We do not know the name of the genius who first had the idea of supporting the weight of the nave by means of flying buttresses. His discovery, though, brought with it a new type of equilibrium. The over-heavy galleries (as at Notre-Dame de Paris or Laon) disappeared, replaced by side-aisles that could reach a new height without being constrained or compartmentalised.
The construction of Chartres Cathedral during the last years of the 12th century marks a unique moment in the history of medieval architecture. The technical difficulties of the ribbed vault had been mastered but the builders had not yet acquired so much virtuosity that they could turn their pillars and arches into a dizzying scaffolding for an architecture of empty spaces. The walls at Chartres no longer have compact weight, but still retain a power and robustness uncompromised by too much gracefulness. The principle of the ribbed vault reached here its apogee.
We do not know the name of the genius who first had the idea of supporting the weight of the nave by means of flying buttresses. His discovery, though, brought with it a new type of equilibrium. The over-heavy galleries (as at Notre-Dame de Paris or Laon) disappeared, replaced by side-aisles that could reach a new height without being constrained or compartmentalised. The main pillars could reach ever-higher and the windows above the galleries turned into vast openings. The building became a framework, little more than a system of supports and counterbalances, with nothing heavy or dark; the flying buttresses took the weight of the walls at particular points, at regular intervals, and so became an integral part of the overall structure.
Four cathedrals were built one after the other on the pedestal of Chartres above the valley of the Eure River, before the fifth, which is the one we see today, lifted its high spires above this flat plain littered by mills. The earliest Christian sanctuary here took over the site of a Gallic Temple in the forest of the Carnutes. As the Visigoths, the Vikings, and fires destroyed the churches here, the stage was gradually set, for the masterpiece to emerge.
The Cathedral of Chartres was devoted to the Virgin from an early date. In 876, it was endowed with a precious relic by Charles the Bald, the holy tunic of Mary encased in a cedar wood reliquary which, in the 10th century, was rehoused in gold. Thousands of pilgrims were attracted by this relic, as monks and knights came to venerate the Queen of Heaven. Each of them took away a small medal on which was engraved a skirt representing the holy tunic, which itself was credited with marvellous powers.
The 9th century church was too small to receive these crowds, but it is possible to gauge their size from the proportions of the crypt, and Bishop Fulbert decided to build a new church, expanded by means of an ambulatory. The project was continued by his successors, with the raising of the two towers, initially separate from the façade, then joined to the nave when a new façade was erected, containing the "Portail Royal". Then a devastating fire on 10th June 1194 ravaged the Romanesque cathedral and part of the town; only the crypt, the two towers and the portals of the façade were saved from the flames. By a miracle, the reliquary of the holy tunic was carried intact out of the fire.
All Christendom was shocked by the disaster and set about contributing to the reconstruction in whatever way possible. The kings Philip Augustus, Richard the Lion Heart, the regent Blanche of Castille, bishops, clerics, townsmen and corporations all vied with each other to put a roof over the Virgin. So quickly did the funds materialise that only 25 years were needed to complete the new Gothic cathedral we can admire today.
Chartres Cathedral, the North façade of the transept.
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/Loire_Eure_Chartres2_tango7174.jpg
Chartres Cathedral by Camille Corot (1840).
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Camile_Corot_Chartres.jpg
Chartres cathedral, the "Portail Royal".
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Chartres%2C_Cath%C3%A9drale_Notre-Dame-F_138.jpg?
Statues at Chartres Cathedral.
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Chartres%2C_Cath%C3%A9drale_Notre-Dame-F_092.jpg?uselang=fr