When driving out from Paris, on Autoroute 11, through the wheat fields of La Beauce, with occasional glimpses of the TGV (the French high speed-train) passing you at twice your speed, suddenly it appears, first the brown sign indicating its imminent arrival, and then the reality itself: the asymmetric towers of the cathedral at Chartres. It dominates the landscape today; imagine what it must have been like in the Middle Ages when it was built?
I've rented a gite on several occasions in nearby La Bazoche-Gouet, some 40 minutes away, which has afforded me the opportunity to visit this cathedral on several occasions also. Malcolm Miller has adopted the cathedral as his passion, and he routinely conducts tours if it there in English. His passion makes the cathedral visiting experience qualitatively different than any other in France (at least for the native English speaker). We took the tour with him, and he autographed my copy on July 03, 1996. I'd hardily recommend the tour AND the book, in order to gain a basic appreciation for this astounding human creation, for better or worse, when the peasants were sleeping with their animals for warmth.
Much of the book is pictures of the cathedral, but there is also a solid narrative account written by Miller. Throughout most of human history, fire has been the most effective tool for "urban renewal." This was true in the case of Chartres, when a fire in 1194 destroyed most of the town, including the previous cathedral, Fulbert's. Soon thereafter, work on the present structure commenced, and it took almost seven decades, until 1260, for the cathedral to be consecrated. The asymmetrical towers are the result of two architects competing views over time of how they should look. The cathedral features "flying buttresses" which were the standard architectural technique of the time to help support the immense weight of the roof on the walls.
Two-thirds of the book is dedicated to the famous stain glass windows. There are quality pictures of all the stain glass, accompanied by charts that identify each scene by number, and there is a corresponding narrative which explains the biblical derivation of the picture. In addition, there are numerous stone carvings imbedded in the cathedral's exterior, and they likewise are identified, with biblical explanations. There is also a labyrinth inlaid in the nave between the third and fourth bays, and while I was there I witnessed a woman making the rounds of it (no doubt, for "merit") on her knees. The enduring power of religion!
I feel the book could have been improved with an explanation of the techniques utilized for making stained glass at the time. Other than that, it is an excellent work, and is an essential purchase and read BEFORE you arrive. I checked Google, and Miller is apparently still conducting tours of his passion. Bravo for him, and 5-stars for his book. And one final consideration: I just finished reading the autobiography of Henry Adams The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (American Heritage Library)
and discovered he also wrote a book, in part, about his cathedral. I haven't read it, but if you have or do, would love some comments: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres: A Study of Thirteenth-Century Unity (Princeton Paperbacks)