- The Virgin of Chartres: Making History through Liturgy and the Arts
In 1993, Margot Fassler published a much cited article in Art Bulletin, “Liturgy and Sacred History in the Twelfth-Century Tympana at Chartres” [Vol. 75, pp. 499–520]. In it she waded into interpretation of the imagery of one of the canonical and most influential monuments of Gothic architecture and art, the west facade Royal Portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres, France. An erudite and astute liturgical scholar, Fassler provided a fresh take on the familiar sculpture by grounding it more thoroughly in the liturgical sources of the cathedral than had been done before, emphasizing celebration of the adventus or arrival of Christ in the history-changing watershed of the Incarnation, made possible through his virgin mother Mary, who provided a fleshly mantle for his divinity. Christ’s adventus was in turn imitated and celebrated every time the bishop entered his cathedral in ceremony. The present award-winning volume, published some seventeen years later, is itself the full incarnation of that earlier scholarship, now set within a much wider historical context of political ambition, theological development, the evolving cult of saints, and the emergence of Gothic art. As a study focused on the medieval conception of the Virgin Mary, it takes its place next to other substantial recent studies such as Rachel Fulton’s From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003) and Miri Rubin’s Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), as well as countless studies of Marian works of art such as Bissera Pentcheva’s Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006).
Exploring “the ability to create long-lasting, liturgically-based, and steadily reenacted visions of the past” at Chartres, Fassler puts liturgy at the center of history “making” in this cathedral town. In doing so, she acknowledges that if the Virgin Mary is the heroine of the story, Bishop Fulbert (d. 1028) is its hero. Over the course of the book, we see him assiduously expanding and developing the cult of the Virgin through sermons he authored and chants that were attributed to him: he builds up the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin in particular, by means of which Mary is linked to a triple lineage of kingship, priesthood, and prophecy. At the same time, he oversees the beginning of the Romanesque reconstruction of the cathedral after a fire in 1020 destroyed the earlier Carolingian building.
The book is beautifully constructed, tacking back and forth between political history and liturgical development and climaxing in discussion of artistic innovation on the Royal Portal. It begins with the history of the town and cathedral in the Carolingian period, a period of Viking invasion but also remarkable liturgical innovation that laid a foundation for worship at Chartres and elsewhere throughout the later Middle Ages. The first chapter already brings us full circle from the political to the liturgical and back again, opening with a vision of two “fortresses”—cathedral and castle—guarding the city of Chartres and ending with the earliest Marian sequence attested at the church, “Alle celeste necnon,” set to a melody associated with the military saint Michael the Archangel. Along the way, Fassler demonstrates how the preservation and honor of the city of Chartres in the early Middle Ages were tied to successive instances of the power of the Virgin manifested in the contact [End Page 296] relic of her tunic or “chemise,” believed worn at the time of the annunciation and birth of Christ.
Fassler’s tale then proceeds to the early eleventh-century refashioning of the cult of the Virgin under Fulbert, when themes present in the Advent anticipation of the birth of Christ were transferred back in the liturgical cycle to magnify the feast of the nativity of his mother on September eighth. The suite...