Another View

Things are not always what they seem. Recently on a visit to Chartres, the cathedral, diocese and city twinned with our own Chichester, I was struck – as many are – by the history, the architecture and the culture of the place. On previous visits to France I had observed that even the utilities such as the bridges are crafted with an elegance and poise that we in the UK sometimes consider frivolous and superfluous on an object created for such a menial purpose.

Chartres en Lumières
Chartres en Lumières

However, on this visit, I was aware of a couple of rather uglier presences around Chartres city centre. About the size of Dr Who’s Tardis police telephone box, pressed steel structures painted battleship grey. They were probably useful or important in some way, but dull. Only once darkness fell did the surprising raison d’êtres of these otherwise boring boxes manifest itself.

They housed massive commercial projectors that in the evenings became the source of Chartres’ electronic fireworks, a festival of ‘Lumières’, light extravaganzas, a digital painting by numbers on over 20 sites and buildings across the city.

Chartres North Door illuminated
Chartres North Door illuminated

The idea was simple, the realisation complex, and the effect dramatic. Spell-binding enough to hold the crowds on a drizzly May evening. Some of the projection sites were small static spotlights – others huge, complex animated stories, painted across the west face of the cathedral, or the old post house. Some had music accompanying them, the graphics closely following the mood and timing of the music. The static projection of the North Door of the cathedral (image above), at first glance gaudy after seeing the honeyed tones of the carvings evident during the day, were possibly a closer representation of what the carvings looked like in earlier times.

Malcolm Miller, Chartres’ vastly knowledgeable if slightly eccentric guide (here seen a few years ago actively demonstrating flying buttresses!) indicated places where the original bright colours still just existed, only visible again after the recent restoration took place.

A montage of some of the venues with their lighting is available with this video:

A couple of things before leaving Chartres and it’s cathedral. There is of course it’s world famous labyrinth; which I have written about elsewhere.

Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral - Photo © Paolo Negri / Getty Images

And then there are the lop-sided spires. Yes, we know most of our faces are not exactly symmetrical; and perhaps it is partly some sort of autistic tendency in me or something – but it is a bit odd. To not even *try* to match. On our recent visit, the repairs to the west wall meant that there was scaffolding all over it, which combined with mediocre weather meant I didn’t get a decent photo (so have borrowed this one instead). The cathedral web site has quite a useful animation showing how it was built. It is as though the two sides of the cathedral have vied with each other over the centuries. Yes we understand subtle differences in symmetry in any major cathedral, with differing statues or stained-glass windows (scroll down here) – but this is quite extreme. It is a statement in stone to ‘vive la differance‘. Truly, another view.

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