An early example of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral in France demonstrates how the style developed over time. Learn about the cathedral’s development and how it compares to earlier Romanesque buildings as well as later Gothic ones.

The Gothic Style and Chartres Cathedral

Gothic churches are immensely complex buildings. It can be difficult to keep so many different elements straight, particularly since there are considerable differences between different buildings. Here, we look at Chartres Cathedral in France, one of the chief examples of the style. Built in the mid-12th century CE, its steepled towers, flying buttresses, and rose windows are all foundational elements of Gothic architecture.

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Chartres’ West Face

This is the west face of Chartres Cathedral. As the name implies, this portion of the church faces west. The west face is normally the main entrance to the church. At Chartres, the west face is on the oldest part of the church, so it is the least Gothic. For example, Gothic arches are pointed at the top, while the older style, the Romanesque style, has rounded arches. Here, the arches over the doors are mostly round, with subtle points at the tops. The windows are also all rounded or nearly rounded. However, the tall, thin shape of them is distinctly Gothic.

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The fact that there are three doors is also standard, as this represents the concept of the trinity in Christianity; that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At Chartres, this set of entrances is known as the Royal Portal because the decorations feature a variety of kings and queens, although their individual identities are debated.

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In comparison, Reims Cathedral was built several decades later and illustrates how styles changed in that time. Arches are more distinctly pointed, and triangular gables have been placed over the entrances and windows. The windows are taller and thinner. And the surface of the west face is much more intricately carved. Overall, Reims offers are much more complex and, perhaps, even confusing image of a Gothic structure.

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Door Jambs

The jambs are the decorations on either side of the doorways, and all of the door jambs at Chartres have this type of sculpture, although they are at various stages of development. The figures at the Royal Portal are somewhat Romanesque in the fact that they are overly elongated. However, the attempts at realism in the details are distinctly Gothic.

Door jamb figures on newer portions of the cathedral are much more proportional and, thus, more Gothic. Here, on the south side of the cathedral, five Old Testament prophets have slightly more bulk, are in more dynamic positions and, most notably, are far more detached from the wall behind them. They now take up space rather than being part of the columns to which they are attached.

Door Jambs
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Reims Cathedral is also known for its large number of sculptures. Because it is newer, you can see further progression in the realism of the figures, as well as their three-dimensionality. Here, they almost look like freestanding sculpture, although they are not. They are still attached to the wall of the cathedral.

Sculptures of Reims
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The Interior

Like the outside, Chartres’s interior also offers up arches, which are only slightly pointed. The technique of crisscrossing arches, as seen here, is called ribbed vaulting and is standard for Gothic architecture. It helps to reinforce the arches, allowing them to bear more weight. Looking up, you can find large stain glass windows with minimum stonework holding them up.

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Here we compare Chartres with Sainte Foy, an older, Romanesque building. Ste. Foy’s arches are rounded and not rib-vaulted. The windows are smaller, and they are spaced farther apart. They are also missing stained glass, which was not widely used until the Gothic style.

Vaulting
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Tracery is missing entirely from the Ste. Foy windows. Tracery is the decorative stonework which holds the glass in place. In Chartres, the tracery creates a variety of different patterns. Here, the tracery creates an intricate rose window. And here each arched window is divided into two slimmer windows topped by a circular one. Here at Reims, we see even more complex tracery stonework.

Chartres Tracery
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Overall, the interior decoration of churches becomes more ornate as time progresses. Ste. Foy is fairly plain, with square piers supporting the lower arches. In the upper portion, the squareness gives way to simple rounded columns.

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The depiction of people at Ste. Foy is also very plain, not to mention far less realistic. This angel, nestled between the arches, appears very flat and stylized. He’s uncomfortably posed and possesses a very child-like face, in comparison to the developing realism of Chartres.

Angel at Ste. Foy
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The stonework in Chartres is much more complex throughout the building. The piers are rounded with four more rounded columns attached. The vertical elements reaching from those piers all the way to the ribbed vault are also made of numerous columns clustered together. Reims, built slightly later, has a very similar construction.

Lesson Summary

Chartres Cathedral is one of the chief examples of Gothic architecture. Because it was built in the early years of the period, it does bear some influence from the earlier Romanesque period. The west face, for example, bears tall, thin Gothic windows that are topped with nearly round Romanesque arches. And it is missing gables over the doors, which are a common Gothic feature.

Chartres is particularly known for its decorative door jambs, which contain dozens of human figures. The Royal Portal is one example of this type of sculpture.

The inside of Chartres bears many more Gothic features. Ribbed vaults hold up an immensely tall ceiling, while large stained glass windows sit within intricate tracery. Overall, Chartres exemplifies the transition from simple and stylized to complex and realistic that happened throughout the Gothic period.

Learning Outcomes

A thorough review of this lesson could result in the knowledge necessary to realize these objectives:

  • Detail some of the characteristics of Gothic architecture
  • Illustrate the Gothic architecture of Chartres Cathedral
  • Compare the door jambs and ribbed vaults of Chartres Cathedral to those of Reims Cathedral
  • Discuss the use of tracery in the cathedrals