by JOHN J. DUNNE
IT is doubtless to my eternal 2shame that I must admit that it was by accident that I visited the insurpassable French cathedral town of Chartres.
It happened on a summer day, when I was on my way by road from Paris to Barcelona, and only realised at almost the last minute that my route led through the ancient town which had for so long been a "must" on my list of places that have to be seen, sometime, between the cradle and the grave.
I had no sooner driven into the town than I began to feel that the car I was travelling in was something incongruous, so 1 hastily abandoned it in a side street and set out on foot.
Chartres . . . town and cathedral . . . is surely peerless, for as one steps on to the medieval square on which Notre Dame is situated, it is like stepping across the threshold of the Middle Ages.
It is like finding oneself alive in the twelfth century when this superb church first reared heavenwards in Gothic beauty to enhance this little town and the lovely countryside around it.
One's feet tread the age-worn flags of the aisles slowly, for here, on every side, there is so much breathtaking beauty to be seen, and a sense of the past permeates every corner, nook and crevice.
Although the town of Chartres suffered some damage during the last war it is still very much the same town which St. Bernard came to in 1146 to preach the Second Crusade, which the Bourguignons captured in 1417, which Dunois took in 1432, which the Huguenots invaded in 1568, and where Henry IV was crowned in 1591.
Work on the cathedral started in 1194, and took 30 years to complete. It is considered to be the masterpiece of 13th century Gothic art. The façade was built first, clueing the closing years of the 12th century, and its magnificent west door, dedicated to the glory of Christ, is one of the outstanding wonders of the work of that period.
I stood for a long time gazing at the facade and the famous Rose window, framed by two beautiful steeples, the Clocher Vieux, the old bell. tower, and the Clocher Neuf, the new bell-tower. One of the façades of the transept is dedi
cated to the Old Testament and the coming of the Messiah, while that on the opposite side honours the New Testament.
Notre Dame de Chartres is so full of wonders that the awestruck visitor, no matter how experienced he may be in the
artistic and architectural glories of the world, is perplexed and confused by the amazing accumulation in this one, comparatively small, medieval square, or so much that is insurpassable and unforgettable.
To see the glory of sunshine . . . as it was on that summer day when I first discovered Chartres by accident . . . spilling through the stained glass windows, must surely be one of the most memorable of sights.
The enclosure of the Choir,
executed in carved stone and begun in 1514 from the designs of Jehan de Beauce, I found to be well worth close inspection. These carvings, so perfect in detail, consist of 40 groups and 200 statues which depict scenes from the life of Christ.
In the garden of the bishopric, which surrounds the head of the cathedral and which overlooks the quiet-flowing valley of the Eure, I spent an enchanted hour looking at the further treasures which are housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in the mellow 17th century Episcopal Palace.
Here, in the Italian Room, there is a 14th century monk's cross and a statue of St. Paul by the 16th century artist Fr. Marchand. Elsewhere in the ancient building I found many fine tapestries and some enamels and ivories of the middle ages, together with a 14th century embroidered triptych. Many famous artists are represented in the collection of paintings.
But of all the wonders and glories of the town of Chartres, it is inevitably the memory of perfect Gothic spires, rearing above medieval rooftops, which so vividly brings to life the phrase "sermons in stone."
They must remain etched clearly in the mind of the casual traveller like myself long after most of his other memories of things seen have faded and dimmed across the arches of the years.
One Comes humbly away from Chartres and its cathedral, aware of having gazed upon one of man's finest attempts to offer glory to God through the voluble magic of carve I stone.