- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

CHARTRES, France An hour by train southwest of Paris, one of the most marvelous structures ever built by man rises like a queen above this quiet provincial town.
In 1958, Malcolm Miller, a student of French from Durham University in England, beheld Chartres Cathedral's aging limestone, flamboyant northern steeple and magical stained-glass windows for the first time. Forty-four years later, he is still here, and you can join his tour of the cathedral on almost any day of the year.
"People asked me if I don't get bored. I tell them no. Would you be bored with playing Bach every day? Chartres Cathedral is a book in stone and glass. And I am still learning," said Mr. Miller, an elderly gentleman who fuses the manners of an erudite scholar with those of a British wit.
Indeed, if you were to choose a building to spend the rest of your life in, the cathedral of Chartres would be a sublime choice. The master builders and theologians who constructed the cathedral, fired by biblical visions of a heavenly city, succeeded beyond their most profound aspirations.
Built between 1194 and 1223 in the great era of Gothic cathedrals, its brilliant stained-glass windows have survived the ravages of age, wars and revolutions almost intact, and today constitute the most complete and well-preserved collection of medieval stained glass in the world.
"For a first visit to Chartres, choose some pleasant morning when the lights are soft, for one wants to be welcome, and the Cathedral has moods, at times severe," Henry Adams wrote in his classic study "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres."
Malcolm Miller recommends October, when the summer's onslaught of tourists has abated and there is the chance of being alone with cathedral's 175 windows.
An overcast fall or winter sky presents no problem. "On a dull day, the blues dominate. On a bright day the reds glow and the yellows sparkle," said Mr. Miller, who likes to illustrate the windows' tremendous luminosity by asking his groups if it isn't the sun that is shining through the newly restored rose window in the Northern Transept. "It can't be," he answers his own question. "We are not in Australia" where the sun crosses the sky to the north.
Often, Mr. Miller will begin his tour by the Royal Portal in the Western Nave with its famous three lancet windows the oldest windows in the cathedral and sole survivors of the great fire of 1194, when the fourth cathedral at the location was gutted, to be replaced by the fifth, present cathedral.
Centuries earlier, the second, Carolingian, cathedral had been dedicated to Mary, and in 876 Charlemagne's grandson Charles the Bald made the church a gift of the Sancta Camisia, a garment supposedly worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. Endowed with this relic, Chartres grew into an important shrine for medieval pilgrims and when three days after the 1194 fire the garment was brought out of the ruins unscathed, the miracle was interpreted as a sign from Mary that she desired a more magnificent church.
She got it. Between 1170 and 1270, the French erected some eighty Gothic cathedrals across the country, and among them Chartres is arguably the greatest and definitely the most well preserved.
Of its 175 windows, 43 were paid for by the merchant guilds of Chartres apothecaries, haberdashers, wheelwrights, fishmongers, money-changers and farriers while the nobility commissioned another 44.
"Just as the French of the 19th century invested their surplus capital in a railway system in the belief that they would make money by it in this life, in the 13th they trusted their money to the Queen of Heaven because of their belief in her power to repay it with interest in the life to come," Henry Adams wrote.
In a poke at his Anglo-Saxon brethren, Mr. Miller often reminds his audiences of the destruction wrought by the Puritans upon the Catholic churches of England before they sailed off to America. John the Conqueror even kept a journal where he carefully recorded the number of stained-glass windows he had managed to destroy in one day.
The windows of Chartres, on the other hand, have been saved by miracles more than once. Even the French revolutionaries, having rededicated the cathedral as a "temple of reason," did not have the heart to destroy them. And during World Wars I and II, the windows removed one pane at a time, numbered and kept in storage survived unscathed.
For the past few decades, Mr. Miller has been part of a mammoth effort to clean the windows, many of them covered with centuries of grime, and restore them to their original state.
It is a slow, laborious, expensive process, little expedited by the finicky wheels of the French bureaucracy, but the end result is nothing less than spectacular. To date, 44 windows have been restored, at a cost of more than $80,000 per window.
In the year 2000, the Northern Rose Window, restored at cost of $1.4 million, was returned to the cathedral after having been out for three years.
Having arrived in Chartres in the late 1950s to research a paper about the cathedral's crypt, Mr. Miller began giving tours of the edifice to supplement his income. "Americans mostly came by boat. It tended to be the rich," he recalls.
In 1966, Mr. Miller was hospitalized in Britain for six months with a serious illness that required several operations. Defying his surgeon's advice, he returned to Chartres the following year. "I was very moved when I saw the cathedral. Then I decided: This is where I want to live."
Since then, he has guided tours of the church for luminaries such as Henry Kissinger during the secret Paris negotiations with the Vietnamese in 1973, as well as countless presidents and kings.
Nowadays, during the summer, when France is awash with tourist buses crisscrossing the country, his groups can swell to a hundred people, and he has resorted to collecting his fee of $8 per person up front, mindful of his meager student days and wistful of the irony.
"Now don't go away telling people that you've seen Chartres Cathedral in one hour and a quarter. You can't do that, you see. Promise me that you will come back, and I will promise you that I'll be here until Judgment Day," Mr. Miller declares at the end of his tours, before returning home to his apartment just across the square.
Many people do come back, and Mr. Miller has even received letters from visitors who say they regained their religious faith after a visit to Chartres.


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