Editors' Choice

Chartres: Ecstasy at the Altar

by Bill Zarchy

It wasn't the usual cathedral tour.

“We’re not even Christian,” wailed Danny as I dragged my family to Chartres on the train from Gare Montparnasse. “Why do we have to go to so many churches?”

For my kids, Europe’s vast, vaulted cathedrals weren’t glorious icons of medieval society, but creepy, dark places full of dead people. Being hecka-old didn’t make them less boring. Both Danny, 11, and Becca, 14, had seen enough cathedrals on this trip. But I remembered Chartres fondly from a trip to Europe many years before. And my wife Susan, who had studied for a year in France, was eager to go.

The tour guide led our group to the North Porch of the cathedral to read the sculptures, which told the stories of Adam and Eve and Paradise Lost: “… Third down, on this side, Adam is standing naked in the garden, he’s sleeping naked, when God created Eve at the top. Next down, Eve is naked, by an apple tree…

“As they are expelled from Paradise, they’re still hiding their nudity; at the bottom, they’ve left Paradise, and my gosh, they’re wearing clothes. Adam is digging, and Eve is spinning, and God on the outside is blessing them… Paradise lost…”

We followed him into the cathedral through the Royal Portal, the main entrance, and the temperature seemed to drop 20 degrees. We walked around the stone labyrinth in the floor and sat on pews in the nave.

With his back to the altar, the guide told us that Chartres Cathedral was built on the ruins of three or four burned-out churches dating back to the days of Charlemagne, and that the pictures in the stained glass had enabled illiterate medieval churchgoers to read Bible stories. I peeked at my family. Becca was paying attention, but Danny was getting that “creepy old church” look. Susan smiled at me, enraptured by the cathedral and the lecture.

I followed her eyes as she took in the grand upward sweep of the interior lines of the building. Gothic architecture had seemed old and stuffy and outmoded when I studied it in college. No, we weren’t Christians, but the magnificent verticality of the architecture drew me inward and upward. Surely God was up there somewhere in the play of light streaming in through the bright clerestory windows and shafting down the stone walls.

We examined the Incarnation Window, one of the oldest in Chartres: “Bottom left, Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of God, and she jumps from her seat in surprise, with a raised hand … Wouldn’t you?” The group tittered. “Second row, on the left, the Annunciation to the shepherds …” I heard a gasp and a stirring among the hundreds of tourists in the building.

I shifted my heavenward glance down to the guide, who stumbled, paused, ruffled his hair, and stopped his presentation. Still with his back to the altar, he peered around at our group, trying to find the source of distraction. He turned and looked over his shoulder, and I followed his gaze. There on the white altar, standing in a shard of bright light from above, a pretty young blonde woman in a bright red dress faced upward. Her arms outstretched to the sides, her eyes closed, she leaned back, legs spread, undulating to some ecstatic internal musical beat. As I watched, she made a peculiar shrugging motion, and the dress fell at her feet.

She was naked and voluptuous. Her hair shining white in the light, she rotated her hips in a slow, suggestive manner. We all stared, frozen in silence for a long moment. Then activity picked up around us. The cathedral was filled with pilgrims and tourists from all over the world, and dozens of cameras started to click and flash. Asian businessmen and Danish schoolboys jockeyed for camera positions. A group of Belgian nuns stared, but took no snapshots. “What’s going on here?” I wondered aloud.

“Can I have the video camera, Daddy?” asked Danny, in an odd voice.

“No, I don’t want any shots of naked bodies on our summer travel movie.”

“I won’t shoot, I’ll just look.”

“No bodies.”

The guide’s reaction was less than dramatic. “How unusual,” he muttered, then slipped through a small side door. Five long minutes later he returned with an elderly security guard, who was soon joined by another. They approached the woman gingerly. Seemingly in a trance, she was startled by their approach, but she put up no resistance. One guard covered her with his jacket, and they gently started to lead her away. She stopped, looked around, went back to the altar, and picked up her crumpled red dress from the floor. The guards and the dazed blonde lady disappeared through the same side door.

Our cathedral mentor took up his place in front of the tour group and muttered a comment about occasional disruptions by troubled souls. “She’ll be treated kindly,” he said.

“Will she go to jail?” someone asked.

“Probably not.”

I wondered if the cathedral, a holy and enthrallingly beautiful place, tended to attract odd behavior. Sometimes people reacted in unusual ways to iconic landmarks.

As a San Franciscan, I knew that the Golden Gate Bridge had, tragically, lured many troubled souls to commit suicide over the years. I wondered if Chartres Cathedral had a history of bizarre expressions of spirituality – or whatever it was we had seen.

We theorized excitedly on the walk to the station.

“That woman looked like a model,” I said with grave authority, as we boarded our train back to Paris. “Maybe she was posing for a photo spread in a girlie magazine, and it was all a setup for her photographer to take pictures.” Certainly there had been plenty of time to shoot a whole roll, before she they led her away to be treated kindly. Some Japanese tourists had shot a lot more than that. I fantasized a headline on the cover of a tawdry skin mag called something like Bone Appetite -- “Charlotte does Chartres!”

The mild reaction from the authorities had impressed Susan, and she wondered if that kind of thing had happened often, or even if the guards knew the woman.

The kids had various theories. The blonde was crazy, they contended, or sick, or high on drugs. “You should have let me look through the video camera,” said Danny. “I might have found some clues.”

Maybe. If she wasn’t a porn queen, she could have been a tourist overcome by a holy ecstasy, inspired by the imagery around her. The excitement of the day ebbed. The rhythm of the train lulled me to drowsiness, and the words of the guide echoed in my brain: “As they are expelled from Paradise they’re still hiding their nudity. Paradise lost…”


Bill Zarchy (www.billzarchy.com) is a free-lance director of photography, writer, and teacher based in San Francisco. Over the past thirty years, he has shot film, video, and HDTV projects in two dozen countries and three dozen states. Recently he filmed interviews with three former presidents for the Emmy-winning West Wing Documentary Special, and he was Director of Photography for the feature films Conceiving Ada and Read You Like A Book. He has a BA in Government from Dartmouth and an MA in Film from Stanford, and he teaches Advanced Cinematography at San Francisco State University. His personal essays, tales from the road, and technical articles have appeared in a Travelers’ Tales humor anthology, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers, and literary and trade magazines, and he is working on Roving Camera, a book about his work and travels. This story won the Bronze Award for Funny Travel in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Bill Zarchy, Editors' Choice

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