European Architecture Series
Chartres Cathedral

History and Gothic Architectural Design of French Basilica.

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Chartres Cathedral, France.
The prototype of Gothic cathedrals
in France and a treasure trove of
medieval art of the 12th century.

Chartres Cathedral (c.1194-1250)


Architecture of Chartres Cathedral
Flying Buttresses
West Portal Sculpture
More Articles about Medieval and Gothic Art

For more about the evolution of construction design,
see: History of Architecture (3,000 BCE - present).

Flying buttresses at Chartres.
These Gothic supports absorbed
the downward and outward thrust
of the vault, allowing the walls to
rise higher and contain more
stained glass.

West Portal at Chartres, covered
in narrative relief sculpture.

For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.


Chartres Cathedral, perhaps even more so than Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (1163-1345), is generally considered to be the greatest and best preserved example of Gothic architecture in France. Located roughly 80 kilometres southwest of Paris, the Basilican cathedral was largely built between 1194 and 1250, and was the fifth cathedral to stand on the site - a site revered by both Romans and Druids - since the 4th century. The cathedral is world famous for its glorious stained glass art, and for its rich array of gothic sculpture, whose exact meaning is still pondered by scholars. With a 34-metre high vault - 4 metres taller than the ceiling in Notre-Dame - and walls almost entirely made of stained glass, Chartres Cathedral exemplifies the improvements offered by Gothic art over the previous style of Romanesque Architecture (c.800-1200). It continues to receive large numbers of Christian pilgrims - no doubt attracted by its famous relic, known as the "Sancta Camisa", the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ's birth - as well as tourists attracted by the cathedral's architecture and stone sculpture, as well as its three huge rose windows. In 1979, Chartres Cathedral was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of culturally important sites.


Architects began constructing the first Gothic cathedral at Chartres after its Romanesque predecessor was destroyed by fire in 1020. Unfortunately most of the new church, except for its crypt and western facade, was also gutted by fire in 1194, whereupon construction began on the present structure, which was largely completed in 1220.

In fact the present cathedral is in an excellent state of preservation. The majority of its 32,292 square feet of stained glass has survived, while the overall architecture has witnessed only minor changes since the early 13th century, notably the 16th century addition of a flamboyant-style 113-metre spire.

Architecture of Chartres Cathedral

The cathedral represents the true prototype of the Gothic cathedral characterized by a longitudinal body with a nave and two aisles and an elevation on three levels - arcade, triforium, clerestory - crossed by a short transept and ending in a deep presbytery with ambulatory and radiating chapels.

The cathedral is roughly 130 metres (430 ft) in length, and its nave is 16.5 metres (55 ft) wide. Its cruciform design plan - typical of French Gothic Basilicas, and similar to those of Amiens and Reims - includes a two bay vestibule (narthex) at the western end leading into a seven bay nave up to the crossing with its three-bay transepts. The heads of the transept end in a richly decorated projecting atrium above which a series of fine lancet windows connects to rose windows, creating an extraordinary luminous surface that opened the way for the later transepts of St Denis and Paris.

The nave continues east and ends in a semicircular apse. The nave and transepts are flanked by single aisles, which broadens into a wide ambulatory around the choir and apse.

The rectangular bays of the nave are covered by quadripartite ribbed cross vaults resting on alternating cylindrical and polygonal elements that may have been used, since they were no longer necessary, to avoid excessive monotony. The result is a continuous and serried rhythm that exalts the effect of verticality of the space emphasized by a plastic accentuation of the structural system: the revolutionary pilier cantonne, used here for the first time, confers a sensible material concreteness. The great windows, made possible by the use of the exterior buttresses, propose an innovative design based on a pair of lancet windows and a round window inscribed in an arcade. Such are the enormous dimensions that the nave is clearly higher than the aisles, thus increasing in an exponential way the sense of grandeur and monumentality.

The burning down of the Romanesque structure and then the first Gothic structure, meant that the new cathedral was entirely Gothic, harmonious, balanced and all of a piece. As a result, the cathedral exemplifies the Gothic values of height and height, which were only realized because Gothic architects managed to channel the weight of the ceilings and walls to specific points externally reinforced by heavy flying buttresses and supporting piers, thus minimizing the load on the walls. Consequently, not only could the ceiling be higher (and more awesome) but also the walls could house much bigger (and more inspirational) stained glass windows. And more glass meant less Romanesque-style gloom but lots more Christian art for worshippers to enjoy. Amazingly 152 out of the original 176 stained glass windows, installed 1205-40, have survived: a unique occurrence for a medieval cathedral.

Note: The great German Gothic structure of Cologne Cathedral has a window surface area of 10,000 square metres - roughly three times larger than the area of glass at Chartres.

The west end of the cathedral is dominated by two different spires – a 105-metre (349 ft) regular pyramid-style structure built around 1160 and the 113-metre 16th-century flamboyant spire. Equally impressive are the three great facades, each with its own rose window and embellished with hundreds of architectural statues and areas of Biblical relief sculpture, illustrating important theological narratives. The interior of the cathedral also contains numerous items of sculpture, including wood carving: the choir enclosure, for instance, contains over 200 statues depicting over 40 scenes.

For more about the Gothic style of building design, please see Rayonnant Gothic Architecture (c.1200-1350) and Flamboyant Gothic Architecture (1375-1500).

Flying Buttresses

The use of buttresses (see figure, left) led to the abandonment of the graduated external profile in favour of an elevation on two levels, simple but majestic. The composition of the volumes is repeated in the sequence of the tall, massive buttresses that repeat on the exterior the rhythm of the internal bays. The weight of the vaults is passed to the buttresses by way of double arches and arcades of radial colonettes. The greater liberty made possible by the buttressing of the vaults thanks to rampant arches and the consequent abolition of tribunes permitted the master of Chartres to organize the interior spaces of the nave in a highly original way. He made a building that seems classical in the harmony of its proportions, as is clear in the elevation, where the arcade and the clerestory are given the same value. At the same time, the new liturgical demands for visual participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist, as established in the final years of the 12th century, led to a new concept of the choir: the luminous space of the apse became the preferred setting for the liturgy and for polyphonic singing.

West Portal Sculpture

Gothic architects and sculptors sited most of the cathedral's narrative sculpture around its entrances and doorways, known as "portals", and Chartres is no exception. The three portals of the west facade contain a virtual encyclopedia of Biblical art: each doorway focusing on a different aspect of Christ's role. Around the doorway on the right, the sculpture depicts his earthly life, and includes scenes like the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, and the Presentation in the Temple. On the left, we see the Second Coming of Christ (some experts understand this to be the Ascension of Christ). The centre portal illustrates the End of Time as laid out in the Book of Revelation.

More Articles about Medieval and Gothic Art

Medieval Artists (c.1100-1450) From Gislebertus onwards.

Arnolfo di Cambio (1240–1310) Gothic architect of Florence Cathedral.

German Gothic Art (1200-1450).

Gothic Sculpture in England (1150-1250) Wells, Westminster cathedrals.

Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1150-1350).

German Gothic Sculpture (c.1150-1400).


• For more about the architecture of Gothic cathedrals in France, see: Homepage.

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