The construction of Gothic Cathedrals mark a significant time in art history as well as Christendom. They were giants, which towered over comparatively small towns. Cathedrals were not only the center of worship, but often served other secular and communal purposes, as they were often the only building of the city big enough to accommodate large amounts of people. could Fires were a constant threat to Medieval cathedrals and often times abbots and priests would raise large amounts of labor and resources at short notice to fix or entirely rebuild these vast structures. Chartres Cathedral was no exception to this threat as its walls and patrons experienced numerous fires spanning from the site's original structure, dating as far back as the late ninth century, to the last fire, which afflicted all but the West Facade in 1194. Chartres Cathedral, as it stands, carries not a glimpse of the original structure which stood on its ground. In fact, what we see today is the lasting image two different styles and periods of Gothic architecture spanning in the decades between the mid 12th century and early 13th century. This is because the Gothic style of architecture and sculpture itself greatly evolved throughout the 12th century and as a result, Chartres Cathedral is the product of several generations of collaborative work.
The first appearance of Gothic architecture was in northern France during the mid 1100's, with Abbot Suger's remodel of Saint-Denis Abbey Church. For centuries it had stood as the symbol of the French Monarchy as the official church of French royalty. It was erected in honor of Saint Dionysius, who brought Christianity to the region of modern day France. The church's crypt held the tomb of Dionysius and served as a final resting place for many ancient Kings and Queens of France as well. Obviously then, the church would have held great importance to the French Monarchy and had the respect of the people. The necessary remodel of the church sprung from that respect, as well as the need for expansion and repairs to accommodate the growing volume of pilgrims. Sugar's West Facade, built in 1135, is considered to be one of the most pivotal monuments of French Gothic Architecture as well as Early Gothic sculpture. Although the Gothic spirit considerably changed as it evolved through the century, its humble origins certainly date back to the luminous chapels of Suger's St. Denis.
The Early Gothic style evidently spread throughout western Europe quite rapidly. Most of Chartres Cathedral was entirely reconstructed after a great fire struck in 1194. The fire wiped out much of the town and all but the West Facade of Chartres, which was built and sculpted between 1145 and 1170. It is the oldest surviving part of the monument. Many parallels can be drawn from Abbot Sugar's remodel of St. Denis to Chartres Cathedral's West Facade. The centerpiece of the West Facade is the Royal Portal which was constructed in the early Gothic, late Romanesque style. As Chartres Cathedral was a forerunner of the early Gothic style so the Royal Portals of the West Facade carried with it the emerging style (Branner 76).
Gothic style implied architectural innovation as well as sculptural innovation. One such implementation of elements of Gothic sculpture was the placement of figure sculptures on the jambs flanking the entrances of the West Facade (FIGURE). Statues of the like can be observed in the west facade of St. Denis, dated around a decade prior to those of Chartres. These elongated figures are believed to represent Old Testament kings and queens, although for contemporaries of Chartres' construction, the figures may have held significance as secular kings of the time. The title Royal Portals most likely spawned from the regal nature of these column-figures. As an element of Gothic art, the column-statues represented a "new naturalism" (Gardner 389). This is highlighted by the significantly individual and personal depictions of the figure's faces and expressions. The jamb figures, unlike figures of Romanesque style, actually protrude from the columns "[moving] into the space of the observer" (Gardner 389). Structurally, the form of the West Facade column-statues held up the archivolts and three tympana of the Royal Portals. However, as a symbol, these royal figures provided not only physical support, but contextual support to the subjects of the tympana, which ultimately was the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Each tympana had its own focus with varying interpretations of each, yet the purpose of the three together is unmistakable. The Royal Portals were sculpted as such to proclaim the majesty of Christ. The Old Testament kings and queens of the jambs support the central messages conveyed in the tympana, the mysteries of the Christian faith. The three tympana depicted; Christ's Ascension, the Second Coming, and Baby Jesus in the lap of the Virgin Mary, from left to right respectively.
The left tympana embodies Christ's ascension into Heaven. As in the new testament, there depicted with the image of Jesus ascending, an angel came to inform the apostles. The archivolts contain the signs of the zodiac and the labors of the months, celestial entities, which certainly tied in with the narrative of Jesus' ascension especially at that time. This particular portal exemplifies the significance
The central tympana, which all who entered the Cathedral would have towering over them, is a representation of Christ in his full glory at the time of the Second Coming. In the sculpture, Christ is seated on the throne of the Last Judgment, surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists. The apostles are situated just beneath Christ. The Second Coming has been an important aspect of Christian art since the birth of Christianity. In fact, the "Last Judgment" theme is a Romanesque element. However a great fundamental difference lies between the depiction of the Second Coming of Chartres and that of Romanesque sculpture. That is, the former renders Final Judgment as salvation, whereas the latter emphasizes damnation (Gardner). This interpretive argument is made on the basis that the Second Coming depiction is tied into the entirety of the Royal Portals as only a piece of the greater picture, and is not so focused on dogma (Gardner). This subjective connotation of the central Royal Portal is also perhaps the product of the simultaneous evolution of Gothic art and Medieval Scholasticism.
The tympana of the right portal is the most interesting, and perhaps the most important to the evolution of Gothic art. It contains multiple narratives; Christ's birth, his presentation at the Temple, and the Christ child with the Virgin Mary. The right portal emphasizes Mary's role in the life of Christ and the Church. Several interesting aspects of the form of these sculptures may carry meaning on another deeper level. In the birth narrative, baby Jesus is seen on top of the manger which almost resembles a sacrificial altar. Similarly in the Presentation at the Temple relief, Jesus is situated on some sort of elevated platform, again resembling an altar (Branner 77).
Further development of the Gothic style proceeded the Chartres of 1134. The post-1194 Chartres Cathedral (everything but the West Facade and Towers) is considered to be the first "High Gothic" cathedral. Elements of High Gothic sculpture can be typified by the jamb figures of Chartres' South Transept Facade (FIGURE), which date to 1230. These column-statues, constructed in High Gothic style, take on an even more personal approach than their westward predecessors (FIGURE), as their subjects are individually recognizable as historical figures.
Unfortunately, many of the individual architects, sculptors, and visionaries of the Gothic style may never be credited for these majestic gifts they have endowed us with. However, their identities are only vaguely masked by the wear and tear of time which can be unveiled through the study of history and of art as a medium of expression. In that manner, purpose and meaning transcend any particular historical context, to deliver an image of Gothic artisans as revolutionary problem-solvers who "sought stable, coherent, consistent and structurally intelligible solutions (Gardner 186)." The study of the evolution of architecture and art itself is a powerful concept which can be harnessed to reveal much about human nature and the ever- evolving human consciousness. After all, why do we study art?