Chartres Cathedral

Scale and proportion - as much as its awe-inspiring height - are what make this edifice impressive

MEDIEVAL cathedrals don't come squat or low. A cathedral without height soaring skyward is a contradiction in terms. Gothic-cathedral builders even competed to build highest.

In our age of skyscraper, rocketry, and airlines, the height of the nave of Chartres or the spire of Salisbury might seem unimpressive. Even the century-old Eiffel Tower, concentrated so exclusively on an elegant achievement of height, surely long ago made Gothic height look modest.

But it doesn't.

As the photographs of Chartres here show, our fascination for the medieval sense of elevation, of aspiring verticality, is not a matter of counting meters at all. It is a question of apt scale, of the relationship of ground to wall, of architectural plan to elevation. With Chartres, it also has to do with setting.

The cathedral stands at the highest point in this small town and in all the countryside around. Nothing near it can compare. Chartres is, in its domain, the highest note in the scale, the great rock perched above a sea of roofs and expanse of land. The pilgrims who came here must have felt the significance of having, in their final approach, to climb uphill to it.

The interior of Chartres expresses verticality no less than other medieval cathedrals: The sheer height above the heads of the worshipers (or tourists) is integral to its awe. Describing something of this superhuman quality, John Ruskin wrote of a different cathedral, ``there are few rocks, even among the Alps, that have a clear vertical fall as high as the choir of Beauvais.''

In Chartres, the windows emphasize the verticality of the interior, their brilliant images arranged in panels one above another. The high rose windows also contribute by apparently floating in the blackness, as if without structural support.

Outside, among the first close-up experiences to absorb the visitor are the figures of kings, queens, and Old Testament characters of the West Front, the Royal Portal. These sculptures are as much columns as personages. Chartres authority Malcolm Miller describes them as ``still in the Romanesque tradition'' and ``incorporated within the architecture of the portal, reminiscent of the performers in a medieval mystery play upon the cathedral steps. They stand stiffly,'' he continues, ``about to speak their parts with raised hands.'' They are serenely tall - adding to the integral verticality of the building as a whole.

But of course it is the towers and spires that, more than anything, signal height.

Sacheverell Sitwell, in his book ``Gothic Europe,'' wrote about the medieval tower and spire as ``the early miracle of sending up a needle of stone to pierce the clouds, and as near a feeling as medieval men would ever know to that of flying.... The spires and towers were to some sense tethered and sacred projectiles, impracticable of use, and for which the plea that they were bell-towers was not enough excuse.''

Towers and spires were not always at the west front of cathedrals. Salisbury's is over the central crossing. But towers on cathedrals, more often than not, were as at Chartres: flanking the main entrance. This seems almost to be their natural place. Since west fronts are, broadly speaking, symmetrical, the expectation is that the two towers will be identical.

But this is one of Chartres's distinct characteristics. Its two towers are not the same as each other. The southwest spire, up to its highest point, belongs to the mid-12th century, and is Romanesque rather than Gothic in style.

The northwest tower, though Romanesque lower down, is of the Flamboyant style in its upper part. Its spire was built in 1507-13. Its extravagant decorativeness is at odds with the rest of the west front. It is much taller than the earlier spire. It is, in fact, bigger and better. And yet, for all its potential for upsetting the balance of the building, it has an air of inevitability about it.

This is not just a matter of familiarity. It is a matter - once again - of proportion and scale, and of a masterly confidence in the rightness of cloud-piercing height.

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