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Cathedrals in Chartres, Bourges and Paris inspire awe

Sunday, August 03, 2003

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

CHARTRES, France -- Inside Chartres Cathedral, a man's voice booms out over the loudspeaker: "Please visit quietly. This is a place of prayer."

Malcolm Miller, the cathedral's legendary guide, listens and smiles slyly. "The dean went to Westminster Abbey. They stop on the hour to make announcements ... but nobody pays any attention."

Sure enough, tourists resume their conversations, pointing at stained glass windows and sculptures. Hired guides speak up so they can be heard over the noise of the organ being tuned for an end-of-the-month organ festival.

Even with tourism at a low point while France is in the doghouse with the United States, Chartres is a busy cathedral. Perhaps we're lucky. In another year, it would likely be more crowded.

We're lucky, too, to have English-speaking Miller as our guide. Now 69 and silver-haired, he has been leading tours, studying, writing and lecturing about Chartres since 1958, and he surely knows more about Chartres Cathedral than anyone else alive today. He literally wrote the guidebook to the cathedral -- for sale in the cathedral shop, as he points out.

Cathedrale Notre-Dame (its proper name) at Chartres is one of three great French cathedrals built about the same time: Chartres was completed 30 years after it was started in 1194; the Cathedral of St. Etienne at Bourges was built between 1195 and 1260; and Notre Dame in Paris, probably the most famous of all, was begun in 1163 and completed in 1345.

Miller calls Chartres a "sermon in stone." For the next hour, he will lead us around the cathedral, inside and out, "reading" the stained glass windows and sculptures. Miller uses a microphone, and we're all wearing headsets tuned to his voice, so he's easy to hear, despite the competition from other groups touring the cathedral.

"This building is like a book. Its architecture is the binding; its text is in the glass and sculpture," is one of Miller's often-quoted descriptions.

Another: "If it were a person, it would be a woman, a very dignified old lady. She is beautiful. She is royal. She has kept her charms."

The rich and the ordinary worked together to finance and build the massive new cathedral after fire in June 1194 mostly destroyed the previous one on this site. Many of the stained-glass windows were given by craftsmen's guilds -- carpenters, bakers, fishmongers, weavers. Scenes depicting the trades were worked into many of the windows.

Chartres has the widest nave (main area, between side aisles and from chancel to principal entrance) in France -- 53 feet between the pillars. The stone floor slopes slightly, from back to front. In the Middle Ages, people who came to the cathedral for healing sometimes stayed here and slept on the floors. Water could be sloshed over it for cleaning.

The cathedral is known not only for its spectacular stained glass but also for the purity of its Gothic style and its dissimilar towers, one Gothic and one Romanesque. The Romanesque tower survived the 1194 fire.

Miller points out the 12th-century Blue Virgin Window, cleaned and restored in 1991 and therefore brighter than some of the others. Restoration work here, as well as at the other grand old cathedrals, seems to be constantly under way. The Sancta Camisia, or the gown thought to have been worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus, and one of Chartres' prized relics, is not on view this summer. Netting hangs from one part of the ceiling to catch falling plaster.

Outside, we stop to examine the elaborately carved north door. It used to be covered with pigeon dung, Miller says, but it's bright and clean now. Traces of a greenish paint can be seen now on one of the sculptures. According to Miller, that proves the sculpture was polychromed many years ago.

Unlike the Notre Dame in Paris, Chartres Cathedral was largely unscathed by the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution. It is the best-preserved medieval cathedral, Miller says.

We (26 over-55 types in an Elderhostel study program in France) first spotted Chartres from our bus a few miles out of town, just as people in the Middle Ages might have seen it -- a symbol of light, towering over the village. It's the primary attraction in the town of winding streets, many of which are paced with cobblestones. Once the bus was parked, all we had to do was follow the crowds. Everyone was heading for the cathedral.

Miller routinely gives tours at noon and 2:45 p.m. daily except Sundays They last about an hour and 15 minutes and start from the area near the gift shop. Cost is about $10, depending on the value of the dollar. No reservations needed. Most of us bought copies of his book, "Chartres Cathedral, Medieval Masterpieces in Stained Glass and Sculpture," before the tour started, and he autographed them at the end. In the winter months he travels and lectures on the cathedral. In February, he'll speak at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Chartres is an imposing edifice, but Miller makes it come alive. Despite his background, his tours are not pedantic and scholarly, and his English is easy to understand. He even tells jokes.

"I love nun jokes, don't you?" he says, and launches into the one he heard recently from a group of nuns from Arkansas. "Joseph of Arimathea was late getting home after the Crucifixion. He told his wife he had given the family sepulcher for Jesus' burial. When his wife protested that they would need it some day themselves, he added: 'But he only needs it for the weekend.'"

The cathedral at Chartres is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. April through September; and from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., October through March.


What Malcolm Miller is to Chartres, Barbara Thomas-Richard is to Bourges, in a way.

A native of Kansas City, Mo., Thomas-Richard has lived in Bourges and studied the Saint Etienne Cathedral for some 20 years. She's a guide conferenciere for the tourist office, and she can tell you most anything you would want to know about the cathedral.

"This cathedral has five doors, while Notre Dame [in Paris] has only three. It shows that Bourges was considered to be more important. More people would be coming, and they needed a lot of doors to show off," she says, standing on the wide plaza outside the big Gothic cathedral, with its soaring flying buttresses and stunning stained-glass windows.

"Notice how the flying buttresses don't all meet the wall at the same place," she goes on, pointing out one of many unusual features of the cathedral. And, as she says, the buttresses look a lot like those at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The Bourges cathedral was started later and finished earlier than Notre Dame. "Two brothers who were bishops were building at the same time," she says, suggesting a little family competition. Bourges cathedral was to be "a light in the fields, a finger pointing to the sky."

Bourges is known as an excellent example of Gothic architecture. Inside, Thomas-Richard leads us first to the astrological clock, the oldest in France, which dates from the 1420s. It shows the hour, day and month, and sounds the time every 15 minutes.

Unlike other cathedrals, Bourges is not laid out in the shape of a cross. It has one large, very high nave, 400 feet long, 125 feet high, and no transepts.

Moving around the outside of the nave, so we can get a closer look at the stained-glass windows, Thomas-Richard stops at one that depicts the story of the Prodigal Son.

Starting at the bottom left and reading left to right, bottom to top, she shows how the medieval glass artists depicted biblical stories for people who couldn't read or write. "Stained glass is supposed to reflect the soul of man," Thomas-Richard says.

The cathedral is quiet. We can hear organ music in the background, and Thomas-Richard's voice resonates through the nave. She doesn't use or need a microphone, just a pinpoint of light to mark the spot on the window she's discussing.

Bourges is situated in the Loire Valley, farther from Paris than Chartres, which probably accounts for why it gets fewer visitors.

Outside, we pause on the steps below the towers -- the "deaf tower," which has no bell, to our right and the "butter tower" to our left. After a disastrous fire in the early years, this tower had to be reconstructed. "It was built with the sale of indulgences. He who ate butter during Lent was supposed to go straight to hell. The people here must have eaten a lot of butter, because they gave a lot of money [for indulgences] to rebuild the tower."

The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the United Nations is handling restoration work. A crew is working on this side of the cathedral as we watch. The work is being done with lasers. Some of the sculptures are headless. "That's the way they were found after the revolution," Thomas-Richard says, "and they're going to stay that way."

The Midwest native is an enthusiastic fan of her adopted town, as well as of the cathedral. "Visitors who come to Bourges for the first time find this is a great place," she says. "People are friendly. They're dolls. They don't hurry."

The cathedral is open from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Oct. 1 to March 31, and from 8:30 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. April 1 to Sept. 30, except Dec. 25, Jan. 1, May 1, Nov. 1 and Nov. 11. Inquire about tours at the cathedral's gift shop.


It's been raining off and on this Sunday morning in Paris, but small clusters of tourists are waiting on place du Parvis to move inside Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cite. Notre Dame is on everyone's "must see" list for Paris, and if it rains when you get here, so what?

Kings and queens have been married before the great altar. Napoleon crowned himself here in 1804, then crowned Josephine. After the French Revolution, it took an army of stonemasons, carpenters and sculptors to restore the badly damaged cathedral.

One group of tourists is gathered to the left side, waiting to climb the 387 tower steps to the haunt of its legendary resident, Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, and get a gargoyle-framed view of the heart of Paris.

We follow the crowd headed for the portal of the Virgin (main entrance for visitors). Just inside, it comes to a stop. We can't see, but we can hear, a worship service under way. The soaring voice of a soprano soloist makes us want to hear more.

Working our way around the side of the crowd, we keep inching forward. Some of the other visitors are leaving, and in a few minutes, we're seated in the second row at the side of the altar area, looking up at the famous stained-glass windows, listening and watching the service. It's conducted in several languages, including English.

It's a good view. Good seats, beautiful music, no tickets, no reservations and time for reflection. We can even see the presiding cardinal, after removing his red hat, give it a little shake behind his back, alerting the distracted acolyte to get it.

This is not the first time my husband and I have visited Notre Dame, but it's surely the most moving. We even stay until after the collection basket has been passed.

Notre Dame Cathedral is open daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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