Our Lady of Chartres
To Chartres belongs the distinction of being not only the oldest shrine in France, but also – in all probability – the oldest shrine of Our Lady in the world. It is actually pre-Christian, like the Athenians’ “altar to the unknown god” and was dedicated to the Virgin who would bring forth a son, at least a century before the birth of Christ. Later, it was a pilgrimage site due to a well located there, “the Well of Strong Saints,” for the bodies of many early Christian martyrs had been cast into that well. So Chartres was a site of pilgrimages long before the construction of the beautiful Gothic cathedral that now occupies the spot.
Eleven centuries later, 1140, Christians were returning from the first crusade with new Byzantine dignity added to their idea of the kind of art demanded for the veneration of royalty. In 1144 “men began to laden themselves with stone and wood…and drag them to the site of the church, the towers of which were then a-building. It was a spectacle the like of which he who has seen will never see again.” Rich and poor alike put their strength and their possessions into the work for Our Lady of Chartres.
The result is still standing, as strong as the moment it was consecrated in 1260 – an architectural marvel that makes men gape in admiration. Eric Gill listed the sight of it among the five most awe-filled moments of his life. It is not the first church built at the site, as there were at least five previous structures built there during the previous centuries.
Chartres is the court were Mary, Our Lady of Chartres, sits enthroned beside her Son, receiving her subjects, turning peasant pilgrims into lovers of the beautiful, turning crusty scholars, come to see about some detail, into romantic fools at her feet.
Mary sits above the southern door, crowned and robed and sceptered like an eastern empress; Christ sits above the central door, not as Judge but like Mary, a triumphant benevolent sovereign and long lean figures of kings, queens, saints and prophets stand with oriental dignity, lining the columns of the doorways like courtiers attendant on a king and a queen. The windows above depict the Passion of Christ. Mary enthroned and the Tree of Jesse – windows better than any made by a Byzantine genius.
This Cathedral of Notre Dame is probably the most beautiful Gothic church in the world; in its crypt is the shrine of Our Lady Underground, in the choir, a statue of Our Lady of the Pillar, a reputed garment of Mary’s, the Sancta Carmisa, is preserved in the treasury. This garment was acquired in 876, and is believed to be the tunic that the Blessed Virgin wore at the time of Christ’s birth. It is believed the garment was given to the church by Charlemagne. Kings and princes, popes and prelates, saints and sinners, thousands after thousands of ordinary people have come here on pilgrimages for seven hundred years. Miracle upon miracle has been the response to their faith, their confidence and their ardent prayers to Our Lady of Chartres.