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The Voice of Chartres

In 2008, Malcolm Miller will have been the official English-speaking guide at Chartres Cathedral (fig. 1) for fifty years. He has twice been knighted for his services to Chartres – firstly by the French Republic and secondly by the Ministry of Culture. As a co-founder of ‘Friends of Chartres’ he has helped raise funds for the ongoing repair and conservation of the cathedral. He spoke to Vidimus last month.

Fig. 1. The south porch of Chartres Cathedral.

Fig. 1. The south porch of Chartres Cathedral.

‘I caught my first glimpse of Chartres in 1956. I was studying French at Durham University and chose Chartres as part of a student exchange year. I taught at a local school and soon made friends with people like Yves Delaporte, then in his eighties, whose book on the cathedral’s glass, together with the accompanying volumes of photographs, still remains a rich and, as yet, unrivalled resource. By the time my exchange year was up, I was utterly captivated. The father of one of my high school pupils was the government-appointed architect to the cathedral, and in 1958 I became an authorized guide. There were bomb craters near the cathedral, and the age of mass tourism was decades away. After I graduated from Durham, I worked as a teacher in different parts of France, returning to Chartres at Easter and during the summer. In the late sixties I combined guiding at Chartres with lecturing about the cathedral, its history, sculpture and glass to audiences in England, especially in the West Midlands where I worked for Birmingham University. But no matter what I did or where I went, Chartres was like a magnet, and in 1970 I bought a house in the old city.

Fig. 2. The Death of the Virgin

Fig. 2. The Death of the Virgin

‘I give two tours a day, six days a week – not Sundays. I have given over 550 lectures in America and travelled across the world, including Australia. I have made a TV series and written several Pitkin guides. Yet the more time I spend here, the more I discover how little I know. Every day brings new experiences, new insights. Highlights have included seeing the repair and cleaning of many of the windows and revelling in their astonishing colours and audacity. During the war the Nazis had an airbase north of the city. On 26 May 1944 it was attacked by allied planes in the run up to the Normandy invasion. Fortunately the cathedral was undamaged, but a stray bomb did hit the building where the archives were stored. I still remember the despair I felt when I was being shown scraps of charred manuscripts in cupboard biscuit boxes: almost the only survivors of the blaze.

‘In 1982, I became probably the first Englishman in eight hundred years to see the coffin of John of Salisbury, a one-time secretary to Thomas Becket, and subsequently Bishop of Chartres. When he died in 1180, he was buried at St Josaphat Abbey about three miles from the cathedral, where his body lay undisturbed until a sarcophagus was discovered in the first part of the last century and John’s remains were identified by his ring. As not much had survived he was re-interred into a child-sized coffin inscribed with his history and buried alongside other famous bishops in a chapel behind the cathedral. It was very moving when I was asked if I would like to enter the vaults and see when John rested. He was one of the most respected humanists of the twelfth century.

Fig. 3. The Creation of Adam

Fig. 3. The Creation of Adam

‘I have never begun to guess how many people I have guided around Chartres in the last 49 years. Inevitably some visitors made lasting impressions. One day I was asked to show Dr Henry Kissinger and his companions around the cathedral. They behaved like normal tourists. Only later did I discover that he had been in France as the US special envoy deputed to end the Vietnam war.

‘Everyone probably has their favourite window. In 1968, Lord [Kenneth] Clark was filming in the cathedral, when a general strike paralysed the country. He was stranded here for weeks: I can think of worse desert islands! He told me his favourite scene was the Death of the Virgin panel from the Assumption window. It shows Mary reclining upon her death-bed with the Apostles gathered around her. One of them is feeling her heart [fig. 2]. It is never easy to express a preference when there are 175 windows in the church, and many are packed with individual masterpieces. But if pressed I am particularly fond of the Mary Magdalene window and the Combined Good Samaritan and Adam and Eve window. The former has moments of unrivalled tenderness; the latter is a masterpiece of design and narrative flow [fig. 3].

‘Chartres not only changed my life: it made my life. I have been exceptionally privileged to work here for so long, to share its wonders with so many people.’

For details of Malcolm Miller’s tours, visit the Chartres Cathedral website.

Fig. 4. Chartres Cathedral from the west

Fig. 4. Chartres Cathedral from the west

Chartres Cathedral is a world heritage site, described by UNESCO as ‘a museum to stained glass’. After a fire in 1194 destroyed most of the Romanesque building, the Cathedral was rebuilt remarkably quickly, with most of the work completed by 1223. The earliest glass still in situ is housed in the three lancets above the west door, in a part of the church that remained intact after the fire. The great rose window was made slightly later, c.1215 (fig. 4). Perhaps the most famous mid-twelfth-century glass is the Belle Verrière, or Blue Virgin panel, now in the south ambulatory. Mary’s halo and clothing are of luminous blue set against a rich ruby background. Many observers have found the image extremely moving, and some say that the glass smiles (fig. 5). Most of the glass dates from the thirteenth century, with lives of saints both local and international, two beautiful rose windows (fig. 6), in the north and south transepts; later glass includes fifteenth-century work in the Vendôme Chapel. Many windows contain representations of donors, including royalty and representations of local trades or guilds (fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Stone masons and carvers: donors in the St Sylvestre window

Fig. 7. Stone masons and carvers: donors in the St Sylvestre window

Fig. 6. The rose window in the north transept of Chartres Cathedral

Fig. 6. The rose window in the north transept of Chartres Cathedral

Fig. 5. ‘Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière’

Fig. 5. ‘Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière’

Chartres is also home to a world-famous stained-glass museum, the Centre International du Vitrail.

Further Reading

Many books have been published on the glass at Chartres. For the works by Malcolm Miller and Colette Deremble, visit the Books & Websites page for this issue; others are listed here.

Roger J. Adams, ‘The Chartres Clerestory Apostle Windows: An Iconographic Aberration?’, Gesta, xxvi/2, 1987, pp. 141–50

Marcel Aubert, ‘Stained Glass in Chartres Cathedral’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, xlii/243, June 1923, pp. 266–67 and 270–73

James Bugslag, ‘Ideology and Iconography in Chartres Cathedral: Jean Clément and the Oriflamme’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, lxi, 1998, pp. 491–508

Yves Delaporte, Les Vitraux de la Cathédrale de Chartres, Histoire et Description, 1926 (1 volume of text, 3 volumes of plate photographs)

Paul Frankl, ‘The Chronology of the Stained Glass in Chartres Cathedral’, The Art Bulletin, xlv/4, December 1963, pp. 301–22

Louis Grodecki, ‘A Stained Glass Atelier of the Thirteenth Century, a Study of Windows in the Cathedrals of Bourges, Chartres and Poitiers’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, xi, 1948, pp. 87–111

Wolfgang Kemp, The Narratives of Gothic Stained Glass, Cambridge, 1997

C. Lautier, ‘Les vitraux de la cathédrale de Chartres. Reliques et images’, Bulletin monumentale, 161/1, 2003, pp. 3–96

Meredith Parsons Lillich, ‘A Redating of the Thirteenth Century Grisaille Windows of Chartres Cathedral’, Gesta, xi, 1972, pp. 11–18

Colette Manhès-Deremble with Jean-Paul Deremble, Les Vitraux narratifs de la cathédrale de Chartres, Étude iconographique, CVMA France, Études II, Paris, 1993

Carl Maines, ‘The Charlemagne Window at Chartres Cathedral: New considerations on text and image’, Speculum, lii, 1977, pp. 801–23

E. Paston, ‘Review of Jane Welch Williams, Bread, Wine & Money, The Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral’, Medievalia et humanistica, xxi, 1995, pp. 202–205

Virginia Raguin, ‘Review of Jane Welch Williams, Bread Wine and Money and other Titles’, The Art Bulletin, lxxvii, 1995, pp. 321 –24

Robert Sowers, ‘On the Blues of Chartres’, The Art Bulletin, xlviii, 1966, pp. 218–22

Robert Sowers, ‘The 12th Century Windows in Chartres: Some Wayward Lessons from the “Poor Man’s Bible”’, Art Journal, xxviii, 1969, pp. 166–74

Jane Welsh Williams, Bread, Wine and Money: the Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral, 1993 (challenges traditional view of the donor windows at Chartres)

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