Heaven’s Bright Queen – Shrine of Our Lady of Chartres, Chartres, France

Article

Is it not a beautiful reality, that wherever Christianity has been introduced, we find sanctuaries of Mary springing up, growing in beauty, and gladdening the hearts of the children of the Church? We trace these sanctuaries from the tomb at Nazareth to the last altar erected in the Mission around the North Pole. They form

One long procession of chapels
Low shrines, or cathedrals grand,
Stretching through lapse of ages,
And brightening every land.

Of these principal sanctuaries, which adorn all countries, like the “moon’s fair beams,” wherever the Sun of Justice sheds His rays, we intend giving a series of sketches, or pen and ink panoramic views. Therefore, to be systematic and artistic in our work, we must begin at the beginning.

Now, kind readers, do not turn, in imagination, to the blue sea and green hills of Galilee, and expect us to show you the open sepulchre, full of flowers, which was converted into an oratory by the devotion of the Apostles, ere they again separated, after their reunion around our Blessed Mother’s death bed; neither is it the “House of Nazareth,” we intend to paint, as our proto-sketch; nor our “Lady of the Pillar,” erected by Saint James on the banks of the Ebro; nor the beautiful church of Lydda, dedicated by the beloved disciple to the Mother of his God; nor “Our Lady of Tortosa,” built by Saint Peter in Phoenicia, when on his way to Antioch. But we are going back beyond the days of the Apostles anterior even to the life of the Blessed Virgin, or the devout Anne and Joachim, to find, amid the “Sacred Groves” of the Druids in Gaul, the first sanctuary dedicated “to the Virgin who was to bring forth a son.” The immense Gothic cathedral of Chartres still perpetuates this shrine. Its lofty spires can be seen many miles before the traveler reaches Chartres; like a mighty citadel, it towers above that city of the olden time, and its archives and chronicles date back beyond the birth of Christianity; and, through all the intervening ages, devotion to the Virgin Mother has continued without interruption up to the present time.

Perchance the soi disant learning, and antiquarian lore of our day, may smile incredulously, when we say that devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in the Chartrain country, preceded Christianity; that on the very spot where the cathedral of Chartres now stands, the Druids raised a prophetic statue of the Virgin Mother, a hundred years before her birth; and that they offered their homage to the Virgini paritura. Nevertheless, this is not a legendary tradition, to be rejected by the wise; it is an historical fact, as fully authenticated as any well established point in history.

The impious author of the “Origin of Worships” has proved that the mystery of the Virgin who was to bring forth a son, was known among Pagans; his testimony surely cannot be suspected, as it is the testimony of an enemy. Nicolas, in his chef d’oeuvre, “Philosophical Studies,” demonstrates that be lief in the Virgin Mother existed among the Gauls, Latins, Chaldeans, Persians, and Egyptians.

The pious and learned author of “Notre Dame de France” says they could have obtained a knowledge of this mystery in three ways. First, from primitive tradition; for the truths which God revealed to our first parents and the patriarchs were never totally effaced by idolatry; many were preserved by floating, if I may so speak, upon the deluge of errors which covered the earth. In the second place, this knowledge might have been an immediate revelation from God himself. The holy Fathers teach that God revealed to Pagans the coming of His Son, and they cite in confirmation of this Balaam’s prophecy, which was known among the Gentiles, as the testimony of the Magi proves. Thirdly, after the conquests of Alexander, the Jews dispersed into the various quarters of the globe, carried with them their prophetic books and their expectation of the Messiah; consequently, the Pagans might have gained this knowledge by reading their books, or from oral intercourse with them.

It was an ancient, constant and universal belief, that a powerful liberator was to come from the East. Tacitus says that this was the common persuasion. These prophecies were preserved in the ancient Jewish books, and grave authors consider the prediction, attributed by Virgil to the Sybil of Cuma (Eclogue iv), an imitation of the prophecy of Isaias relating to the prodigy of a Virgin Mother: Ecce Virgo concipiet et pariet filium (Is. ix, 14). All the fancies of the poet seem borrowed from the prophet, and were realized in Jesus Christ, to whom alone they can be applied.

Now, if the mystery of the Virgin Mother was known to the pagans in general, it should have been familiar to the Druids above all others, for they were the savants of their epoch the wise men of Gaul. Caesar says, that as ministers of divine rites, they preserved the deposit of religious doctrines. If the pagans, then, had an idea of this mystery, it is among their sages and priests that we ought to seek its fullest development. Faber (“Origin of Pagan Idolatry”), Guibert (“de Vita Sua”), and other authors, fully prove that it was a general custom among the Druids to erect altars to the Virgin Mother Virgini pariturce.

The Chartrain country was their grand point of reunion in Gaul; there they held their general assembly; and there their supreme chief resided. Under the mysterious shade of the grand forest trees, far away from the tumult of the city, they offered their sacrifices to their deities. Upon the hill where the cathedral of Chartres now stands, was one of those sacred groves, containing a vast grotto into which the light of day could scarcely penetrate; it was in perfect keeping with the sombre character of the Druidic religion. There, according to authentic tradition, all the distinguished men of the nation were convoked, in the one hundredth year before the birth of Jesus Christ, and in their presence the Druid priests erected an altar to the “Virgin who was one day to bring forth a Son,” and they engraved upon it that inscription which has since become so celebrated: Virgini paritura. Priscus, the reigning king of Chartres, was deeply moved by the discourse pronounced on the occasion by their grand pontiff, and in presence of the entire assembly, solemnly consecrated his kingdom to the future Queen, who was to bring forth the Desired of Nations. All the assistants, touched by this act, immediately consecrated themselves to this privileged Virgin; and they and their descendants ever afterward, entertained for her the most tender veneration, invoking her under the title of “Our Lady of Chartres.”

Time, which proves all things, has not shaken this belief of the first ages; on the contrary, it has rather strengthened and developed it. In the fifteenth century Charles VII granted letters patent in favor of the church of Chartres, declaring it, at the same time, to be the most ancient in his kingdom, founded, by prophecy, in honor of the glorious Virgin Mary, before the Incarnation, and in which she was honored while living. At a later period Mr Olier, in his “Autograph Memoirs” salutes Chartres as the “holy and devoted city, first in the world as regards antiquity, since it had been erected by prophecy.”

The first Apostles in the Chartrain country, found the inhabitants admirably disposed to receive the truths of the Gospel; and as Saint Paul, preaching in the Areopagus, appealed to the altar, erected to the “Unknown God,” to draw the Athenians to a knowledge of the true God; so these apostolic men re minded the Chartrains of their devotion to the Virgin Mother, in order to announce to them the Son, whom this Virgin had already given to the world. Their words and doctrine were joyfully received, and the true faith was soon established among these Pagans.

Their mysterious grotto was dedicated to the Sovereign Master of Heaven and earth, and transformed into a Christian temple, under the invocation of the Virgin Mary. Such is the antiquity of Notre Dame de Chartres. What the devotion of succeeding ages has made it, we find beautifully illustrated, in “Notre Dame de France,” by the venerable Cure of Saint Sulpice.

In the eleventh century the celebrated Bishop Fulbert conceived the idea of erecting to the Mother of God one of those monuments that seem to defy time, and astonish all ages by their grandeur and magnificence. To accomplish a design so worthy of his great heart, he made an appeal to all sovereigns of Europe: Robert, King of France, Canute, the great King of England and Denmark, Richard of Normandy, William of Aquitaine, and a host of noble Princes and Lords, liberally responded by pious largesses. A holy emulation pervaded all ranks females even taking part in the construction of the edifice; and from this epoch dates that idea of banded corporations of skillful workmen, who enriched Europe with those superb basilicas, which still continue the admiration of the world.

Before the work of Fulbert was finished, it became a prey to the flames, and all its combustible parts were destroyed. Then it was decided to build another edifice, that should stand unrivaled in the world. It was constructed of cut stone, from the foundation to the summit, and, said William of Brittany, referring to the former accident, “this shall have nothing to fear from the fury of the flames until the day of judgment.”

The royal magnificence of Philip Augustus and his successors poured out its riches in the erection of this new Cathedral, while a holy zeal animated all classes. A contemporary writer says: “Who had ever before seen princes and powerful lords, men-at-arms and delicate women, laboring with trowel and chisel, bending under the yoke, like beasts of burden, while drawing these heavy loads of stone? Yet here we meet thousands such.” Skillful architects and renowned artists hastened from all parts to offer their services gratuitously; and, as if by enchantment, that grand cathedral was raised and completed.

“When one sees, for the first time, the cathedral of Chartres,” says an eloquent writer of our day, “he is agitated by indefinable emotions, and strange sensations thrill through his inmost soul. There all that is grand and imposing meets the sight; a multitude of pious recollections which come crowding from the past; the mighty proportions of the vast cathedral; all united, ravish the heart, and dazzle the eye, presenting as they do, such celestial marvels. We find within this enclosure, so venerable, and yet so young, all grace and poesy, and a combination of beauty, which human words cannot express, and we can but say that the cathedral of Chartres is one of the most prodigious chefs d’ceuvre of Catholic architecture. Yet, however splendid may be this cathedral, it has not been the attraction which for ages has drawn whole generations to Chartres. No, they do not go there to admire the skill of architects, nor the grandeur of the temple; these are but accessories; it is Notre Dame de Sous-terre, or the Druidic Statue; Notre Dame du Pilier, and the veil of the Blessed Virgin^, that draw all hearts to Chartres. The first, Notre Dame de Sous-terre, ever rests in the crypt. Its mysterious origin, its antiquity, and the many miracles ob tained at its feet, make this crypt hallowed ground. Never has Notre Dame de Sous-terre been removed, for any length of time, and it is meet that she should rest there.”

If it were asked, why a Madonna so devoutly venerated through so many ages should have been left in the bowels of the earth, hidden as it were in a vault, instead of being exposed to the veneration of the faithful, in the brilliant light of day, in the upper church, which is far more beautiful and spacious; we would answer in the words of Bishop Pie, as found in his address delivered at the inauguration of the new statue of Notre Dame de Sous-terre: “It is because we never displace the source of a stream. Mary herself selected that particular dwelling. There, in that subterranean church, as it is called, Our Lady of Chartres has loved to receive her faithful servants, and enrich them with her choicest favors. In changing the place of the statue, they might be exposed to stop the source of graces. For God is the master of His own gifts, and He grants them on His own conditions.” This is why Fulbert, when making the crypt nine hundred feet long, was most careful not to displace the antique statue. He left it on the very spot where the Druids held their assemblies, and where they had raised the image dedicated to the Virgin who was to bring forth a Son. In reality this subterranean church is the principal part of this sanctuary of Mary, the upper temple being only the decoration and it was constructed with so much magnificence in order to honor the primitive grotto of the Druids.

In the middle ages it shone resplendent with gold and precious stones; its walls were covered with the choicest paintings, and a vast number of lamps burned day and night before the venerated statue. In this manner was Notre Dame de Sousterre honored, until the terrible days of the infamous French Revolution, when, inspired by a spirit of impiety, of which a savage nation would be ashamed, the enemies of the Church dared to penetrate even to the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Sous-terre, and drag the statue from its throne and burn it at the door of the magnificent temple which the piety of ages had erected in honor of the Virgin Mother. When better days had succeeded the fury of the Revolution, an exact copy of the original was replaced in the crypt.

Notre Dame du Pilier happily escaped the fury of those mod ern Vandals. This statue is preserved in the upper church. It derives its name from a column upon which it rests. The faithful have always held it in great veneration; and after bearing their first homage to Notre Dame de Sous-terre, they lay at the feet of Notre Dame du Pilier the tribute of their gratitude and prayers. “So great are the crowds, and so fervent their devotion,” writes an author of the seventeenth century, “that the stone column upon which the above mentioned statue rests has been worn away in places by the kisses of the devout pilgrims.”

The veil of the Blessed Virgin is the third object of the de votion of the faithful at Our Lady of Chartres. This precious relic was brought from Aix-la-Chapelle, by Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne. For more than nine hundred years it was venerated by the faithful, as one of their most precious treasures. When the Revolutionary Commissioners of 1793, whose glory consisted in insulting all that was sacred and holy, invaded the sanctuary of Our Lady, they insolently demanded the case containing this relic. In those days, might, or rather brute force, was right, and the sacristan was compelled to bring to them the rich cedar box, overlaid with thick plates of gold and encrusted with pearls, rubies, and diamonds. When they saw it, in spite of their seared consciences they were seized with feelings of involuntary respect, and decided that none but an ecclesiastic should open it. Two priests were called to obey their behest. On opening it, they found the veil, composed of silk and linen, four and a half yards long. They cut off a por tion of it, and sent it to Barthelemy, member of the Institute, in Paris, begging him to give his opinion of it, but did not in form him of its origin. This celebrated Oriental antiquarian, after carefully examining it, replied that the material must have been woven some two thousand years previous, and that it had formed part of a veil similar to those worn by the Oriental women. On receiving this reply, even those impious minions of Robespierre respected the case and the veil it contained, al though they carried off all the treasures of the Cathedral, melt ing down all the gold and silver into the money of their so-called Republic.

Many royal octavo volumes would be required merely to enumerate the miracles that have been performed at Notre Dame de Chartres. The number of extraordinary cures have been great; truly might it be said that there the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, and the sick are restored to health.

The archives are a long succession of preservations from shipwreck, fire, pestilence, and all other calamities which afflict life here below. In these records, the strongest evidences are given to prove how frequently, during the wars of the feudal times, Chartres was preserved from destruction by her precious relics. In the fourteenth century, not only the city, but the entire French nation, was menaced with destruction. Her King, John, had been many years a prisoner in England; the English were masters of Guienne, the flower of French chivalry had fallen at Crecy and Poictiers, the nobles were ruined, the young Regent was without troops, and Edward of England, pursuing his victorious career, penetrated with his triumphant army to the very walls of Chartres, where he pitched his tents, and summoned the city to surrender immediately. Full of confidence in God, and the intercession of Mary, the citizens simply replied that they would not. Edward’s messengers thought the siege would be an easy task for the English men-at-arms, for they saw no signs of defense within its walls.

But, contrary to their expectation, the siege wore on, until the green fields of France were bristling with English bayonets instead of the golden grain. The Dauphin tried to save the favorite city of Mary, but Edward was determined that it should be destroyed. The citizens saw that every shadow of earthly hope was lost; still they redoubled their supplications to their Patroness, when, suddenly, the sky was overcast, and so terrible a storm fell upon the English army that it seemed as though the end of the world had come. Stones fell from the sky, so large as to kill both men and horses. The entire English camp was in ruins, the canvas of the tents hung in tatters, and over that immense plain more than six thousand horses and a thousand soldiers lay dead upon the ground. There is no historical fact better attested than this extraordinary event. Edward, terror-stricken, believed that Heaven had taken up arms against him, and, falling on his knees in the midst of the ruins and dead that surrounded him, he implored the assistance of Notre Dame de Chartres, vowing to grant peace to France. In the fulfillment of this vow, which, in his fight he had made to the powerful Patroness of Chartres, he signed the treaty in the little town of Bretigny, close by. France was saved, and the English King, with his haughty nobles, went, as peaceful and humble pilgrims, to kneel before the Shrine of Notre Dame de Sous-terre.

MLA Citation

  • William J Walsh. “Shrine of Our Lady of Chartres, Chartres, France”. The Apparitions and Shrines of Heaven’s Bright Queen, 1905. CatholicSaints.Info. 9 July 2014. Web. 22 August 2017. <>