Houses of God

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If homes for people have amazing tales to be discovered, it should be no surprise that churches, temples, synagogues and mosques are rich with secrets as well. Unlike houses, religious structures are the result of the collaboration of many people over several generations, and are often the focal point of local passions and conflicts.

 

The Perils of Chartres Cathedral

 

The great cathedrals are remarkable buildings in many ways. They are works of art and masterpieces of engineering. During the period of the construction of the great cathedrals, builders pushed the limits of masonry construction, creating soaring and beautiful churches that seemed to give ordinary people a foretaste of heaven. Slender columns and graceful buttresses framed delicate windows of stained glass that threw dazzling colored light across the vast interior spaces, and the breathtaking height of the sanctuary draws the eye ever upward in wonder.

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Strangely enough, however, the great gothic cathedrals were not without their detractors. Aside from the tremendous expense and the vast amount of time needed to complete a cathedral, many traditionalists objected to the new radical design. The name “Gothic” was not applied when the cathedrals were built. The architectural style was mostly called Opus Francigenum, of French work. The term Gothic appeared later and was meant as a derogatory term, since Gothic referred to the Goths, who were considered barbarians who sacked Rome and destroyed many of its buildings.

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One of the most beautiful and best preserved of the Gothic cathedrals is Chartres, not far to the south of Paris. For some reason, though, beautiful old works of art are often the target of those who seek to destroy them for one reason or another. This happened to Chartres twice.

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In 1793, the French Revolution swept through the country like an avenging fire, destroying the acien regime, and a lot more. Unlike the American Revolution, which was content to secure the basic human rights to life, lberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the French Revolution was determined to completely remake society from top to bottom. This included remaking the citizens as well. The fact that most citizens did not want to be remade was beside the point. One of the pillars of this program was to destroy religion and replace it by reason. Since the state got to decide just what would be deemed reasonable, though, the whole exercise was more an attempt to make the state the new religion, worshiped for its infallibility.

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The problem was convincing people of the unimportance or religion when there were all those magnificent Gothic cathedrals standing around looking so formidable and timeless. The solution, of course, was to destroy the cathedrals.

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In some places, cathedrals were sold off to merchants to be used as warehouses, and in others, the cathedrals were made over into “Temples of Reason.” In a few places, such as Cambrai, the local cathedral was destroyed altogether. Before long, the revolutionaries began to look at Chartres with the idea that it would better serve the state as a vacant lot.

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So a revolutionary committee was dispatched to Chartres to arrange for destroying one of the masterpieces of western civilization. The size of the place soon had the committee scratching their heads, so they ordered a local architect to draw up a plan for the demolition and disposal of this affront to the government. Explosives were preferred, but the committee was open to alternatives. The architect came back with his report a few days later and reported that the structure was so massive that its demolition would clog the streets with heavy rubble for blocks around, effectively paralyzing almost all economic activity in the town for months to come. Horse or ox drawn carts by the hundreds would be needed to carry the stuff off and some place would have to be found to transport it. We will never know whether the architect gave a truthful report or whether he put his thumb on the scales to save the cathedral, but the revolutionary committee came to the conclusion that tearing down the cathedral wasn’t such a great idea after all. They departed for Paris, taking only a brass inscribed plate from the cathedral floor to use in making cannon.

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Then in 1944, having escaped destruction at the hands of one government body, the cathedral found itself in the cross-hairs once again. This time, the would-be destroyer was the Allied armed forces. The glass had been removed in 1939, when the war was on the horizon, but the church still stood dominating the town of Chartres. After the landings on D Day, American, British, and Canadian forces started pushing German forces back towards Paris and ultimately, Germany itself. The Germans designated the town of Chartres as a reassembly point, where remnants of retreating Wehrmacht units from elsewhere could assemble and make a stand. As allied forces attacked, they were surprised by the strong resistance they encountered. The tallest structure in town was the cathedral, and its towers make excellent lookout points and platforms for observing and directing artillery. Using the height advantage of the cathedral, the Germans could hold out long enough to disrupt the entire Allied advance.

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The Allies began shelling the town, accepting the fact that they would have to destroy the cathedral. One American officer, however, stepped forward with a plan to save the landmark. Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. volunteered to infiltrate the town to see if the Germans were, in fact using the cathedral. Accompanied by an enlisted man, Col Griffith made his way into the town and all the way to the cathedral. To his relief, he found that the Germans were nowhere to be found, and started ringing the church bells as a signal. The shelling stopped and Chartres was saved….again. Col Griffith was killed in a battle in another area of town a few days later and received the Silver Star.

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Today, throngs of tourists and pilgrims flock to Chartres and stand in awe at the cathedral, not realizing how close it came to destruction.

 

 

 

 

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