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Chartres: the Virgin Mary’s Seat on Earth

Chartres Cathedral is seen as one of the most important Gothic cathedrals. It is a mystical place, where alchemists and symbolists have tried to unveil its mysteries – and pilgrims have come for thousands of years, even before the Cathedral was erected. Does that explain why Chartres, a rather small, unimpressive town, was seen as the “Seat of the Virgin Mary on Earth”?

Philip Coppens

In 1926, Fulcanelli – an obvious pseudonym – wrote “Le Mystère des Cathédrales” – The Mystery of the Cathedrals. The publication not merely created a renewed interest in the how and the why of the Gothic cathedrals, but also raised the question who Fulcanelli was.
Several names have since been put forward, tall stories have been spun, including how Fulcanelli was over a hundred years old, did not die, but instead disappeared. It is now generally believed that the man at the origin of the mystery was René Schwaller – the man who, with the addition of “de Lubicz” to his name, would later make a name for himself as an Egyptologist, performing detailed analyses that would inspire the likes of John Anthony West.

Schwaller, before emigrating to Egypt in the late 1930s, before he tackled the sacred geometry of the Egyptian temples, tackled the symbolism and geometry of the temples of France: the Gothic cathedrals. In 1910, Schwaller arrived in Paris at the young age of 23. He frequented its esoteric circles, which included the likes of Jean-Julien Champagne and Eugène Canseliet; the latter was instrumental in promoting, if not creating, the myth of Fulcanelli as a larger than life figure.
One day, Champagne was classifying books in the bookshop he worked in, when a six-page manuscript fell out of a rare book. The document spoke of alchemical transformations, which were said to result in the famous blue and red colours of the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral. For centuries, how these colours had been fabricated had intrigued experts, but no-one had been able to reproduce them.
Champagne tried to decipher the document, but eventually had to admit defeat. He realised that he needed an ally and in 1913 turned to Schwaller, whom was known for his interest in alchemy, and was also a frequent visitor to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – suggesting the problem would interest him. Indeed, Schwaller was a student of the symbolism of the cathedrals and had already drafted a manuscript on the subject.
Champagne and Schwaller thus made a pact: Schwaller would decode and Champagne would perform the chemical experiments, but as neither man particularly liked the other, both decided to keep the pact a secret; this was a contract, not a friendship. Seeing this was a business arrangement, Schwaller also showed Champagne his manuscript, who offered to find a publisher for it, as he moved and worked in those circles.

In 1922, Schwaller left Paris, but the co-operation between the two men continued. Meanwhile, Champagne began to cultivate a group of admirers, including Canseliet and Pierre Dujols. Schwaller’s manuscript, without publisher, was chanced upon by Dujols and Canseliet, who began to visit various cathedrals and began to restructure Schwaller’s manuscript, as well as finally finding a publisher; on June 15, 1926, the book was published, under the pseudonym Fulcanelli, to the considerable amazement of Schwaller, who observed all of this from Switzerland; no-one had told him, or asked for his permission.
Though someone had “nicked” his manuscript, it does not seem to have been a bitter setback for Schwaller, and the two men’s pact continued. In fact, according to André VandenBroeck, the co-operation reached a climax in 1930, when the men finally succeeded in reproducing the stained-glass of Chartres cathedral.

Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière

It may seem remarkable that the stained-glass windows of Chartres formed a primary occupation of early 20th century alchemists – or that no-one had ever been able to reproduce them before. But, indeed, the stained glass of this cathedral is so otherworldly that it should be described as one of the wonders of the scientific world.
The oldest stained glass in the cathedral is in the western portal, the three windows having been created around 1150. Its blue colour is the most pronounced and was the focus of the alchemists’ obsession.
In fact, from a religious perspective, Chartres’s windows are unique in the sense that a stained glass window became the object of devotion – something that is normally reserved for statues or other objects, not windows. The object of devotion is even older than the western windows, dating back to 1137; it is Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière, which occupies the second window on the southern ambulatory. It is a blue Virgin against a red background and is described as “the most beautiful stained-glass window in existence.” Not only was a lit lamp maintained in front of it, for it was deemed sacred, it actually survived a devastating fire that raged through the cathedral in 1194, thanks to the narthex tribune that protected them from the flames, thus only adding to its cult and mystery.

Chartres cathedral is thus notorious for its stained glass, but it is also seen as one of the crowning glories of a series of Gothic cathedrals, a movement that swept France both suddenly and intensely in the 12th century. Though the cathedrals remain standing – and Chartres has seen no subsidence in over seven centuries – several questions remain. John James summed up the problem: “there is nothing describing the rib vault until almost two centuries after its first use; virtually no one tells us the function of the labyrinth or the crypt, in spite of their size, and there is no explanation of what galleries were used for.” There are other enigmas: few documents exist to understand the liturgy properly. And as to the “why” of this sudden mass obsession, we do have some answers, but in the form of scientific conclusions – not contemporary information. Indeed, it seems that everyone was so obsessed with Gothic building, that all efforts were funnelled into building them, rather than documenting the how and the why.
As such, it is accepted that around 1130, “something” happened in the area around Paris, whereby the Gothic style was its outcome. What was that “something”? The new or reawakened cult of the Holy Virgin, promoted by St Bernard of Clairvaux, the man who was also the inspiration behind the Knights Templar. It is known that Bernard had a singular devotion to the Virgin, but what is remarkable is that one man could bring about such social reform that dozens of Gothic cathedrals were erected.
Furthermore, the concept of the Gothic cathedral, though Christian in appearance, was made possible thanks to ideas and techniques that came from the Muslim world. The rose window, the framework for some of the stained glass, was copied by Suger, of the Cathedral of St Denis, from Islamic art. The nearest model to be found in the round windows with filled lattice-work of stone or stucco, was on Mozarabic churches such as in Moorish Spain. The only difference was that lead replaced the stone lattice.

When one looks at the list of Gothic buildings, Chartres was neither the first nor the last cathedral to be built; like the Great Pyramid, it somehow has been seen as both typifying and “bigger” than all of its peers.
Chartres was even in those days seen as the most important, as it was seen as the principal sanctuary of the Mother of God in France. Specifically, it was dedicated to “a virgin who will give birth” and held a relic known as the “Virgin’s veil”. Charles the Bald had transferred this sacred relic from the German town of Aachen to Chartres in about 876. It was said to be the veil that had been worn by the Virgin Mary herself during childbirth. When French queens were pregnant, the Chartres chapterhouse gave them a shirt that had touched the reliquary containing the Virgin’s veil, to facilitate an easy pregnancy.

Notre Dame of the Pillar

The opportunity for Chartres to enter the Gothic era came when in 1134, the west front of the Romanesque cathedral of Chartres fell victim to fire. Bishop Geoffroy de Lèves, a friend of Suger and Bernard of Clairvaux, undertook the building of a new west front flanked with two towers. Between 1140 and 1150, the “Royal Door”, one of the three great entrances that makes Chartres so unique, was constructed.
Each of the three doors that make up the Royal Door has a Christ in the middle of the tympanum. On the left door, there are also the signs of the zodiac, which is the first hint that apart from purely Christian imagery, Chartres’ design was going to incorporate so much more. It was this symbol that would be responsible for the later interest of the alchemists in this building.

It was a perilous century, for on Friday, July 10, 1194, the church again fell victim to a fire, which overwhelmed the entire city. When the extensive wooden rafters of the church went up in flames, the lead with which they were covered poured down in hot streams, so that no-one dared to approach the fire. The fire had to run its course and it was soon learned that the walls were split to their foundations, or had fallen down. Only the crypt and the new west front with its two towers had remained undamaged. Worst of all, the precious veil had disappeared and was thought lost. Amazingly, three days later, it was learned that some priests had gone into the crypt, could not leave because of the raging inferno outside, and hence hid for three days – the relic, intact, was with them. A town that had been devastated by fire and the apparent loss of its most precious relic, now rejoiced and began an active building campaign – which focused on creating a new, even better home for the relic: the Gothic cathedral that today still towers over Chartres.

There are several stories about the extreme devotion the citizens had to this project. It is pointed out that there are no names attached to anything in this cathedral, underlining that the cathedral was a community effort, rather than the work of one person or family. Still, whereas we would expect cities such as Paris to be able to afford cathedrals, there were only 9000 people in Chartres at that time. But each seems to have taken it upon themselves to help. The story goes that when there were no animals available to pull the carts that were bringing the stones, even noble Ladies were known to get their hands dirty and pull the carts themselves – all in the service to Mary.
But apart from effort, there was also cost. In fact, if the cathedral would have been built in 1985, it would have cost $300 million – for a population of 9000, this would have come to a cost of roughly $35,000 per person. How they could raise such a tremendous fortune, is one of Chartres’ wonders, but it is known that the money also came from kings and barons, donations from pilgrims – even bishops gave part of their salary to the building project.
Another source of income was promoting the main and secondary relics. In a clever public relations campaign, the decision was made that as no-one could come to Chartres to see the relics, because of the construction work that was going on, the relics would go “on tour”. And while on tour, they apparently healed the sick – or even occasionally rising a few from the dead, who then accompanied the relic, testifying and spreading its fame. Eventually, when the relic would be returned to Chartres, it was hoped that its fame would be so great, that pilgrims would come to Chartres – allowing some of its citizens to live and profit from this early form of tourism. This would have been the return on their investment.

Though early pilgrims came to see the Holy Relic, Chartres later became the destination of alchemists, modern – New Age – mystics… and tourists. Why? First of all, they come because Chartres is immense. But its size is somewhat due to accident – or a requirement. The fire of 1194 had left the crypt, which dated from 1020, intact. It was this crypt that would have to be used for the foundation of the new church, which explains the width of the nave, some 50 feet. As such, the nave of Chartres is the largest of this type and the choir is the largest in all France and flanked by a double ambulatory. The transept of Chartres is also the most important in France, measuring 212 feet.
Today, the crypt requires a separate visit. And it is the crypt that is the true “heart” of the cathedral – a secret, underground dimension. Apart from being the largest in the world after that of Saint Peter in Rome and Canterbury in England, what makes Chartres remarkable is that the entire structure – either the main cathedral or the crypt – does not contain a single tomb. But more than its size, people enter it for its mysticism. It is here than one of the most enigmatic statues of the Christian era is hidden in the depths of cathedral.

Well of the Saints-Forts

When you descend into the crypt, you at first are shown a series of chapels that are partly above, partly below ground level. Next, you are shown how the Gothic pillars of the main building above are built on pillars that form part of the crypt. It makes you realise that the monument that is visited by thousands, is actually something of a “second floor”, built upon a basement – making the building all the more remarkable. Next, you are shown an intriguing well, the Well of the Saints-Forts, derived from the name “Locus Fortis”, “the Strong Place”. Though now underneath the cathedral, it was originally located outside of the Carolingian cathedral, i.e. today’s crypt. In this well, the bodies of two Christian victims, Saints Altin and Eodald, were cast by Norsemen during the 858 siege of Chartres. Before 1655, the well was filled in. Why is not exactly known, but it is believed that it was probably to forestall the performance of certain rituals – rituals that may be in line with the act performed by the Vikings.
In fact, the area of Chartres might have been sacred for a very long time. In Caesar’s Gallic War, the land of the Caunutes, i.e. Chartres, was said to be the meeting place of Druids, where they gathered yearly. The area was recognised as the centre of all Gaul, and Chartres was indeed midpoint between the far end of Brittany and the river Rhine. Assembled from all quarters, the Druids would all obey the judgments and decisions arrived during the assembly. It is tempting to argue that the site of this prehistoric meeting place, was Chartres.

The well sits just before the entrance of the subterranean chapel, which is immense – or at least much larger than one would expect – and breathes out an atmosphere that makes it unique. It is a gigantic subterranean church, cast in total darkness. It is here that we find the mysterious statue: The Lady of the Under Ground, or Notre Dame Sous Terre. This is a replica of an old Black Madonna, the original destroyed during the French Revolution. And this is where the first level of intrigue comes in: though a somewhat normal statue of the Virgin, there are old references to “a small black immemorial image”, which seems to have been pagan, rather than Christian, in both appearance and origin. We can only ponder what this image looked like and whether it was this image that disappeared at the time of the French Revolution, or whether someone had made a substitution at an even earlier date. And someone should perhaps ask the question whether somewhere this original pagan statue still remains… as well as that which was stolen at the time of the French Revolution.

Most of the visitors do not enter the crypt. Instead, they content themselves with the main part of the cathedral. As such, their attention is focused on the statues of the saints, the windows and the other depictions, all largely Christian imagery. They will learn that the East Window, where the sun rises, portrays the incarnation of the eternal world, the birth and the childhood of Christ; in the west, where the sun sets, there is the Last Judgment – the end of things. The north, the heavenly region where the sun travels unseen, has pictures of the Old Covenant. They will note that the cathedral faces 43 degrees north of east, so that in late summer, the afternoon sun streams directly through the great northern rose window.
Solar orientations must have been known to and intrigued Schwaller, who wrote down equally interesting alignments for the Temple of Luxor in Egypt, in his “Temple of Man”. But the incorporation of stellar knowledge in Chartres is probably on par with the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians – perhaps it even exceeded it.
Take for example the two spires. They are different, both in appearance and in height. For some, this may be a crime against the beauty of symmetry, but if so, it was a blessing for symbolism: one tower symbolises the sun, the other the moon. This is made evident as the southern tower is capped with an iron emblem of the moon, the northern with a sun. But there is also hidden symbolism: the sun spire equals the length of cathedral, whereas the length of the moon spire is also discernible in the floor plan of the church. The sun spire is 365 feet in height: each foot therefore equals one day of the solar year. There is a difference of 28 feet difference between the two spires, symbolising the 28 days that are linked with the lunar calendar.
That is not the only symbolism: there is also a correspondence between the rose window and the labyrinth, which is a feature of this cathedral that has been subjected to an extra-ordinary amount of symbolic interpretation, sometimes somewhat farfetched. The two – the window and the labyrinth – overlap and are thus of equal size – 40 feet in diameter. Did it mark an expression of “as above, so below”?

With so much symbolism, it seems indeed that the builders incorporated Bernard of Clairvaux’s motto; when he was asked what God was, he replied: “Width. Length. Depth.” And it is in the depths of the cathedral, even below the crypt, in areas where hardly any archaeological excavation has occurred, that we may find the reason why people throughout the ages have come to this site, as an act of pilgrimage.
The name Chartres comes from Carnutes, a Druid tribe that lived in the region. It is stated in Roman records that it was the forest of the Carnutes where all the druids of Gaul would gather once a year. Some believe that the precise location was here, deep beneath the present cathedral; that there was a cave, which symbolised the realm of the Mother Goddess – her vulva. Authors such as Jean Markale see this as the reason why the site was not purely dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but a specific moment of her life: the Virgin on the threshold of giving birth, when the child was about to be released from the mother’s womb.
In fact, it seems that the Church at one point preferred symbolism over historical accuracy. In 1322, Pope John XXII declared that Chartres was the oldest church in all of France: “Accepted that the Benevolent Virgin, mother of God, had chosen for her venerable temple, when she lived among men, the church of Chartres…” This was an outright lie, as the first church of the Gauls was in Lyon and there are no historical records that argue that the Virgin Mary ever set foot in Chartres. But as the site was likely an important pagan sanctuary to “the Mother Goddess”, there seems to have been the need to create a continuous tradition.

Notre Dame Sous Terre

Like modern Christians are willing to rewrite the Bible and carve out a larger role for Mary Magdalene, in the “age of the cathedrals”, the choice was made to do the same to the Virgin. Since the 11th century, Christianity has gone feminine, going as far as claiming that contact with God is possible only through the Virgin – the feminine aspect. That is similar to the Schekinah, the “female principle” that according to Jewish philosophers needs to be reunited with God. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising to see that Jewish philosophers came to Chartres in the 11th century, creating a school, resulting in a new flowering of classical knowledge, based on Plato. Chartres soon became one of most important schools in Europe, a position it maintained for more than two centuries.
And it may be the final reason why Chartres became so all-important: before, it had been a cathedral like several others. Now it had a school of learned men, who could push building technology into new and exciting new directions. With a renewed emphasis on the Virgin, Chartres’ pagan status as a site of Goddess worship, its Black Madonna and the Virgin’s Veil singled it out for a specific devotion. Chartres became the Virgin’s throne upon Earth, an earthly palace for the Queen of Heaven. When you walk through the large doors of the cathedral, you are indeed walking in a dark, gigantic hollow… the Goddess’ womb?