Chartres Cathedral Transepts

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

When Chartres was rebuilt after the fire of 1194, both the scale and extent of cathedral imagery had changed.

Gothic Chartres was conceived as a pilgrimage church with prodigious transepts, each treated like a west front with three portals and porches.

Like the Royal Portal, the idea may have developed in stages, and in its final form emphasis was placed on the role of the Church in the great vision of world history.

The claim of Chartres to be a place of pilgrimage was centered on the cult of the Virgin, but this was never narrowly focused on a relic.

The Virgin was always the link between Christ and his Old Testament ancestors and a symbol of the Church. In no other cathedral does the sense of a historical pageant of the Church Militant on its way to becoming the Church Triumphant emerge so strongly.

It was no accident that the programme was devised and much of it executed during the pontificate of Innocent III (1198–1216), when the papacy reached the zenith of its temporal power and the fulfillment of the Church’s destiny in the world must have seemed imminent.

The portals are crowded with statues, the arches encrusted with miniatures. The density is an essential part of the effect.History is shared between the transepts. The north belongs to the antecedents of Christ, the south to the era of the Church.

On the central portal of the north transept are represented the Precursors of Christ, from Melchizedek to Simeon and John the Baptist. With them, for typological reasons, is St Peter as pope.

The ancestors of Christ are entwined in the tendrils of the Tree of Jesse on the archivolts, and St Anne appears on the trumeau.

The whole composition culminates in the Coronation of the Virgin on the tympanum. The east portal is devoted to the Nativity of Christ; the west portal bears scenes and characters from the Old Testament such as Solomon and Job, who prefigured the infallible wisdom of the Church and the sufferings of the martyrs.

The porches of the north transept, which incurred the only serious mutilation at the hands of revolutionary zealots in 1793, dilated further on the theme of the Old and New dispensations, but there are also saints from the region of Chartres itself, which seem more appropriate to the south transept.

Although the iconography is not haphazard, there is a distinct impression that it grew to fill the space at its disposal. This is confirmed by stylistic changes.

The lateral portals of the north transept are in certain respects more advanced than the central portal. Such an expansion may have been connected with the enlargement of the transepts in the course of construction.

It is clear that the façades were built the way they are, i.e. with three portals and porches, but the south transept has a coherence lacking on the north, which suggests that all three of its portals were planned together.

The sequence could have been as follows: first, shorter transepts with a single portal on the north side; second, enlarged transepts with triple portals and porches on the south side; and third, a revision of the north transept to bring its design into line with the south.

Whether the south-transept portals were intended for a new west front that was never built, as van der Meulen has argued, or whether there is no need to go beyond the idea of a pilgrimage church to explain the unprecedented magnificence of the transepts, it is beyond question that the south transept presents the most comprehensive survey of Church history to be found in any of the High Gothic cathedral portals.

At the centre of the central portal is the Beau Christ on the trumeau, with the Apostles on the embrasures at either side. These lead on to the martyr saints of the west portal and the confessors and doctors of the Church on the east.

The martyrs link up with the regional evangelists of the north-transept porches, and there is a nice balance between great names and local worthies deliberately designed perhaps to convey the sense of Chartres being, no less than any other place, the centre of the universal Church.

Although the amount of figure sculpture at Gothic Chartres is enormous, the stylistic range is not great, and its interest lies largely in comparisons with similar displays elsewhere, notably Reims Cathedral.

The earliest figures (around 1205–1210) are those on the central portal of the north transept, which, like the architecture, point to Laon Cathedral as one of the sources from which sculptors were recruited. The figures are no longer columnar reliefs but properly blocked out.

Their drapery conventions derive from sources such as Byzantine ivories, which means that sculptors were beginning to break away from the restraints and models that surrounded their art in its earliest Romanesque days and to relate themselves to purely sculptural styles of the past, a process that was to be taken much further at Reims.

At Chartres the figures remain for the most part passive presences.

Occasionally, as in the Visitation group of the Nativity portal they turn and acknowledge their neighbours; but it was evidently sufficient for them to represent the characters whose names they bear, and they hardly begin to enact their parts. It is in this relative indifference to theatrical effect that the contrast between Chartres and Reims is most marked. It goes with the serious, didactic purpose of Chartres, the appeal to the mind rather than the emotions. Chartres offers visual aids for lectures on popular theology; Reims aspires to the condition of religious drama.

As a result, the individual statues at Chartres are seldom exciting. They make their impact collectively as the Precursors of Christ or the Apostles, not as Samuel or St Paul.

There are, however, exceptions to this generalization: the enormous head of Abraham, distracted from the sacrifice of Isaac, and the lolling head of John the Baptist with its simpering expression are unexpected and in their way arresting. St Modeste is a lively and gracious sister to the tragic Synagogue at Strasbourg Cathedral, and there is a mysterious king lurking behind the north-east corner of the north-transept porches, whose Muldenfaltenstil draperies are a reminder that Villard de Honnecourt spent time at Chartres drawing choice morsels of sculpture that caught his eye.

There are four saints who wear the same drapery as the king on the south transept. The Muldenfaltenstil came to Chartres late in the day, probably from Reims, and its presence shows Chartres responding to fashionable trends from other places. But it was never at home there, and if one had to pick out a single statue to represent the true spirit of Gothic at Chartres, one could not do better than to choose St Martin of Tours on the east portal of the south transept, whose commanding episcopal figure conjures up better than any other image the confident mood of Innocent III’s papacy as it was projected across the Christian world at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

To call Chartres a celebration of that event may be to take advantage of a chronological coincidence; and even if the description is illuminating, the transitoriness of such euphoric occasions is a necessary corrective. More than most medieval sculpture, that of Chartres belongs to a brief moment and needs great historical insight to bring it to life. The aesthetic reward may not justify the effort. Much of it is mediocre, especially the decorative sculpture: no one has ever written in praise of the capitals of Chartres. Oddly enough, some of the best art is to be found among the small reliefs and miniature figures, which seldom attract attention.

This is presumably where the next generation of sculptors learnt their trade; but, if so, they soon left their masters far behind.