HIGHLIGHT: Scale and proportion – as much as its awe-inspiring height – are what make this edifice impressive.
MEDIEVAL CATHEDRAL don’t come squat or low. A cathedral without height soaring skyward is a contradiction in terms.
In our age of skyscraper, rocketry, and airlines, the height of the nave of Chartres or the spire of Salisbury might seem unimpressive.
Even the century-old Eiffel Tower, concentrated so exclusively on an elegant achievement of height, surely long ago made Gothic height look modest.
But it doesn’t.
The Chartres Cathedral stands at the highest point in this small town and in all the countryside around. Nothing near it can compare. Chartres is, in its domain, the highest note in the scale, the great rock perched above a sea of roofs and expanse of land. The pilgrims who came here must have felt the significance of having, in their final approach, to climb uphill to it.
The interior of Chartres expresses verticality no less than other medieval cathedrals: The sheer height above the heads of the worshipers (or tourists) is integral to its awe.
Describing something of this superhuman quality, John Ruskin wrote of a different cathedral, ”there are few rocks, even among the Alps, that have a clear vertical fall as high as the choir of Beauvais.”
In Chartres Cathedral, the windows emphasize the verticality of the interior, their brilliant images arranged in panels one above another. The high rose windows also contribute by apparently floating in the blackness, as if without structural support.
Outside, among the first close-up experiences to absorb the visitor are the figures of kings, queens, and Old Testament characters of the West Front, the Royal Portal. These sculptures are as much columns as personages.
Chartres authority Malcolm Miller describes them as ”still in the Romanesque tradition” and ”incorporated within the architecture of the portal, reminiscent of the performers in a medieval mystery play upon the cathedral steps. They stand stiffly,” he continues, ”about to speak their parts with raised hands.” They are serenely tall – adding to the integral verticality of the building as a whole.