Notre-Dame de Chartres, the glorious Gothic cathedral of the provincial town south-west of Paris is dedicated to Mary the mother of Jesus. Yet she is so ancient, the goddess of Chartres. Springs and wells connect us with the deep fount of life, the spiritual worlds as harbingers of coming into being, and long before Christianity the divine feminine as mother guarded this sacred spring. Worship there goes back to the Celts, and probably further into unrecorded history. A Roman temple superseded the Celtic one, which in turn was replaced by a series of Christian churches. Much of the Romanesque cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1194. The present Gothic cathedral took sixty-six years to build, and was consecrated in 1260.
It has survived through centuries of wars. During the ‘Terror’ after the French Revolution the architect Morin stood beneath the figure of Christ on the Royal Portal and convinced the rampaging revolutionary guard that many deaths would result from attempts to demolish such a complex edifice. In the Second World War, the Allied leaders ordered its bombing. One American colonel defied the order. He searched the place from pinnacle to crypt to prove no Germans and their munitions were there. Again it was saved. The precious coloured windows, most of which are the originals, with their dominant blue colour that has never been replicated, had already been taken down and secretly trucked to the south of France to be hidden in rivers.
Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere: a Romanesque window that survived the 1194 fire. The Virgin and child’s archetypal pose is known as the sedes sapientia, ‘throne of wisdom’
Gothic Chartres is a masterwork by masons and artists who understood the secrets of form and light. When I visited with my husband Stephen and two friends, typically, our first glimpse was of its graceful silhouette in the distance soaring above the landscape. We arrived in the evening, settled in to a sleepy hotel and then walked to take our first glimpse of the cathedral. A little in awe, like shy children we peeked around the surrounding buildings. The cathedral stood in an open square, its exterior alive with stone images. Subtly floodlit, it was enveloped in a soft golden aura evoking a sense of timelessness. A lone figure stepped out of the shadows. His clothes were a mixture of medieval jester and troubadour, a caged dove sat by his feet. A romantic air was being played somewhere nearby. He had come forward – out of time itself it seemed – to give us each a flower. That feeling of slipping out of ordinary time remained through the three days we were there at Chartres.
The next morning the air was fresh and cool with the promise of a gloriously sunny day ahead. We wandered around the outside of the cathedral, taking in its many sculptures – kings, queens, priests, prophets and saints – the Bible in stone, our guide book said. Then we entered through the portal into Our Lady of Chartres. The interior was brooding, the only light coming from the beautiful stained glass windows.
These portrayed bible stories for the non-literate population and recorded the contributions of myriad workers and donors, so leaving behind a living medieval history. A dear friend had asked me to look specially for the colours spilling across the stone columns and dappling the floor with its embedded labyrinth. I found them, changing as the sun wheeled slowly around the building. I spent a long time within this sanctuary and allowed the impressions to flow over me.
The mystical sound of Chartres
In this way, the unexpected happens. I became aware that the sound was different from that of other Gothic cathedrals. They are all acoustic miracles. The medieval architects understood the esoteric mysteries of harmony and number and built their cathedrals so that the columns and arches hung tautly suspended, the weight distributed through the flying buttresses. They became like stringed musical instruments in stone. What was the sound of Chartres? The interior was always crowded, yet people spoke quietly, and the many muted voices were carried upwards, flowing together to unify the space. It was a bit like being underwater. Of course! I realised, in this sanctuary dedicated to birth (for unlike most medieval cathedrals there are no tombs in Chartres) the interior has to be like the womb.
Across this womb-like inner space I could see the red-gold light pricks of hundreds of candles and I walked over to them. There in her ornate carved grotto was the legendary Black Madonna – or I should say a seventeenth century copy – dressed in ornate gilded brocade, holding the baby Jesus. People (mainly women) of all nationalities prayed before her, kissing her feet and lighting candles in her honour. I found myself filled with an unaccountable emotion, maybe worshipping too. Whether it was a memory of a time long gone when I had offered sacrifices to the divine Mother I don’t know, but there was a recognition.
The Great Mother Goddess is as old as the earth. She is the living earth and nature personified. With power over all aspects of fertility, she was often represented with exaggerated sexual features to emphasize this power. At some stage in history the Goddess differentiated into specific roles and divine family lineages appeared, and we began to see her nursing her baby. Egyptian Isis with her son Horus is a famous image. She is the daughter of the god Geb (Earth) and his sister-wife the goddess Nut (Sky), and she’s the sister-wife of Osiris, judge of the dead, and mother of Horus, god of day. The cult of Isis-Osiris was to become a major focus of worship during the Greco-Roman period.
Among the earliest Christians the most significant event was Golgotha and the resurrection, the essence of which only deep teaching could open. In time, however, the birth of Jesus gained popularity. The figure of Isis was ready-made to illustrate this story. She became mother Mary holding baby Jesus to celebrate what was to become Christmas. You can find her in the crypt of Chartres as Notre Dame de Sous Terre, a replica of an older statue that was taken out and burnt during ‘the Terror’.
The goddess Isis with Horus Notre Dame de Sous Terre in the crypt of Chartres
She is such a potent figure, this mother and baby – resonating through time so that even when we rarely celebrate Christmas as it was in the beginning, and when it has been so commercialised, hearts still soften during televised ‘Carols by Candlelight’ events when the camera sweeps gently over mothers and their sleeping babes – Silent night, Holy night.
As Christianity spread through Europe from around the fifth century, the holy birth story of Christmas – Christ Mass – began to be preceded by a waiting period called Advent, which means ‘coming’ (of baby Jesus and of the Christ). In the western church, this symbolic ‘pregnancy’ was settled at four Sundays leading to Christmas Eve. The time involved meditation, prayer and fasting. Other traditions developed over the centuries: the consecutive lighting of candles, calendars to mark the days and the hanging of the Advent wreath. In 2016 we entered Advent on November 27. So right now, this is the season of the preparing womb.
The music and colours of the soul
As I moved through the various alcoves and side chapels of Chartres’ musical Cathedral of the Lady, I heard, maybe inwardly, subtle shifts in the sound, while the colours continued to reveal themselves in new combinations. I thought then that my experience mirrored the soul in its changing moods. And more, that our soul is like a womb.
This kind of experience is not so surprising, because centuries before the cathedral was built, this sacred place had a mystery school directly connected with the stream of Celtic Christianity, where spiritual life meant more than a heavenly coda after death. It was a personal path intertwined with all aspects of earthly existence, and the individual on that path was seeking the birth of the divine self, the Christ within. Nor am I surprised that blue, the colour of heavenly inspiration, is the special colour of Chartres or that all the colours created by those inspired craftsmen have a heavenly radiance.
Light, colour, sound and form were meant to convey the story of the Christ, but also the vision of each of us transformed, with our own colours weaving into a harmonious music. The Black Madonna herself speaks of those hidden resources of the soul that when awakened and attuned, and fertilised by our inner work, will bring to birth the I AM, our divine child. That’s a pregnancy - an advent - to welcome.