The Chartres Cathedral – Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres – is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and the building has indeed several aspects in its appearance and history that guarantee a special place among mediaeval cathedrals in Europe.
It was common in the Middle Ages that a building had been constructed through subsequent periods and completed only centuries after the beginning, but the majority of Chartres Cathedral was built with unusual speed (cca. 1198-1260) resulting in a remarkably consistent design and realization. Compared to other mediaeval churches the building has seen only relatively minor changes since the consecration in 1260. Most mediaeval cathedrals in France were looted and destroyed several times during the Wars of Religion and the Revolution, but Chartres Cathedral was spared the damage, even during World War II. Thanks to that, most of the original 13th century architectural details – even the huge stained glass windows and the sculptures and carvings of the portals and the interior – survived intact, the majority preserved in excellent condition. One of the many peculiarities of the cathedral is the numerous portrayals of the Zodiac signs on various architectural elements.
PORTAIL ROYAL: labours of the months and Zodiac signs (1142-1150)
The Portail Royal on the west facade has always been the main entrance of the cathedral. Apart from the crypts under the cathedral surviving from two earlier churches standing on this site, the west facade together with the two towers is the oldest part of today’s building – they are remnants of the earlier, partly Romanesque cathedral destroyed by a fire in 1194, incorporated into the current building. The Romanesque cathedral was built in more phases from 1020 until 1155, the Royal Portail dates from around 1140-50, representing a transition to the new Gothic style. It has three portals: a larger central portal accompanied with two smaller side portals, all of them with sculptures and lintels displaying a complex visual and theological scheme: the End of Time (Judgment Day) on the central, the infancy of Christ on the right, his second coming on the left portal. The Portail Royal derived its name from the tall statues on the doorjambs representing kings and queens of the Old Testament.
The archivolts on the left portal contain carvings of the Zodiac signs mingled with the labours of the associated 12 months – a common element appearing on many mediaeval churches in various forms, representing the cyclical nature of time and the wholeness of the Creation.
However, in this case the depiction has some very unusual characteristics: there are 12 labours of the month carvings on the archivolts but only 10 signs are portrayed. The most probable – albeit somewhat prosaic – explanation for this unusual arrangement is that the plans were changed while construction and there was not enough place left for the carvings originally intended. Thus, the two twin signs, Pisces and Gemini got a separate place at the bottom of the right portal’s inner left archivolt, and while the iconography of Gemini is standard, Pisces is rather unorthodox. There’s only one fish depicted, representing water, one of the four ancient elements, surrounded by the symbols of the other three: small flames (fire) under the fish’s belly, trees (earth) standing behind it with perching birds (air).
There’s also a less known Zodiac cycle on the Portail Royal: nested into the meandering ornament on the doorjambs of the central portal delicate carvings portray the Zodiac sings.
NORTH TRANSEPT PORCH: labours of the months and Zodiac signs (1198-1217)
The transept (crossing) – just as the largest part of the cathedral – was built in the main construction period (1198-1260), according to the new design made after the 1194 fire. The deep, three-portal north and south porches were completed around 1215.
As usual for northern European cathedrals, the iconographical themes of the northern facade focus on Christ’s early life and Old Testament stories: the glorification of Mary on the center, the incarnation of Christ on the left, Job and the Judgment of Solomon on the right portal of the porch. The two outer archivolts of the right portal contain labours of the months and Zodiac signs carvings, in this case without any deviation from the common characteristics.
The arrangement of the signs and the monthly rural activities on the arches follows the path of the Sun throughout the year: the cycle starts with January from the left bottom, continues until June, pictured at the top of the arch, as daylight increases until the summer solstice, then the cycle ends with decreasing daylight until the winter solstice in December, at the right bottom of the arch. The two extra carvings at the bottom of the outmost arch depicting the Zodiac signs portray Winter and Summer: a men’s figure dressed appropriately to the season.
SOUTH AMBULATORY WINDOW: labours of the months and Zodiac signs (1215-1218)
One of the most distinctive features of Gothic cathedrals is the new combination of architectural elements like pointed arches, clustered columns and flying buttresses, making the insertion of huge colored windows possible on every level of the building.
In Chartres Cathedral most of the 176 windows were filled with stained glass, extensively using a new, very bright, sodium cobalt colored blue developed on the site of the Saint Denis Basilica. The windows cover a total area of cca. 2600 m2, the majority of them made and installed between 1205 and 1240, with a few lancet panels surviving from the Romanesque building destroyed by the fire. The depicted scenes include panels of the Virgin and the Child, Biblical stories from the Old and New Testament, the Lives of the Saints and some prominently displayed coats of arms of donors of some windows.
One of the south ambulatory windows repeats again the labour of the months and Zodiac signs cycle featured on the west and north facades. For the man of the Middle Ages the Zodiac signs symbolized not only the passing of time in a cycle of a year, or of life and death. The agricultural labours associated with the 12 months and the corresponding signs were presented as work blessed by God, imposed on Adam and his descendants to find their way to salvation (Vincent de Beauvais). The top quartrefoil of the roughly 8.1m high and 2.2m wide lancet window portrays Christ with the Alpha and the Omega, as the beginning and ending of the cycles. The labours of the months are depicted on the left side, the associated Zodiac signs on the rights side panels, 8 month/sign individually, four pairs sharing the four central quatrefoils. The two bottom panels are signature panels of the window donors.
There are some odd inconsistencies in the order and pairing of the months and the signs: May/Gemini proceeds April/Taurus, July and June (paired with Leo) are interchanged, the caption November is missing and December occurs twice.
ASTRONOMICAL CLOCK: Zodiac sings on the dial (>1407-1528)
Common people’s everyday life in the Middle Ages was determined by the daily routine and the annual cycles of the agricultural tasks rather than the days of the calendar. However, to calculate the exact date of major religious ceremonies and feasts and the time of the daily prayers had been paramount, thus keeping track of time and date had been the duty of the church. For hundreds of years the easiest way to tell local time was to use a sundial – meridian sundials had been used even after the invention of the mechanical clock to determine local noon for the public and for adjusting the clocks.
The oldest sundial of Chartres Cathedral dates probably to the 13th century, and the first mention of an astrological clock on the cathedral displaying not only the hours but also the period of the year with Zodiac signs comes from 1407. According to the description it is probably the same clock we can see today, with subsequently installed additions and adjustments of the mechanism and the dial in the 16th century. Although most of the mechanism was disassembled and used to forge pikes during the Revolution, the clock went through restoration in 2006 and the dial is still preserved in the choire on the north side.
The 105 cm diameter dial of the clock is formed of four independent plates assembled by a central axis. The outmost ring shows the twenty-four hours of the day with a needle indicating the local time, the next ring – an azure blue background decorated with golden stars – displays the lunar day and the phases of the moon, the central plate with the painted Zodiac signs moving one degree every day indicates the course of the sun in the ecliptic. A small sun moving along a slit in the needle indicates the height of the sun relative to the horizon, showing also the hours of sunrise and sunset. The clock was adjusted every noon with a sundial.
images © Philippe Giron