This is the last of a series of 5 posts that have considered two questions in a challenge posted by British philosophy professor and blogger A.C. Grayling. The earlier posts can be found in this blog's category Church History: The "Dark Ages". The two questions posed by Professor Grayling, addressed in the first 4 parts of the series, were:
1. Did Christianity Cause the Dark Ages?
2. What has Christianity, as a body of beliefs, contributed to science?
The Time Frame
The time frame for this series of posts, generally about the "Dark Ages," was based on a time frame chosen by A.C. Grayling to define his challenge. It was given in his comment to a post by Carl Olson on Insight Scoop in the series of blog posts last January that prompted this series. Professor Grayling's comment specified the time frame in question as follows, in his comment to Carl Olson:
"First may I pick you up on your point about my rhetorical "thousand years": you leave to your readers to work out the period I concede to you, from 318 (summoning of the Council of Nicea) to 1145 (your choice: the beginning of the building of Chartres Cathedral) is 827 years."
His choice, was based, in part, on a reference made by Dr. Olson in a January 24 post in which he mentioned Chartres Cathedral. Dr. Olson had pointed out that Professor Grayling had probably seen some towers and domes from medieval buildings, including Chartres Cathedral. He was not defining Chartres Cathedral as a turning point in the Dark Ages. Rather, he referenced an article in Wikipedia saying that the building of Chartres Cathedral had begun in 1145 with the "Cult of Carts." In response, Grayling set 1145 as the end of his time frame for the "Dark Ages" with the beginning of the construction of Chartres Cathedral.
For that reason, this post addresses the construction of Chartres Cathedral and ends with the Cult of Carts in 1145. However, historians would not describe that time frame as the "Dark Ages," and many do not use that term at all. As discussed in Part IV of this series, the collapse that followed the fall of the Roman Empire was really over by the end of the seventh century. The period of rebuilding had begun. Part IV covers the early centuries of rebuilding.
As a result, the answers to Professor Grayling's challenges were actually completed in Part IV of this series. Part V will simply consider the building of the Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Chartres, For more buildings from that era, see the videos of such churches in an earlier post from today. For lives of people from the Church history of that era, see posts about St. Anselm (11th century rebuilding in England) and about the Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (12th century Germany).
The Building of Chartres Cathedral
In a guided tour of Chartres Cathedral, if you go there today, you can go down into the crypt, now used as a chapel, and down to the very bottom of the building. The lower paving dates back to the first cathedral in that location, built in the fourth century. There is a well there, inside the church, that is even older. The well dates back to Gallic times when a Druidic community worshiped there before the first cathedral was built. It is from the era discussed in Part II of this series of posts.
Also still there in the crypt, at the bottom of a Carolingian column, is a Gallo Roman base that was part of a sixth century cathedral that replaced the original fourth century church. That the bases of columns in the sixth century would have been strong enough to bear the weight of a cathedral demonstrates that not all of Western Europe had fallen into ignorance. The Gallo Roman construction is from the era of collapse described in Part III of this series.
That church, in turn, was destroyed by the Duke of Aquitaine in 743, and the church that followed it was destroyed by Viking invaders in 858. In the Viking attacks, of the kind mentioned in Part IV, some Christians are said to have been thrown into the old Druidic well. The well became a place of Christian martyrdom, and from then on what had been remembered as pagan took on Christian symbolism too.
The oldest part of the crypt, beneath the choir, is part of a Carolingian church that was built after the destruction of 858, during the reign of Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne. The Carolingian cathedral, in turn, was destroyed by fire in 1020. However, part of the crypt from that era survives.
Rebuilding began then under Bishop Fulbert of Chartres -- the same Fulbert whose teaching at the monastic school there was mentioned in Part IV of this series of posts. Fulbert is thought possibly to have been a student of the great Gerbert of Aurillac, and he was known for his study of medicine before he became bishop in 1007. From 990 to 1007, his school drew students from throughout Western Europe. The growing monastic schools would lead to the universities of the twelfth century, with an ever increasing demand for knowledge.
The building of many churches after the year 1000, and the use of classical knowledge of geometry in the process, was discussed in Part IV. Bishop Fulbert's cathedral, begun after the fire of 1020, was finished in 1037. A picture in an illumined manuscript shows it with a central western tower and a nave that was almost as long as that of the present cathedral. In the crypt today, there is a faded eleventh century fresco. It is a picture of Mary with the baby Jesus, with the magi to her left and with two bishops credited with evangelizing Chartres at her right. An 11th century flight of steps still leads up from the crypt to the sanctuary.
In 1134, a fire destroyed much of Chartres, including part of the cathedral. The rebuilding of Chartres Cathedral, as it stands today, actually began in the mid 1130's on the west side of the church, which probably was heavily damaged. The photo in the upper left corner of this post (taken by me) shows the west wall and the two towers from a distance. The north tower was begun as early as 1134, although the north spire now in place was not there until 1507. The south tower was begun by 1145, and the portals (not visible in this photo) were begun around 1145. The year 1145 was a turning point in the rebuilding of the west end of the building.
However, no one then would have thought that they were beginning to build Chartres Cathedral, as most of Bishop Fulbert's cathedral was still intact, and people then thought it was a miracle that it had survived the fire. They were rebuilding only the damaged west end.
Another fire in 1194 destroyed what remained of Bishop Fulbert's structure, sparing the west front that had been built in the twelfth century, and sparing most of the crypts. On the level of the crypt today, the ambulatory has 3 wide barrel-vaulted Romanesque chapels from before that fire, and 4 rib-vaulted Gothic chapels added after 1194, The 12th century St. Clement Chapel has a 12th century fresco, and a 12th century baptismal font that is still used today for baptisms.
Once you climb the stairs up to the cathedral above the crypt, what you see today was built from around 1134 through the present. After the 1194 fire, most of the present day High Gothic cathedral was built, beginning in the thirteenth century. However, the twelfth century towers still stand, along with the twelfth century royal portals and the 3 stained glass windows above them. The other stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, including the rose window above those 3, are more recent.
In this YouTube video of Chartres Cathedral below, a panorama of the interior, you will twice see the oldest stained glass windows -- three windows on one wall beneath a large rose window:
The second video shows the same 3 windows from the exterior, and the doors beneath them (the royal portals) also date back to that era:
The Cult of Carts
The Cult of Carts came into being while the north tower was being constructed. Whitney S. Stoddard describes its impact in Art & Architecture in Medieval France:
"People of noble birth and humble peasants came to help pull the carts laden with stone from the quarries some distance from Chartres. This act of devotion to rebuild the Queen's House on Earth has rarely been equaled in recorded history. By 1145 two towers were under construction, with the south tower completed in the 1160's. The Royal Portals and the three stained-glass windows above were in place by 1150."
Thus, while it may not be quite accurate to say that 1145 marks the beginning of the construction of Chartres Cathedral, the year marked the great initiative of the construction, a combined effort of rich and poor alike. It was not an effort of great technology, but rather a simple community effort done in devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
The cathedral had had a long history as a place of special devotion to the Blessed Virgin for whom it is named. Referring to the later rebuilding after the fire of 1194, Etienne Houvet explains the enthusiasm that began when they found a precious relic. Mary's veil, which the Carolingian cathedral had received from Charles the Bald, was found in the rubble:
"Chartres was then what Lourdes is today. Sick people were nursed in the crypt, generally for a period of nine days.
"The veneration of Our Lady drew great crowds here. The pilgrims slept in the cathedral, which accounts for the slope of the nave paving allowing a thorough washing, and panels of the stained glass windows could be taken out to air the building."
It was not, then, a transition away from the faith that spurred the twelfth century people to build Chartres Cathedral. Without question, the design and building benefited from the growth of intellectual knowledge and the value that the Church and monastic teachers placed on reason, classical philosophy, the Church Fathers, geometry, and science. Men like Boethius, Alcuin, Gerbert and Fulbert were among the great teachers and students of that era who had contributed to that restoration. However, in the end, it was their devotion to the Lord and to his Blessed Mother that spurred them to build, and to build again when each building in turn was burned. What did Christianity, as a faith, contribute to the great architectural development in the building of Chartres Cathedral? Answer: That is what motivated them to build it.
Crypts of Chartres Cathedral, The (a hand-out from the guided tour given by the cathedral in 2005).
Houvet, Etienne, Chartres: Guide of the Cathedral
Stoddard, Whitney S.,Art & Architecture in Medieval France.
Photo: Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Chartres, taken by me in October 2005.