France’s Gothic cathe­drals sur­vived cen­turies

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - Rick Steves

Though vis­it­ing Paris’ Notre-Dame cathe­dral won’t be pos­si­ble for the fore­see­able fu­ture fol­low­ing a dev­as­tat­ing fire, there are plenty of fine ex­am­ples of Gothic cathe­drals — and other Notre-Dames even — that you can see in France.

When trav­el­ing in

France, I can’t help but mar­vel at the tow­er­ing Gothic cathe­drals that mark the cen­ters of many towns. I like to imag­ine what it was like to be a pil­grim 600 years ago, hik­ing for days to a par­tic­u­lar church on a par­tic­u­lar holy day — and feel­ing the awe when the soar­ing spire of the cathe­dral fi­nally ap­peared on the hori­zon.

Nowa­days, you can hop on a train in Paris and in an hour ar­rive in Chartres, home of ar­guably Europe’s best ex­am­ple of pure

Gothic. Of­fi­cially known as the Cathé­drale Notre-Dame de Chartres — it’s one of more than a hun­dred churches ded­i­cated to “Our Lady” (”Notre-Dame”) scat­tered around France — it too ex­pe­ri­enced a har­row­ing fire, burn­ing to the ground in 1194.

The Gothic style, which evolved in France in the Mid­dle Ages from heav­ier Ro­manesque ar­chi­tec­ture, is marked by pointed arches (al­low­ing churches to grow higher and more dra­matic on the out­side while mak­ing space for stun­ning stained­glass win­dows on the in­side) and coun­ter­weight “fly­ing but­tresses” — stone beams that stick out of the church and sup­port the roof by push­ing back in­ward.

While mostly made of stone, many Gothic churches fea­ture a wooden roof or spire, mak­ing them sus­cep­ti­ble to fires. Amaz­ingly, Chartres’ cathe­dral took just 30 years to re­build, as­ton­ish­ing when you con­sider it took cen­turies to build cathe­drals such as Paris’ Notre-Dame. What you see now is a unity of ar­chi­tec­ture, stat­u­ary and stained glass that cap­tures the spirit of the 13th cen­tury (known as the “Age of Faith”) like no other church of that era.

At the time of Chartres’ fire, the church owned the veil sup­pos­edly worn by Mary when she gave birth to Je­sus, mak­ing this small town a ma­jor player on the pil­grim cir­cuit. While the veil was feared lost in the fire, it was found days later un­harmed in the crypt and — whether mir­a­cle or mar­ket­ing ploy — be­came the im­pe­tus to re­build quickly. You can still view the veil, along with many stat­ues ded­i­cated to Mary, but the high­light for me is the Blue Vir­gin Win­dow. The cen­tral win­dow be­hind the al­tar, it shows Mary dressed in the famed “Chartres blue,” a sump­tu­ous color made by mix­ing cobalt ox­ide into the glass.

Be­yond Chartres, you can find two clas­sic ex­am­ples of Gothic cathe­drals in Nor­mandy. In con­trast to small-town Chartres, Rouen was France’s sec­ond­largest city in me­dieval times. While its cathe­dral was also ded­i­cated to Mary, it’s more fa­mous as a land­mark of art history. Vis­it­ing today, you’ll see es­sen­tially what Claude Monet saw as he painted 30 dif­fer­ent stud­ies of this Flam­boy­ant Gothic (mid-14th cen­tury) fa­cade at var­i­ous times of day, cap­tur­ing “im­pres­sions.” You can see sev­eral of th­ese paint­ings at the Or­say Mu­seum in Paris.

The build­ing you see today was con­structed be­tween the 12th and 14th cen­turies, though light­ning strikes, wars (the cathe­dral was ac­ci­den­tally bombed in World War II), and other de­struc­tive forces meant con­stant re­build­ing. In­side, you’ll see a chapel ded­i­cated to Joan of Arc (she was con­victed of heresy in Rouen and burned at the stake in 1431) and sev­eral stone tombs that date from when Rouen was the cap­i­tal of the dukes of Nor­mandy (in­clud­ing one con­tain­ing the heart of English King Richard the Lion­heart).

Bayeux’s cathe­dral — as big as Paris’ Notre-Dame — dom­i­nates this small town. Its two tow­ers were orig­i­nally Ro­manesque but later capped with tall Gothic spires, while the west fa­cade is struc­turally Ro­manesque but with a dec­o­ra­tive Gothic “cur­tain” added. His­to­ri­ans be­lieve the Bayeux ta­pes­try, the 70-foot­long em­broi­dery telling the story of Wil­liam the Con­queror’s vic­tory in the Bat­tle of Hast­ings, orig­i­nally hung above the nave.

Head­ing the other di­rec­tion, the most im­pres­sive Gothic cathe­dral in eastern France is in Stras­bourg, where its ven­er­a­ble church — also a “Notre-Dame” — is a true jaw-drop­per.

This Gothic spec­ta­cle some­how sur­vived the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the Franco-Prus­sian War, World War I, and World War II. The in­te­rior is worth sa­vor­ing slowly, with its wide nave, ex­quis­ite gold-leaf or­gan and elab­o­rately carved stone pul­pit. The mar­velous stained glass, 80% of which is orig­i­nal, dates as far back as the 12th cen­tury. The ex­te­rior, with its cloud-pierc­ing spire (at 466 feet, it was the world’s tallest un­til the mid-1800s) and red sand­stone (from the 13th and 14th cen­turies), stands out from the other great Gothic churches in France.

Gothic churches are re­silient. The in­ge­nu­ity of de­sign has meant France’s great cathe­drals have sur­vived wars, fires and Mother Na­ture. While the coun­try’s most fa­mous Notre-Dame in Paris is slowly re­paired, there are plenty of other places to sa­vor th­ese dra­matic ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders.

Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on public tele­vi­sion and public ra­dio. Email him at [email protected]­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE PHO­TOS

The cen­ter­piece of a small town, Bayeux’s cathe­dral is as large as Paris’ Notre-Dame.

The pointed arches of Gothic cathe­drals al­low for dra­matic win­dows, such as the ones in Chartres’ cathe­dral.

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