France Travel Planner by Tom Brosnahan & Jane Fisher   Stained Glass Windows, Chartres
A marvel of medieval artistry, the stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral recount the entire history and legend of Christianity in brilliant color.

Autumn color in New England USA:

St Anne, Stained Glass, Chartres, France



The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres has the largest collection of original medieval stained glass windows in the world, more than 150 in all.

What Makes Chartres So Special?

Druids built a temple dedicated to their fertility goddess on this site in pre-Christian times. When the Catholic church built its first church here, it was dedicated to "Our Lady" (Notre-Dame, the Virgin Mary).

Legend has it that in the 800s the church acquired the Sancta Camisa, the tunic said to have been worn by Mary at the time of Jesus's birth. Because of this holy relic, the church became a popular pilgrimage site. When a new and larger church was to be built in the 1100s, local trade guilds and the nobility donated large amounts of money for its decoration.

Because the cathedral was built in a relatively short period of time—about 70 years—its organic unity of design and pure-Gothic character were captured without the change and adaptation that occurs when constrution takes place over centuries.

The heavy buttresses supporting the walls and roof allow for more window space (similar to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris), and the cathedral's architects and artisans used it to best advantage.

Blue Virgin stained glass window, Chartres Cathedral, France
The famous Blue Virgin window...

How to See the Windows

These colorful works of art are justly renowned as medieval masterpieces, but they were not meant merely as decoration.

They are the medieval equivalent of a Biblical picture show, recounting all the myth, legend and history of Christianity as it was practiced in the 1100s in France. These visual aids helped priests to educate their flock to their faith in an age when most people were illiterate.

For example, the great window above the cathedral's main (west) portal recounts the life of Jesus, beginning at lower left:

Nativity scenes in stained glass windows, Chartres Cathedral, France
Lowest three panels over the cathedral's main portal, left to right: The Annunciation (Luke 1:28); Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:40); the Nativity (Luke 2:7).

Here is a key to the scenes in the windows on with photographs by Dr Stuart Whatling.

If you have binoculars or a telephoto camera lens, you can enjoy close-up views.

If you are familiar with the stories in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), you can readily recognize and identify some of the characters and scenes. But there's so much here that today only scholars who have studied the windows extensively can relate all the stories.

This is why it's good to have a guide, either a knowledgable person, a book, an app, etc. to help you.

Stained Glass Rose Window, Chartres, France

Besides the familiar stories, the cathedral has some that are unfamiliar to Christian lore, such as signs of the zodiac.

Stained Glass, Chartres, France

Preservation of the Windows

Each picture is made of colored glass fragments, sometimes painted, held together by lead strips called cames. The pictures are held together by a medieval system of iron and steel straps, bars and pegs:

Frames holding stained glass windows, Cathedral, Chartres, France
A stained glass window from the outside:
iron bars, straps and pegs hold the leaded scenes in place.

These rustable items must be renewed periodically. Originally left open to the weather, some of the windows are now protected by translucent exterior coverings, with others to follow as they are restored.

Many of the themes and people portrayed in the windows also appear in the intricate carvings on the exterior of the church. Take a break from the stained glass to admire these fine works of art as well!

International Stained-Glass Center

It shouldn't be surprising that Chartres is home to the International Stained-Glass Center. This museum, just a stone's throw from the cathedral, has a permanent collection of Renaissance stained glass from the Église Saint-Pierre. It also has very helpful exhibits identifying all of the people and scenes in the stained glass windows of the cathedral. A visit here can help enhance your viewing of the windows. More...

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

History of the Cathedral

Chartres en lumières

Sainte Chapelle in Paris

What to See & Do in Chartres

Hotels in Chartres

Restaurants in Chartres

Transport for Chartres

Tourist Information

About Chartres

Day-trips from Paris

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Stained Glass Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

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