Monday, 2 April 2012

On high, Palm Sunday

The narrow stone steps wound up and up, endlessly it seemed. We stopped at intervals to catch our breath. Anyone coming down had to squeeze past us. Climbing the bell tower of the great Cathedral at Chartres is quite a workout. It's confined and I hugged the walls where possible.This is not a place for anyone suffering claustrophobia or vertigo.

We wanted to walk up along the edge of the roof of the cathedral but it was closed, perhaps because it was the first Sunday of the month. Those days, many monuments in Paris have free entry and crowds can be large and more difficult to manage. Never mind, the view of the countryside was great. There was little of the usual haze. The cathedral is situated 80kms south-west of Paris and dominates the Eure et Loir area.

Though it shows a lot of wear and tear with some decoration broken and missing its still in an exceptional state of preservation despite its great age. Most of the original stained glass windows survive intact, while the architecture has seen only minor changes since the early 13th century.
The building's exterior is dominated by heavy flying buttresses which allowed the architects to increase the window size considerably, while the west end is dominated by two contrasting spires — one, a 105 metre plain pyramid dating from the 1140s, and the other a 113 metre tall early 16th century Flamboyant spire on top of an older tower. The three great fa├žades are each adorned with hundreds of sculpted figures illustrating key theological themes and narratives.

Since at least the 12th century the cathedral has been an important destination for travellers - and remains so to this day, attracting large numbers of Christian pilgrims, many of whom come to venerate its famous relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ's birth, as well as large numbers of secular tourists who come to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In fact it seemed we'd happened upon a key pilgrimmage date, Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. On Palm Sunday, in the Catholic Church, as well as among many Anglican and Lutheran congregations, palm fronds (or in colder climates some kind of substitutes) are blessed outside the church building. A procession also takes place. It may include the normal liturgical procession of clergy and acolytes, the parish choir, or the entire congregation.

We watched various groups from each Diocese and Paris enter the church carrying branches (not necessarily palms). They were all young people. After the representative groups were seated in the church the main doors were closed. Outside the archbishop and the various bishops and clergy had gathered according to hierarchy.

The top guys were all carrying palm leaves accompanied by the altar boys carrying cathedral candles and swinging incense. The significance of the pink caps was unknown to me. Cardinals?

The archbishop knocked three times on the massive doors. The doors then opened to allow the wooden cross carried by more young people to be transported inside.

Next to file into the church were the head clergy followed by priests. It all took quite a long time. An interesting spectacle, but I had no interest in remaining at the church to watch the mass.

We headed out into the nippy sunshine, through the streets of Chartres and on to the parking building. I imagine that the Cathedral of Chartres must be one of THE places of pilgrimage for believers at this time of year.

They are still cleaning the interior of the church. It's a massive, slow undertaking. Most of the church is utterly black from centuries of grime but where the cleaning and restauration has been clompleted it's fantastic what has been revealed, the gold, the marble, the colours, the clean windows that could not have been imagined. I can't wait to see more of the incredible workmanship revealed as the years go by.


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