“Arise, shine for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee” (Isaiah 40:1)
Not only is Chartres Cathedral one of the greatest achievements in the history of architecture, it is almost perfectly preserved in its original design and details, in spite of centuries of damage from fire and religious wars requiring subsequent rebuilding. Its extensive cycle of portal sculpture remains fully intact and it is renowned the world over for the magnificence of its glowing stained glass windows that are nearly all originals. Friedrich Meyer, a nineteenth century Austrian historian and art critic, described the exquisite light which filters through them as “the quintessence of luminescence”. A recurring motif in the glass is the life of Our Lady, to whom the cathedral is dedicated: Notre Dame de Chartres.
One of the shrines within the Cathedral, the shrine of Notre Dame de Sous-Terre, is built on what was probably the oldest dedicated shrine to Our Blessed Lady anywhere in the world. In fact the shrine is even ‘pre-Christian’, being as it is the site of an original pagan temple from before the birth of Christ! The Druids worshipped here and it is said that the sculpture on the altar of their shrine was dedicated to Matri Futurae Dei Nascituri – ‘to the Mother of God as yet unborn’. This old tradition is supported by the discovery of druidic artefacts and religious emblems during restoration after the ravages of the Second World War. In the year 50 B.C., so the old story goes, the Druids heard of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son…” (Is. 7:14). They instinctively knew that this would be the one true God who would prove their old gods to be mere idols, and so they ordered a statue of this unknown virgin and child to be sculpted and placed on the altar.
Julius Cesar’s account “On the War of the Gauls” (De Bello Gallico) mentions that once a year all the Druids of Gaul (modern day France) would gather here, in the territory of the Carnuts, the tribe of Chartres, to decide disputes and hold religious celebrations.
The first Christian church on the site was made of wood, in the earliest centuries of the Christian era (exact date unknown). It was replaced in 1020 by a stone edifice; though the original crypt and underground grotto were preserved. In the early Middle Ages the shrine was attended by most of the Carolingian kings, and every French king except Louis XV and Louis XVI prayed to the Virgin at Chartres. There are records of pilgrimages by several English monarchs: Matilda, Richard I and Edward III.
Notre Dame de Sous-Terre (Our Lady of Under the Earth) once held a very ancient statue of the Virgin Mary, famously described by the celebrated art historian Pintard in 1681:
“The Virgin sits on a chair, her Son sits on her knees and He gives the sign of blessing with His right hand. In His left hand He holds an orb. He is bare-headed and His hair is quite short. He wears a close-fitting robe girdled with a belt. His face, hands and feet are bare and they are of a shining grey-ebony colour.
The Virgin is dressed in an antique mantle in the shape of a chasuble. Her face is oval, of perfect construction, and of the same shining black colour. Her crown is very plain, only the top being decorated with flowers and small leaves. Her chair is one foot wide with four parts hallowed out at the back and carved. The statue is twenty-nine inches tall.”
Tragically, during the Reign of Terror which followed the French Revolution of 1789, the statue was desecrated and then burnt, although most of Chartres cathedral was left relatively unharmed, Chartres being a rare example of a town’s inhabitants putting a stop to any further looting or destruction by the revolutionaries. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that a replacement statue was provided, designed and carved by the Paris sculpture, Fontenelle, who tried to faithfully copy the design of the original. This is the one we can see today.
From the Magnificat: “For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48b).