I wonder what it’s like to love an object so much that you spend your entire life studying it and still, even after 60 years, you adore it as much as the day you first laid eyes on it. Is it like that first love you never forgot, even if it was never reciprocated or consummated? That I cannot say for sure, but judging from the gleam in the eyes of Malcolm Miller, even though Chartres Cathedral is “just” an inanimate object, it does indeed still have that kind of hold on him. It shows in the excitement of his voice when he describes the building’s legendary stained-glass windows (the finest collection of medieval glass in Europe), the quick wit he uses to describe the architects, tradespeople, and clergy connected to the ancient church, and in the way he tells you that, even after a lifetime of study, “there’s so much more to learn about her”, as if he were describing a lifetime matrimonial bond.
I met Mr. Miller through Rick Steves. I went to the cathedral at noon just as the book advised and indeed, there he was, already deeply engrossed in a conversation with a couple of tourists. I approached him timidly, not wanting to interrupt, but simply to verify who he was. He advised me that he did public tours until October each year and thereafter was only available for private showings. It being November, I contacted him by email just as he asked, and the next day he worked me into his schedule, between another tour and an interview with what I believe he said was a reporter from the “New York Times” who wanted to get his take about the ongoing renovations to the cathedral, which had stirred up a bit of controversy.
Despite suffering from a terrible bout of bronchitis that day, Mr. Miller’s tour was a delight. At 83 (?), he is still as sharp as a tack, and is quick to answer any questions. We started at the southwest end of the nave, where he sat us down and chatted with us about the windows. He explained that for the peasant faithful who built and used the church back in the twelfth century, the stained-glass artwork was at once beautiful and also representative of medieval theology and thinking-a glimpse into what an average guy in the Middle Ages might think about God and the world around him.
Nor is Mr Miller’s interest in the cathedral a purely historic/cultural one. It is evident that he is a student of Scripture. He tells a story of a recent group of touring Texan evangelicals, who didn’t think one of the scenes was in accordance with the Bible. He wryly says the conversation ended when he asked, “Which Bible?” I can tell you he knows far more of that Book than I do, and I’ve studied it a good deal.
I ask him about the famous veil of Mary (Sancta Camisa) that is housed in an apse of the cathedral. It is said to have been a gift to the Emperor Charlemagne from the Byzantine Empress Irene. With such respected provenance, I was excited to get a look at it. Mr. Miller doesn’t believe it was actually hers, but he also doesn’t want it scientifically tested to prove the point-he feels that whether it is real or not isn’t important-what’s important is that the people who come from all over the world to venerate the object believe it is and derive hope and faith from it. At first, I disagree with that attitude. But now, I think I see the wisdom and compassion of his position.
He points to the restoration under way, which he describes as the scrubbing off of centuries of pollution to reveal the original limestone and paint. I look at the bright ochre/white forest of columns vaulting high overhead which are lit mainly by multicolored stained glass. It is beautiful beyond words, and it is in striking contrast to the somber tones of dark grey you’ll see in almost any other cathedral in Europe. Mr. Miller explains to me that these great churches were never meant to be so grim, as they were supposed to be filled with light to illumine the subjects of God’s kingdom. Like Mr. Miller, I cannot see how anyone could argue with a cleaning (even though some do) to erase the neglect of the past. The results speak for themselves.
The tour ends too quickly and we say our goodbyes. It was pricey, yes, but worth it. The cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site widely regarded as the most beautiful in all of Europe, and I feel honored to have met Mr. Miller, who has a good deal of international fame. I hope that he will continue his work into his 90’s and beyond.
Chartres is itself a charming city and worth exploring. I wondered down to the river and the canals that flow around and under the ancient homes. It is no surprise that Monet spent much of his time painting water lilies not far from here. Old stone bridges arch over gently flowing streams, and at one point a giant weeping willow presides over a split in the water between the ochre walls of the homes that line the water’s edge. It’s a peaceful pastel image just made for an Impressionist painter, and it isn’t hard to picture life as it was here 9 centuries ago.
If you go to Chartres, make sure you spend some time just wandering the streets. And make sure you get a tour from Malcolm Miller, the greatest living expert on its cathedral.
Price-$150 for a private tour
When-April-October at noon each day for public tours
Take some time to go on the audio tour before you go on Mr. Miller’s tour if possible-it will give you a decent overview of the entire church and better prepare you for a more detailed tour
The Sancta Camisa isn’t much to see-just a piece of white cloth behind bulletproof glass
Don’t miss wandering around the old town by the river-get a map from the TI, which is located down a side street very near the east side of the cathedral.
Chateau de Maintenon is only about a half hour away by car and is well worth the trip. I spent a few hours wandering around the grounds here one day. It’s under renovation at this time but should be finished up early spring 2018. The best time for pictures is early afternoon.