Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral

Mendel Letters
4 min readMar 22, 2023
Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral

I’m an atheist, but I love to visit old churches and cathedrals when I travel, for their beauty, peacefulness, and history. When you visit them, you understand why medieval Europeans thought they were holy sites where their prayers to God might be answered. In a smelly world, the air inside churches was perfumed with incense. In the heat of the day, they were cool. For the illiterate, the statuary and stained-glass told the stories from the Bible and of the Catholic Saints. Even more dramatically, as the sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows, you could believe that God’s grace was real.

Fabled Flying Buttresses

With Notre Dame in Paris closed for repair after a disastrous fire in 2019, we decided to visit Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral which has some of the world’s most spectacular stained-glass windows. The cathedral is in the town of Chartres, about 60 miles southwest of Paris, an hour ride by train. Construction of the cathedral started in 1194 on the site of a former pagan church and a Catholic church that had burned down. It was largely completed in 1230. At the time pilgrims could see it standing alone from a great distance. Even today it stands high above the town. In 1979, Chartres Cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As you approach there is a dinginess to the outside of the building and the famed stained-glass windows are dark from this direction. The cathedral’s beauty is on the inside with 176 13th-century windows. They tell stories of the life of the Virgin Mary and tales from the Old and New Testaments. Testament. Statuary circling the alter tells the story of Jesus including his birth, bris, and baptism.

Zodiac Clock
The Wise Men, the baby, and a Bris
Jesus baptized by John

The cathedral was almost demolished during the French Revolution but survived because no one knew what to do with so much rubble. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, all of the stain-glass windows were taken apart, labeled, and stored for safety. Some of the glass was placed in the crypt below the cathedral and some was shopped to southern France for safety. In 1944, the United States planned to bomb the cathedral suspecting its tower was being used by Germans to spy on American troop movements. The cathedral was saved again when an American scouting party found that it had been abandoned by German troops. It took ten days to take apart and pack the stained-glass and after the war three years to put all the pieces together and reinstall them.

After my father Manny and my stepmother Fay visited Europe in their sixties, Fay complained that in every church they visited there was a “schmatta,” the Yiddish word for rag, that they claimed was either the shroud from Christ’s death or a remnant from the Virgin Mary. According to my mother, “That woman must have had some wardrobe.” In Chartres the “schmatta” is the Sancta Camisa, the tunic Mary supposedly wore when she gave birth to the baby Jesus. Charlemagne received the cloth as a gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene and his grandson King Charles the Bald gave it to the original Chartres Cathedral in 876 AD. It was cut into pieces during the French Revolution and two of the pieces remain in the cathedral.

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