CHARTRES cathedral, often called the epitome of Gothic
architecture, rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Most of the
Romanesque church on the site had been damaged beyond repair by
fire in 1194. The crypt under the church was safe, and the West
Front was not harmed. These were retained. But a new edifice was
built, most of it in the astonishingly short time of 20 to 30
years. Some eight centuries later, except for a few later
completions and additions, this is Chartres cathedral.
The different cathedrals at Chartres were by no means unique in
their history of destruction by fire and subsequent rebuilding. It
happened at Laon, at Canterbury, and at Rheims. At Chartres it had
happened at least twice before. But the response to such
devastation - after initial despair - was not to restore what was
lost but to rethink and reinvent. It was an opportunity for
This eagerness for the new was perhaps partly the result of
ambition, but conversely, it also grew out of a humility that
admitted the possibility of learning from past inadequacies. It
also must have had something to do with the stonemasons. These
remarkable medieval craftsmen were often itinerant, and, summoned
to the place of a new building, they brought with them considerable
experience of other recent building projects. All the evidence also
points to the fact that they were continually eager to surpass
themselves, to build on previous achievements, but also to extend
The stonemasons' energy seems integral to the energetic
architecture of the Gothic period, which architectural historian
Nikolaus Pevsner described as "far from reposeful." Gothic
cathedral architecture is vigorous and directional, not tranquil.
This is true of Chartres, yet at the same time it has a fresh
coherence and unity that invests the lively repetitiveness of ribs
and arches with a kind of single-minded clarity of space.
The building of a new cathedral was also a chance to make the
new building less vulnerable to fire - by using more stone and less
wood. The older churches' use of wood, particularly in roofs and
spires, had been a fire hazard. Though the 1194 fire at Chartres
had swept up to the cathedral from the city below, sometimes fires
started inside cathedrals and churches themselves.
Cathedrals were not simply places of worship. They were public
halls, social centers, places of learning, and the culmination of
pilgrimages. They also served as hostels and hospitals. Pilgrims -
or so a guide at Chartres informed the group I was in - would camp
in the nave and cook their food on open fires. So accessible to the
masses were the cathedrals that there are even decrees on record
curbing ball games inside them, not to mention regulations to stop
the launching of missiles (stones, presumably) at birds who had
unfortunately found themselves within the walls.
Religious fervor does, however, seem to have been the driving
force - along with available funds - determining the speed with
which Notre Dame de Chartres was rebuilt in the early 13th century.
By 1222, a chronicler could write: "None can be found in the
whole world that would equal its structure, its size and decor ...
the mother of Christ has a special love for this one church....
None is shining so brightly than this nowadays rising anew and
complete, with dressed stone, already finished up to the level of
The style of this cathedral was indeed new. The idea of
completeness - increased visual and structural unity between all
its various parts, not unlike the natural relationship of the
different parts of a tree to each other, from root to canopy - took
a decisive leap forward in the design and making of this building.
Absolutely crucial to the fulfillment of this concept of what a
cathedral building should or could be were the skills of the
stonemasons. The quoted chronicler doesn't fail to mention "dressed
stone" in his proud description. …