As the sun travels across the sky from dawn to twilight, the famous stained glass windows within Chartres Cathedral change colors and patterns like images in a kaleidoscope. Streams of tinted light pour across the lofty space, filling it with the glory of God.
Approaching pilgrims first spied this masterwork of 13th-century Gothic architecture as modern travelers do, soaring above the town of Chartres, its spires piercing the blue sky. Properly called the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, it was a place of pilgrimage because it houses what the faithful believe to be the veil worn by the Virgin Mary during the birth of Jesus. In 1194 the relic miraculously survived a fire that destroyed most of the earlier Romanesque cathedral on the site.
One of Europe's greatest examples of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral
employs flying buttresses to brace the walls. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
Within just 30 years that cathedral's surviving elements were fleshed out with the new Gothic cathedral. Absolutely immense at 425 feet long, the building has a nave 54 feet across, the widest in France. One of the asymmetrical bell towers is the tallest Romanesque steeple anywhere (345 feet); the other is an even loftier Gothic steeple.
The cathedral boasts 26,900 square feet of stained glass in 176 stunning windows, among them three rose windows that are world famous. The deep, intense color known as "Chartres blue" is immortalized in the cathedral's glass. Some of the windows illustrate stories from the Bible -- pictures that once provided a wordless way to communicate Christian concepts to the illiterate pilgrims who flocked to the cathedral in medieval times.
On the floor of the nave lies a circular stone labyrinth. Although the labyrinth measures only 42 feet across, its looping path would extend for 856 feet if it were unwound. The labyrinth has long served the faithful as a symbolic pilgrimage to the Holy Land and as a mystical walking meditation. Indeed, Chartres Cathedral has enough beauty and sanctity to satisfy any pilgrim.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.