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Constructing Chartres: ‘A Cathedral of Lights’


Professor Arnie Greenberg

It may have been thought about before they discovered construction methods to build such a magnificent house of worship but they learned along the way. It took longer than expected and what stands today is a World Heritage Site that

It is the largest major gothic cathedral in France and only 80 kilometers from Paris, if not the most interesting. It started as a dream replacement of what had been there and it went on to become what many thought would be an impossible engineering challenge. What followed was violence, greed, disaster, and competitive double-dealing. What remained is one of the most fascinating true ‘Bible of Stone’.

Many people note that the two spires are of different design. The taller one dates from the Flamboyant Gothic period but the other simpler one survived from the older Romanesque period. This feature alone makes the exterior unique.

It is rare to find someone not awed by entering this vast space surrounded by one of the finest collections of stained glass windows allowing for the light of God. To single out a few I was taken with the colors and design of the circular South Rose Window that depicts the Glorification of the Virgin. Another is the Tree of Jesse which rises over one of the main doors and depicts Jesse, the father of David rising to Christ at the top. Many biblical themes are also shown such as the story of Noah on the top east side and Isaiah and Moses nearer the nave.

The color blue was not available to the craftsmen at that time so they mixed colors and came up with the beautiful Chartres Blue, unique to the Cathedral.

As you enter, you will see the Gothic labyrinth in the floor. This is used as a penance for pilgrims who followed the route of 851 feet on their knees. It was only after an hour or so to reach the center that they could look up and marvel at the high ceilings and bright light.


Inlaid Labyrinth - click to enlrage
Inlaid Labyrinth

Necessity is the mother of invention and when the builders looked for a way to lift heavy parts of the great ceiling, they found the answer in the military catapults used as a weapon of war.  The new device allowed for the stones and other materials to be hauled over the high walls. The energy to drive it by turning a wheel was a dangerous occupation and many slipped to a horrific death when the catapult wheel reversed suddenly.

Another ingenious way to complete their task was to cut the stones and shape them in the quarry which luckily was nearby. It was easier to transport these carved stones than to fashion them on location.

Making the archways with a pointed top made them stronger than the old round archway. The weight would be better distributed.

There were workmen from all regions and from all skills but they were helped by the local population. The guild members tried to maintain their secrets. Among the artisans, the stone carvers were the highest paid and the most respected. One look at their incredible work will answer why. Water mixed with the correct amount of lime was necessary for fastening some pieces to others.

After a while the lack of money hindered the progress but the taxes were raised which caused the people to lose patience. By 1210 it let to violence with the Countess of Blois opposing the Bishops. There were kidnappings, demonstrations and fire. The 116 foot walls were finally finished and using an umbrella like wooden frames. The walls, however, were still fragile and required strength so they would not balloon outward from the weight and gravity. The answer came with the use of Gothic flying buttresses that were on the outside so as not to reduce the inner space. Add stained glass and the cathedral was aglow. It was completed in 1256 and inaugurated in 1260 when the King of France, Louis IX led a long procession through the city. Pilgrims started arriving from all over Europe.

One can imagine the awe they felt as they approached Chartres with its cathedral seen miles away.

My tours to the area always brought expressions of wonder both at the size and the magnificence of the inside.

 Few conflicts hampered the tranquility of Chartres . It was not damaged by religious wars or the French Revolution.  What became known as ‘the Bible of Stone ‘still stands.

There was little damage of the windows during WWII but they were dismantled, restored and releaded. They cover a surface of over 26,900 square feet. What you see now is what was once only a dream. Even the original crypt is there for you to see

When you arrive you can arrange for an English tour which I heartily recommended.

Not only had the craftsmen built a monument to wonder but they discovered new architectural methods that were used over and over again throughout Europe.

Phone: 37 21 75 02. Open daily from 7:30 (9:15 0n weekends.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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