First Contact in France – Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)

Last week we finally arrived in France, got our car and drove immediately to Chartres. Our objective was the restored cathedral that we have been documenting for the last six years.

We had lunch with the magnificent Servane de Layre-Mathéus, president of Association Chartres, sanctuaire du monde who has raised so much money in service of her beloved cathedral. She described Chartres as the “Cathedral of Life.” “What don’t you see here that you see in all other cathedrals?” she asked. I could not come up with an answer. “Tombs, she said. “There are no tombs for the dead here.” Once she mentioned it, one could not miss the absence. This is the home of the beloved Virgin and it was not a place for death. The cathedral reflects that purpose now and the difference from the years prior to the restoration is marked.


Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I won’t get into what I consider the ridiculous Martin Filler screed on the restoration (and I hesitate even to link to it). I am sorry that his personal preference for the dark, moody, cathedral with its “patina” is gone, but to call the current restoration “scandalous” is simply the work of a provocateur. The difference in the sensibility of the cathedral is enormous. One can actually see the architecture, appreciate the brilliance of the stained glass, and understand the purpose of the building.

The restoration of the interior is not quite finished. The two side aisles and the transepts are still waiting, and several bays of windows are not done. PJ’s shot from the northern side aisle to the nave and crossing shows the difference in the restored-unrestored areas.


Side aisle to crossing, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by PJ McKey

Shooting vaults in large cathedrals can be challenging when using a wide angle lens. It is not like I can lay down and just shoot up … the angles must all align properly, the tripod takes a special setup and I use a laser to center the shot. As a result, there is usually a small crowd of onlookers curious to see what I am doing; certainly there is an element of theater to it all.


Nave vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But this shot was made more difficult by an example of bad photographic etiquette. I was almost completely finished with the setup, probably fifteen minutes’ work, when a woman came up and asked me to move, as a “professional courtesy”. She was with a photographer who needed to take a full nave shot for a postcard. I reluctantly agreed since I had another fifteen minutes or so of work, stowed my equipment and moved to the side aisle. There I saw what “professional courtesy” meant to her. She was standing next to a photographer with a small consumer camera taking handheld shots with a built-in flash from the back of the church! This is as useless as taking a picture at the Super Bowl using a consumer flash camera. I was furious; and to make it worse, they “chimped” over almost every photograph. Finally they finished and I was able to go back to my shot, but had to start from scratch. Some day I will do a post on photographer-to-photographer etiquette, one of my pet peeves.

Our only disappointment in the three days here was our inability to visit with the rector of the Cathedral, Gilles Fresson. This kind and generous man was completely consumed with the preparations for a broadcast of the Sunday mass on French television and his own interview on the history of the cathedral. Next year, for sure!

Chartres messe

Chartres Mass (cfrt Productions)

18 responses to “First Contact in France – Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Great to see your new pictures of Chartres. Many thanks. (An added whisper: don’t take Martin Filler’s piece on the building personally. As a reader of NYR throughout most if its life, I’ve never understood Robert Silvers’ one blind spot in taking him on at all.)

    • John, thanks for the “Filler encouragement”. He does get a rise out of me, especially for all the sheep who have followed his lead in the US. Glad you liked the shots, we will be posting more in the future. Now in the Dordogne for three days, and then to Agen!

  2. Mezmorizing… just remarkable. The difference is palpable. Both of you have outdone yourselves. I await the next set of images with gleeful anticipation. Amateur photographers can be such a pain, especially with cell phones. Why is it that people think a flash travels more than ten feet??? The very idea of flash photography inside this treasure is just crazy. I can’t wait to see Chartres in person again. Vann

  3. It is so good to have the two of you back again. And what a difference in the renovation photos. My one and only visit to Chartres was in 1991. I had to contend with a husband who was furious over the parking situation, but he finally calmed down enough to enjoy the cathedral.

  4. Wonderful images, Dennis! And I am struck by the light in the restored area- one gets to appreciate the magnificence of the structure all the more.

  5. Now I appreciate even more the work you do. Brilliant nave vault photo! I think you should have told the other photographer to wait her turn.

  6. Since The XIX Century, The Bishops Of The Diocese Have Been Laid To Rest At The rear of the building, in The Caveau Des Évêques, beneath The Chapelle Saint-Piat. So, in the sense that the Cathedral is not chock full of funerary monuments, Madame Layre-Mathéus is correct. Nice to have you back!

  7. Dennis and P.J., Stunning photos again! The shot of the old and newly cleaned piers and vaulting are the most telling. So many of the French cathedrals covered with black soot when I visited them in 1965 have been refreshed to their original appearance. Many thanks for your great work. D.D. Davisson

  8. I just returned from a visit to Chartres and I really appreciate the clean-up of the cathedral. I remember that in the 70’s of last century similarly comments on the restauration of the cathedral in Den Bosch (the Netherlands) were given, nowadays no-one talks about it anymore.
    Maybe there are no graves in the cathedral of Chartres because the crypte makes it impossible.

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