Category: France.

The road to Chartres

By Mark Lean

Its modern-day claim to fame is a mention in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but Chartres Cathedral has, long before the advent of Hollywood, been the scene for many a real-life spectacle.

Morning rush hour in Paris is probably not a good time to be at Gare Montparnasse, one of the city’s six main train stations, with its moving streams of people rushing with their takeaway coffees and buttery pastries to make it to their offices on time.

This is where I catch the train to Chartres like countless other tourists before me. Unlike their British counterparts, the double-decker French trains are modern, comfortable and, surprisingly, clean.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

As the electric train sets off on the 80km journey, passing nondescript Parisian suburbs, one gets the feeling that one has ventured on this path before, even if the outside views of concrete, grime and graffiti turning into a charming bucolic tapestry of fields and rolling valleys are anything but familiar.

An hour later, I arrive in the town of Chartres. It looks nondescript if not for an immense stone-crafted Gothic structure. It is here, where as a first-time visitor, I consider an interesting premise. Is history set in stone?

There are special places in the world where fact and fiction meet. Depending on whom you talk to, they either collide and crash or sit almost as friendly enemies would, tolerating each other’s existence through the ages.

This is the Chartres Cathedral. Depicting Jewish and Christian symbolism, the cathedral was constructed in 1194. Since 1979, it has been listed as an Unesco World Heritage Site.

There is nothing ordinary about the cathedral at Chartres. Its extraordinary history spans almost 1,000 years, ample time for fact and fiction to interweave seamlessly, hurtling through time like the express train I have just alighted from, from one station of thought to another, depending on the changing beliefs and agendas of the various powers-that-be of the different ages.

The doorway to where Hollywood, religious symbolism and popular culture converge.

The building’s architecture is well-preserved. Its flying buttresses tower majestically as the highest structure in town. In fact, the cathedral is very much a part of Chartres, being the main engine that drives the town’s economic machinery for many a century.

Officially known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, it has been a major destination for pilgrims who come to pay their respects to the Virgin of the Crypt, who is also known as the Black Madonna. The sense of mystery is further accented by claims that it was an ancient druidic sacred site, a place of power.

How that idea corresponds with conventional beliefs is pretty interesting. Dan Brown, in his best-selling book and Hollywood blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, has his protagonist, Robert Langdon, deliver a lecture at the American University in Paris on the pagan symbolism at Chartres Cathedral. As we all know, Brown and his fictional silver screen account has ruffled a few feathers in the more conventional quarters.

What are we to make of the cathedral’s non-Christian symbolism, liberally peppered in the building’s interior and exterior as depicted, for example, in the brilliantly blue-hued stained glass windows of astrological signs? Or the alchemical symbols seen in the stone carving of Melchizedek, King of Salem, holding a chalice containing the Philosopher’s Stone?

Harry Potter fans, take note.

The cathedral is undeniably a historical gold mine filled with references to ancient mythology, a narrative visible only to the informed and runs parallel to accepted conventional Christian beliefs. Such is the beauty of Chartres. In a world increasingly dominated and worn down by the dogma of organised religion, there exists a sense of openness and welcome in one of the most ancient places of worship.

This couldn’t be more evident than inside the cathedral itself. Beneath the rows of chairs and other paraphernalia of worship is a labyrinth carved out of the stone flooring, surviving catastrophes, revolutions and wars of centuries past. The cathedral survived the French revolution unscathed. In the Second World War, German troops turned the building into a recreational club.

It is said that during ancient times, Christian pilgrims who were unable to make the journey to Jerusalem, would walk the labyrinth as an alternative route to obtain salvation. The labyrinth with its steel plate had, in the past, displayed figures of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, which evidently makes references to the classical Greek myth of the labyrinth on Minos.

The cathedral at Chartres has been and will continue to be a spot where Hollywood, religious symbolism and popular culture converge much like the purported energy grids that culminate at the underground spot beneath the building, infusing it with both an unceasing source of grace and power and a shimmering, almost wistful veil of mystery.

o Malaysia Airlines flies seven times a week to Paris. Chartres is located 96km southwest of Paris. The best way to get to Chartres is to take the train. Trains leave for Chartres every hour from Gare Montparnasse Station is Paris.

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Category: France
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