Chartres Cathedral Royal Portal Sculpture

Welcome to Chartres Cathedral, probably the finest example of French Gothic architecture and said by some to be the most beautiful cathedral in France.

The west portal of Chartres Cathedral, known as the Royal Portal, was part of a campaign to beautify the cathedral, which began in the time of Bishop Ivo (reg 1090–1116).

It is an integral part of a new west front made for an extension of the nave of Fulbert’s cathedral.

This was done in two stages: the first, c. 1140, comprised the north-west tower, originally free-standing, and a façade to replace the tower porch that had previously formed the entrance to Fulbert’s nave. The appearance of this façade is difficult to establish.

It would have had at least a single window and a single portal, as at Le Mans Cathedral, but the three windows and the three portals of the later phase may already have been present.

The matter has been discussed for nearly a century, but arguments, whether based on style, analogy or archaeology, have proved inconclusive.

The date of the second stage, when the façade was moved forward to its present position, is controversial. The one thing that is certain is that it was done in conjunction with the building of the south-west tower.

Christ in Majesty with the Evangelist Symbols and Apostles, on…Whether or not it began as a single portal, in its final form the Royal Portal was a remarkable fusion of formal design with iconographical presentation.

It is divided horizontally into upper and lower parts, but the tripartite division is really emphasized only in the upper parts. The three doorways are related in the proportions of 1:√2:1, or 7:10:7.

These numbers are represented by the corbels over each door and by the number of column statues on the embrasures.

The side portals have the odd arrangement of three figures on one side confronting four on the other. At this level the divisions between the portals are unimportant. The capitals form continuous friezes, running outward in both directions from the centre. Collectively the column statues (originally 24) seem to represent the Old Testament, while the capitals narrate salient episodes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. This horizontal division is fundamental to the iconography.

Above it, the three tympana show Christ in his decisive epiphanies: at the Nativity (south); to the Apostles, and through them to the Church, after the Resurrection (north); and at the end of time, as revealed by St John.

The voussoirs bear the Signs of the Zodiac and the Labours of the Months; the Seven Liberal Arts and their principal exponents; and the Elders of the Apocalypse.

The whole ensemble is thoroughly didactic and encyclopedic in character, and the style has a formal rigour to match. Occasionally, however, it is relieved by the first softening touches of humanism to appear in medieval sculpture.

Delicate modulation of anatomy and rapt expressions verging on smiles raise some of the column statues to the level of great art and justify their epoch-making reputation.

The place of the Royal Portal at Chartres in the stylistic evolution of medieval figure sculpture has been variously assessed.

Most scholars are agreed about the superlative quality of the column statues of the central doorway, which are distinguished from the others by being attributed to the so-called Headmaster, but the relationship of these statues to the rest depends on theory.

Other sculptors at Chartres can be traced to Etampes and perhaps to Saint-Denis Abbey.

By comparison with the Headmaster, the Etampes sculptor strikes modern eyes as somewhat clumsy, but his lack of competence alone is not enough to allow one to infer that he belonged to an earlier generation of sculptors.

For all his sophistication and subtle technique the Headmaster responded to the mathematical discipline of the overall design far more punctiliously than his colleagues; and if a monumental figure style evolved by emancipating movement and gesture from such abstract constraints, his place in the sequence should be nearer the beginning than theirs. Quality is no clue to chronology.