Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 31, 2003
In search of St. Fulbert
Saints and pious genius rebuilt this Western wonder
Saint Fulbert - Feast Day - April 10
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Conventional views of the great, towered, Gothic cathedral show it floating like a mirage above France's Beauce Plains, the little village of Chartres on the River Eure, lost with distance in the immensity of the church. It's acknowledged as one of the wonders of the Western world and is an UNESCO World Heritage site.
To enjoy another aspect of the famous edifice, visitors to Chartres may opt to climb 300 steep, heart-thumping stone steps that spiral upwards, encased within the cold grey walls of the church's north tower. And, finally at the viewing area, they're still far below the summit of the ornate spire as they ooh and aah at the vistas unfolding from their dizzying perch high above the cathedral square.
Everything exudes an aura of great age here in this "new" (1513) tower. Deeply eroded, lichen-encrusted limestone gargoyles, protruding into thin air; great bells, mute for the moment, wearing a patina of years of corrosion; and heavy, cracked, weathered oaken beams are almost within reach of the climber.
Strangers, enjoying the shared experience of a successful "climb," exchange positions in the confines of the little landing to photograph one another against the background panorama of the town far below and the expansive countryside beyond. It's a not-to-be-forgotten experience.
Safely back at ground level, relative chaos reigns at this popular tourist attraction. Even when visitors are excluded from parts of the nave and the sanctuary during Masses, individuals and groups of all sizes dance past one another in a futile effort to view and enjoy even a fraction of the thousands of treasures of Chartres.
Some may join English-speaking Malcolm Miller, a church fixture, honoured by the Government of France, who has made a 45-year career of conducting tours of the cathedral. Be forewarned, quiet is required of his audience.
This magnificent edifice is the outgrowth of the efforts of a ninth century saint, pious genius Bishop Fulbert, who rebuilt the cathedral after a disastrous 1020 fire.
Born in Italy, he became bishop of Chartres after assisting his former teacher, Pope Sylvester, in Rome. Very influential, he opposed interference by laity in Church matters. And although French royalty frequently sought his advice, he took his pastoral duties seriously, preaching regularly in his cathedral. Fulbert had a great devotion to Notre Dame and dedicated the new building to her.
Unfortunately, all but the towers of Fulbert's cathedral were destroyed by fire in 1194. The church enjoyed by thousands today, was completed in a record 25 years as the result of the concerted efforts of kings, bishops and the people of France.
Chartres has a long history as a pilgrimage destination for the faithful wishing to express devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Three popes are said to have visited the church, as well as kings, queens and saints. Today, many organized pilgrimages converge on Notre Dame de Chartres, particularly in the spring.
The cathedral is said to be one of the most perfectly proportioned churches in Europe, the result of the fast-paced rebuilding of the structure. The exterior ornamentation is overwhelming. Saints and Old Testament personalities flank the building's porches as statue-pillars. Scriptural stories, sculpted in fine detail, are everywhere. And of course the towers are unique. The "old" south spire, dating from 1160, is said to be one of the world's finest steeples while the more ornate, "new" pinnacle is only 500 years old.
Inside the church, the degree of ornamentation is baffling. From an enormous maze patterned in the nave floor to several chapels devoted to appellations of Notre Dame, to its thousands of panels of stained glass, visual stories of the history of the Church are everywhere.