle, with a choice of roads leading out of town again; which one? I would have to pull over, and study the atlas, and commit to memory any and all names of towns along the road I wanted, and look for any of them on the fly. No chance to appreciate the cobbled square, the covered market hall, the village church and quaint old shop fronts, I was too busy scanning for the elusive black and white sign and arrow, which would put me out onto the right road. With luck, and presuming that the French sign-posting authorities had managed to put a sign where I could see it, I would emerge into the countryside again.

The country roads were the best, most aesthetically satisfying way to travel across France— not by the expensive, boring highways. One single stretch of road (along the Loire, I think) still stands in my memory of the most beautiful, perfect stretch of roadway imaginable: two lanes, arrow-straight, lined on each side with a perfect avenue of trees, planted just so, like columns in the aisle of a cathedral. The road aligned perfectly on the church steeple in the town ahead, as steady as a compass needle pointing north. Someone had planned that road, centuries ago, for the church and the avenue of trees were all very old.

The towers of Chartres cathedral drew us, as inexorably as a compass needle, floating like a stone ship on a golden sea of unharvested fields, the town around it invisible. There once was a time when men dared not build taller buildings than church-towers. The town of Chartres was built in a riverine valley, with the cathedral on a knoll in the middle, a bit of higher ground nearly the level of the land around, so for many miles it alone was visible, splendidly isolated.

“That’s what we’re going to see,” I said to my daughter. “Look, we can see it already. It’s supposed to be the finest, most perfect medieval cathedral around. The glass in the windows is like nothing in the world.”
Blondie didn’t quite yawn, but looked as if she were close to it, and thinking resignedly
“Oh, yay, another big old building. Whatever, Mom.” She had already spent three-fourths of her life being dragged around by me to temples, cathedrals, museums, castles and fields of ruins from every age from classical Greek to late medieval. I had no idea what this had done to her aesthetic sensitivities, aside from instilling a peculiar fondness for Botticelli. It had done a number on her religious beliefs, such as they were; the Greco-Roman pantheon was well mixed in with the Judeo-Christian and the Norse, and she had walked solemnly around the great bronze statue of Zeus in the Athens Archeological museum, and then announced to me in tones of great disapproval that God’s tushie was hanging out.
Chartres Doorway
Where saints in Glory Stand:Chartres, 1985
The air in the cathedral breathed of cool stone, and dust and candles, stone steps and paving under our feet worn by 800 years of devoted traffic. There were other people there, tourists like ourselves, lost in contemplating that soaring space inside. Chartres is not one of the exuberantly decorated spaces, tending rather to the ascetic glory of perfect purportion; the walls and columns and arches framing the matchless windows, through which stream sunlight stained in reds, blues, green, painting little blobs of color on the ancient stone floor. It is a holy place, built to the glory of God, at a time when men felt it was an act of highest worship to carve the perfect stone, fit it in exactly the right place, to cut the pieces of jewel-colored glass and bend the lead canes precisely around each piece, to set the great soaring arches in place.

Stained Glass Windows at Chartres
Sermon in Stained Glass at Chartres
They lived mostly short and uncomfortable lives, did they who built Chartres and places like it, lives that we would find unbearably squalid and uncomfortable, but they were visionaries, and built for the future, secure in believing that we… and their God would remember them. In time, the devotion of the faithful would turn from great buildings to causes; Sunday schools and anti-slavery, social justice, leaving the magnificent medieval buildings like an ornate but outgrown shell, but one where we can still wander, and marvel, knowing that we are in a holy place, made holy by a thousand lifetimes of work, hundreds of years ago.

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