Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week ofOctober 10, 2005
Cathedral honours ancient roots
A woman's wooden image inscribed 'To the Virgin who is to bring forth' was found 100 BC
Our Lady of Chartres – October 17
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
A popular tour guidebook recommends that if a traveller is able to visit only one of France's churches, it should be the great Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-Chartres.
This traditional pilgrimage destination is difficult to avoid where the structure appears to float in majestic isolation above the rich Beauce plains southwest of Paris.
The brilliance of the structure hides a long and complex religious history, going back, according to some, for more than 2,000 years.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated under a number of appellations in her cathedral, formally dedicated in 1260 to Our Lady of the Assumption.
A 1,000-year-old crypt
Pilgrims fortunate enough to attend Mass beneath the church in the cathedral crypt are in the oldest part of the building. A sacred place, almost lacking decoration, the 1,000-year-old windowless stone walls seem to exude an aura of timelessness.
Alone above the small altar is the seated figurine of Notre Dame de Sous-Terre cradling the Christ child. The original statue, carved from pear wood, probably originated in the sixth century, but was destroyed in 1793 and replaced by today's replica.
The crypt, constructed in 1020 by Bishop St. Fulbert has traditionally been the centre or beginning of pilgrimages to this great Marian shrine.
Behind the figure of Our Lady of the Underground is the older, legendary saints-fortes (strong saints) well, originally used to provide water at times when the town was besieged.
Martyrs are said to have been thrown to their deaths here and drinking the well water was believed to be beneficial. Each Oct. 31 is remembered here as the anniversary of an event when a choir boy was miraculously saved by the intercession of Mary after falling into the well.
Even before the appearance of Our Lady of the Crypt, legend has it that some 100 years BC, in Roman-occupied Beauce, a carved wooden image of a woman was found bearing the inscription "To the Virgin who is to bring forth."
This became the focus of a pagan sanctuary on this site and the discovery is interpreted as anticipating the birth of Christ.
Our Lady's shawl
Each year on Aug. 6, the miraculous survival from a fire of Our Lady's shawl is commemorated at Chartres. This was a gift from King Charles the Bald to the church in 876.
The Holy Virgin's veil caused Chartres to become an objective of pilgrimage for all of Europe. Today, the relic occupies a place of honour in St. Piat's Chapel, an addition to the cathedral in 1326.
Possibly the most sought-after image for pilgrims to the cathedral is Notre Dame de la Belle-Verriere (Our Lady of the Beautiful Window), an attractive 12th century stained glass image. It's positioned at the southeast corner of the cathedral crossing and makes use of unusual blue tones to portray Mary with the Christ Child.
The wooden Vierge du Pilier is situated opposite the Blue Virgin at the crossing. Since 1510, this statue has been the object of veneration and is honoured each year with a procession.
Pilgrims and others can't possibly absorb all of Chartre's treasures in one visit and even directed tours can only visit parts of the church.
There's an overall sense that this is a shrine devoted almost exclusively to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Unusual for medieval cathedrals, no tombs are permitted here lest they detract from the homage due Mary, and it's said that no fewer than 175 images of the Virgin exist in her church.
All aspects of her life are illustrated, from her birth to her Assumption into heaven.
It's a sanctuary worthy of the Mother of God.