Day 21 is not a walking day. I intend two days here in Chartres. Today is not a sight-seeing sort of day, but more a ‘quiet day’. An orientation day. After four non-stop days on the road a pilgrim needs time to quieten and settle. We must not feel driven by the road, but make time to ‘loiter with intent.’
Previous post: Day 20 Arrival in Chartres
The labyrinth in the nave of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres: a photo taken with a large format camera positioned more than thirty metres up in the roof vaults, facing down at the flagstones below. The chairs used by worshippers in the church have been put aside for pilgrims to walk the labyrinth – which is a symbolic representation of the spiritual quest – if they cannot go on a journey or are too sick to travel. What a symbol of our confinement this year 2020! Yes, the labyrinth is the ‘virtual pilgrimage’ par excellence.
This particular image is scanned from an old wrinkled A4-sized photo printed on card. On the reverse side are the words, “Editions Houvet, Chartres, Reproduction interdite.” (!) Until recently it had been in my shed, carelessly blu-tacked to the damp wall above my work-bench, with the hammers and spanners hanging from two rows of rusty nails on a tool board, and slightly crooked, ironically as it was stuck next to the spirit level. And that small fleck of white paint towards the centre of the labyrinth must have come from some long forgotten brushwork on the workbench.
Since it is arguably the most famous labyrinth in the world, you could use Google to find a high resolution, quality photograph of it in seconds. I make no apology for deliberately selecting this image instead. As I said above, this is not a sight-seeing sort of day, but a ‘quiet day.’ A quiet day is not a day when nothing happens, but a day to keep quiet and something often happens in the silence.
There are many points at which you could begin your visit to this cathedral. We are now beginning two days in it and around it, so we don’t need to make any hurried entrance and go around with the guide booklet in our hands. Some pilgrims who know the place well might ask why I started with the labyrinth! Isn’t that what the charlatans come here for? To tinker with the mystic maze that unlocks the secrets of the ley lines and centres your chakras. Surely we pilgrims are not here for that! (No, we’re not, by the way.)
What about the Royal Portal, the magnificent Romanesque splendour through which we entered this space, or the great west rose window above it; or please, why didn’t you at least start with the Old Testament sculpture and glass, and work your way through to the New, and tell the story from the beginning to the end of time in some proper order?
OK, well if you want to take it in order, that’s your next 64 years taken care of… Because Malcolm Miller who lives in a narrow street of the mediaeval quarter is the English guide, historian and lecturer who has been studying the cathedral since 1956 (I was five years old when he began) and he hasn’t quite finished the task yet. He is your best bet for a proper tour of the place. After focusing on a particular window or a group of sculptures, Malcolm always says that you cannot possibly see Chartres cathedral in a day and he finishes his guided-lecture with an invitation to return:
“I will be here until Judgment Day.”
When you have heard him say that once, and then you hear him say it twenty years later, and then again after thirty years, you begin to take him at his word and look for his face among the stone figures of the great tympanum showing Christ judging the living and the dead.
There are as many websites, books, academic articles, reconstructions of the architectural geometry and floor plans and competing mystical explanations of this building, and the masons, craftsmen, theologians and bishops involved in its making, as there are stones in the walls and flying buttresses, or in the small fragments of coloured glass in its windows. Newcomers to the cathedral might well ask to be taken immediately to the best bits: “What’s the big deal about this place?” asks Pilgrim Buhurojo.
The Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere window. And the chemistry of that blue might be interesting too.
Is it a myth that the glassmakers today have no idea how to make that blue again?
And if you are the experts in Chartres cathedral (we have some reading this who are stained glass specialists, and even an art historian who has given us use of his French art images), you may ask me why I gave the measurements of the roof vault in metres, not in the five Cistercian units used in its construction… paumes, lignes, palmes… and I forget the other two, but you’ll remind me anyway. The mathematicians among you will talk of the Fibonacci series, the Golden Ratio, and carefully explain that the inverse of PHI equals the decimal part of PHI, so 1/1.618034 = 0.618034 and, that in a nutshell my friends, is why it all turned out nice again.
Why start did I start with the old wrinkled photo of the labyrinth? Because I bought it thirty-five years ago in the cathedral bookshop beneath the north tower, which is thirty-five paces from the centre of the labyrinth where I had just completed a walk of its circular pilgrim way. It was the year I was baptised. I rescued the photograph from the damp wall above my work-bench a short time ago during the last Covid lock-down in 2020 and it is now dusted and trimmed. To be kept now among my important papers. It partly inspired me to begin writing this “virtual pilgrimage”. Sometimes we forget that moments of great worth have sacramentals attached to them, and we can recover the connections and let them re-inspire us.
As we begin our pilgrimage, we seem in no time to have almost reached the goal. (Trace with your finger on the first photo of the labyrinth, the journey to the centre.) See how we are taken further away. After a long twisting path, we are helped back towards the centre, where we enter the rose of the journey’s end. And none of it requires hidden knowledge or secret wisdom but simply perseverance and trust.
The obliging people from the Association de Saint Jacques de Notre Dame de Chartres will be at campsite reception table at seven o’clock with the tampon to stamp your pilgrim credencial. There are many joining this route from Paris, Germany and Holland on bicycles or walking, and this is a route hub. Bonsoir!
I have been quite delayed in keeping up the References page, and it needs reorganising too, so for the moment, the key text that needs referencing is the following, and thanks again to Simon for reminding me.
Émile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France in the Thirteenth Century (1889). The English edition is published by Icon Editions. Mâle’s book was reputedly carried around everywhere by Marcel Proust when he was looking at French church architecture.