The town of Chartres, around 50 miles (80km) south-west of Paris, is well known as the place of one of France’s most beautiful cathedrals. It’s structural beauty along with its medieval stained glass has proven popular with tourists, but its also become a site of pilgrimage for Christians.
The cathedral was used as a place of worship in the middle ages, but it also took on a more financial role within the town of Chartres. Wine sellers made use of the nave, as well as other traders using entrances and stalls inside from which to do business. The cathedral of Chartres has managed to operate successfully as a market, labour exchange, place of worship and place of pilgrimage for centuries. As a result, it has played an important role in the thriving economy of the town.
Around the year 800AD, the Empress Irene (also known as Irene of Athens) was the ruler of the Roman Empire in Eastern Europe and West Asia. At the same time, Charlemagne was the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe. While the two rulers were extremely powerful, they also wanted to become close allies to solidify their power through friendship. Legend has it, that Empress Irene and Charlemagne nearly combined the two empires through marriage, but instead, Irene wanted to give Charlemagne a really impressive present. She sent him an object of immense value throughout Christendom – the veil that Mary was wearing the night she gave birth to Jesus. It’s also been attributed as being the veil Mary wore at the foot of the cross when Christ was crucified. Making it’s way from Jerusalem to Constantinople, and now France. At more than six meters long and made of silk, it was an impressive gift.
This religious artifact has become known as the Chartres veil, and for good reason.
The veil made it’s way down the bloodline, to arrive in the hands of Charles the bald (823–877), who was the grandson of Charlemagne. A year before Charles’ death, he gave the relic to the Chartres Cathedral in 876.
Miracles and Pilgrimage
Since arriving at the cathedral, it has become associated with many miracles. The miracles attributed to the veil have made the cathedral a place of pilgrimage throughout the years, and has brought in thousands of the faithful from around the world, who come to venerate the relic.
One of the more well known stories associated with the veil, is from 911AD, when Rollo and his henchman besieged the town of Chartres, and the inhabitants of the town took the veil and used it as a banner of war. The siege was over when Rollo and his men were defeated.
During the middle ages production began on creating items which could be sold to the pilgrims. These included little badges made of lead or tin, which were stamped with the image of the holy relic, and some were even placed on the relic itself for blessing before being sold. These were sold from stalls in the church during it’s use as a market. Each vendor paid an annual sum of money for space inside the church.
The Survival of the Dress
The relic was said to have been given to the church by Charles the bald in 876, but in 1194 it was thought to have been destroyed in a fire. The story has it however, that the veil became a miracle itself, after it was found untouched 3 days later in the treasury. The bishop at the time declared this to be a sign from holy Mary herself, that a bigger more magnificent cathedral should be built in it’s place.
The people of Chartres came together in agreement. They built the cathedral even bigger and better than before, and kept the Holy veil there safely for hundreds of years.
While some stories bring the veil’s authenticity into question, every year on 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Veil is taken on a procession through the town of Chartres, and is still venerated.
Scientific studies have shown that it is of Syrian design, of fine quality silk and it’s origins can be traced back to the 1st century.
Some people think the original was destroyed in the fire, and it was covered up, but claims of miracles are still being attributed to the veil today, and it’s still a popular place of pilgrimage. The relic is definitely interesting nonetheless.