To a 21st century tourist, the north door of Chartres Cathedral is an eye-watering confection of carved figures and creatures, each one telling its own story of life – and often death – in the Middle Ages.
To a medieval pilgrim, however, this glory of Romanesque art had a double impact, for the figures that to us seem the colour of natural stone were originally painted in a rainbow of bright hues. The medieval equivalent of a full-colour Biblical comic strip, the north entrance was guaranteed to impress an illiterate audience deeply influenced by the doctrines of the Church.
And every evening from now until October 10, modern visitors to this historic city can see the North Door as those medieval pilgrims saw it, in a blaze of glorious colour – one of 29 monuments and major attractions featured in the 2015 Chartres en Lumieres route, an annual event now in its 12th year.
Three sites are completely renewed each year to ensure that there’s always something new for residents and visitors to enjoy. Just pick up the free map of the trail and then wander at leisure, taking the illuminations in any order. Solar lights in the pavement light the way in blue, the modern equivalent of following breadcrumbs in a fairytale.
I followed the route in spring when the show started at 9.30 but in high summer, the fun kicks off at dusk and finishes at 1am. So at 8pm, I settled down for an excellent dinner at Le Restaurant St Hilaire, a small family-run bistro close to the banks of the Eure. Tradesmen clustered along the river in the Middle Ages and today, the street names reflect the tanneries and abattoirs of another age.
Emerging into the dark streets, I stopped first beside the towering facade of St Peter’s Church, each angle and arch, window and doorway, picked out in brilliant colours. The fine stained glass windows of the upper storey appeared to shine out from the church rather than inwards, a triumph of 21st century projection techniques.
Crossing the river, I watched captivated as virtual dragonflies fluttered through foliage projected onto an old wash house and St Hilaire bridge. Sunshine colours turned to the russets of autumn as the scene silently morphed through the seasons. At the next bridge, I watched fish ‘swim’ across the stone arches, a fierce pike in hot pursuit of smaller fry. On a still evening, this section of the route is particularly enchanting, the patterns reflected in the still water below.
From river level, it’s quite a climb up to the imposing ecclesiastical buildings on the hill top. If you don’t want to tackle the steps, but don’t want to miss any of the route either, you can take a tour of the installations on board Le Petit Train which leaves from outside the Cathedral, though do check first if travelling in low season. Alternatively, you can home in one of six themed routes, downloadable from www.chartresenlumieres.com and just pick a few key sites to visit.
Every installation is different. The former Collegiate Church of Saint Andrew, for instance, now an exhibition centre, is the blank canvas for a series of static designs. The brick and stone facade however of the Bishop’s Palace behind the cathedral acts as a screen for a moving procession of Fine Arts images, which extend into the gardens at the side. Inadvertently walk across the light source and suddenly your shadow becomes an integral part of the display!
But however much of the route you choose, you won’t want to miss the three displays projected onto the Cathedral, home to arguably the world’s finest collection of 12th and 13th century stained glass. Tour the cathedral by day to marvel at the rich reds and deep ‘Chartres Blue’ of the windows, and compare the panes that are yet to be cleaned and restored to their original glory.
So high are they and so detailed, that it’s impossible to take in the stories they tell from the floor of the nave, not just about Biblical tales, but local life in the Middle Ages. The eye-level colour prints however at the nearby Stained Glass Museum deliver all of the story without any of the neck-ache in a beautiful medieval tithe barn. Don’t miss the changing exhibitions of contemporary glass in the undercroft beneath.
Discover the cathedral’s story by day – its construction, catastrophic fire, and subsequent rebuild – and when you return to watch the light show, the projections make much more sense. I’d recommend finishing at the Cathedral where the three doors are illuminated very differently, each show accompanied by low key, atmospheric music.
An invisible paintbrush seems to fill in the colours of the North Door, whilst the projections on the South Door tell the story of the stained glass artists and the rose window. But the piece de resistance is the story played out on the Royal Door, where Henri IV arrived for his coronation in 1594.
Animated figures ‘abseil’ down bell ropes, magically building the church stone by stone as they unroll the cornicing and place statues in the niches. It’s spine-tingling stuff and I defy anyone who watches the show not to carry the vision with them long after the last light has faded from the facade. Sheer magic!
For elegant B&B accommodation with private parking just two minutes’ walk from the Cathedral, book one of three rooms at Maison Ailleurs.
For tourist information visit www.chartres-tourisme.com