The town of Chartres has been of religious importance since ancient times. It was the site of Druid ceremonies, which were held around a well that was later discovered under the cathedral crypt.
Sometime later, a Gallo-Roman temple stood on the same spot. The early Christians erected a basilica there during the 4th century, and St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade there in 1146. Later in history, Chartres was the coronation site of Henry IV in 1594.
Dedicated to Notre-Dame (Our Lady), Chartres Cathedral acquired strong associations with the cult of the Virgin. Later medieval insistence that Christianity came to Chartres as early as the 1st century AD was bound up with local legends focused on the cult.
It was alleged that in druidical times Chartres was the centre of a prophetic cult devoted to ‘a Virgin who shall give birth’, and there was a miraculous statue to prove it. Other components in the legend were a well in the crypt of the cathedral, which was sanctified by the remains of martyrs who were thrown into it, and the presence of the Virgin’s tunic.
The story was elaborated over the centuries, but it flourished particularly during the late Middle Ages and during the Baroque period, when it was successfully fused with the image of the cathedral itself.
As a whole, the building dates from the 13th century. However, among the majestic surviving sections of the cathedral’s 12th-century west front are the old bell-tower, with its 338-foot faultless spire, along with the Royal Doorway and its superb windows.
The immense church is the work of an unknown master. Built to accommodate large numbers of worshippers, the high Gothic cathedral features alternate cylindrical and octagonal columns, rationally designed flying buttresses and rib-vaults that soar to 121 feet.
Between 1507 and 1513, Jean Texier built a new bell tower. That 367-foot spire features lace-like stonework in the flamboyant style of a later age.
Then, beginning in 1514, French masters of the Renaissance and age of classicism carved the choir screen, which illustrates the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ.
The Great Organ, occupying a 15th-century loft, was restored completely in 1971. That neo-classical contemporary instrument is the centrepiece of Sunday summer concerts.
The cathedral at Chartres was among the first sites to be included in the Unesco list of world heritage in 1979. It is regarded as one of the great masterpieces of Gothic architecture.
Chartres was the first cathedral to use flying buttresses extensively. At the time of its building, it had the tallest roof in the Western world (about 38 metres).
Unlike most medieval cathedrals, Chartres Cathedral was rapidly completed to a single plan in the early 13th century. Unlike almost all other medieval cathedrals, it has never been significantly rebuilt or extended (other than its 16th century second spire). Its 176 original stained glass windows are the most complete set of medieval stained glass in the world.
The cathedral is believed to be the fifth on the site. The town of Chartres, 50 miles south-west of Paris, was one of the great centres of medieval learning, long before universities were created. In the 10th century, it became, and still is, an important place of Catholic pilgrimage with the acquisition of a biblical relic: a “veil” said to have been worn by Mary during the birth of Jesus.