CHAPTER V. TOWERS AND PORTALS
These figures looked stiff and long and thin and ridiculous to enlightened citizens of the eighteenth century, but they were made to fit the architecture; if you want to know what an enthusiast thinks of them, listen to M. Huysmans's "Cathedral." "Beyond a doubt, the most beautiful sculpture in the world is in this place." He can hardly find words to express his admiration for the queens, and particularly for the one on the right of the central doorway. "Never in any period has a more expressive figure been thus wrought by the genius of man; it is the chef-d'oeuvre of infantile grace and holy candour .... She is the elder sister of the Prodigal Son, the one of whom Saint Luke does not speak, but who, if she existed, would have pleaded the cause of the absent, and insisted, with the father, that he should kill the fatted calf at his son's return." The idea is charming if you are the returning son, as many twelfth- century pilgrims must have thought themselves; but, in truth, the figure is that of a queen; an Eleanor of Guienne; her position there is due to her majesty, which bears witness to the celestial majesty of the Court in which she is only a lady-in-waiting: and she is hardly more humanly fascinating than her brother, the youthful king at the Virgin's right hand, who has nothing of the Prodigal Son, but who certainly has much of Lohengrin, or even - almost - Tristan.
The Abbe Bulteau has done his best to name these statues, but the names would be only in your way. That the sculptor meant them for a Queen of Sheba or a King of Israel has little to do with their meaning in the twelfth century, when the people were much more likely to have named them after the queens and kings they knew. The whole charm lies for us in the twelfth-century humanity of Mary and her Court; not in the scriptural names under which it was made orthodox. Here, in this western portal, it stands as the crusaders of 1100-50 imagined it; but by walking round the church to the porch over the entrance to the north transept, you shall see it again as Blanche of Castile and Saint Louis imagined it, a hundred years later, so that you will know better whether the earthly attributes are exaggerated or untrue.
Porches, like steeples, were rather a peculiarity of French churches, and were studied, varied, one might even say petted, by French architects to an extent hardly attempted elsewhere; but among all the French porches, those of Chartres are the most famous. There are two: one on the north side, devoted to the Virgin; the other, on the south, devoted to the Son, "The mass of intelligence, knowledge, acquaintance with effects, practical experience, expended on these two porches of Chartres," says Viollet-le-Duc, "would be enough to establish the glory of a whole generation of artists. "We begin with the north porch because it belonged to the Virgin; and it belonged to the Virgin because the north was cold, bleak, sunless, windy, and needed warmth, peace, affection, and power to protect against the assaults of Satan and his swarming devils. There the all-suffering but the all-powerful Mother received other mothers who suffered like her, but who, as a rule, were not powerful. Traditionally in the primitive church, the northern porch belonged to the women. When they needed help, they came here, because it was the only place in this world or in any other where they had much hope of finding even a reception. See how Mary received them!
The porch extends the whole width of the transept, about one hundred and twenty feet (37.65 metres), divided into three bays some twenty feet deep, and covered with a stone vaulted roof supported on piers outside. Begun toward 1215 under Philip Augustus, the architectural part was finished toward 1225 under Louis VIII; and after his death in 1226, the decorative work and statuary were carried on under the regency of his widow, Blanche of Castile, and through the reign of her son, Saint Louis (1235-70), until about 1275, when the work was completed by Philip the Hardy. A gift of the royal family of France, all the members of the family seem to have had a share in building it, and several of their statues have been supposed to adorn it. The walls are lined - the porch, in a religious sense, is inhabited - by more than seven hundred figures, great and small, all, in one way or another, devoted to the glory of the Queen of Heaven. You will see that a hundred years have converted the Byzantine Empress into a French Queen, as the same years had converted Alix of Savoy into Blanche of Castile; but the note of majesty is the same, and the assertion of power is, if possible, more emphatic.
The highest note is struck at once, in the central bay, over the door, where you see the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven, a favourite subject in art from very early times, and the dominant idea of Mary's church. You see Mary on the left, seated on her throne; on the right, seated on a precisely similar throne, is Christ, Who holds up His right hand apparently to bless, since Mary already bears the crown. Mary bends forward, with her hands raised toward her Son, as though in gratitude or adoration or prayer, but certainly not in an attitude of feudal homage. On either side, an archangel swings a censer.
On the lintel below, on the left, is represented the death of Mary; on the right, Christ carries, in the folds of His mantle, the soul of Mary in the form of a little child, and at the same time blesses the body which is carried away by angels - The Resurrection of Mary.