Chartres Cathedral and Imagery of the Sacred Feminine
Rev. Karen Tate
Author of "Sacred Places of Goddess: 108 Destinations"
"Walking an Ancient Path"
Despite the pressures from the patriarchy, and the infliction of the Inquisition, which decimated many of those in Europe
who lived close to Goddess and her gifts, the Sacred Feminine endured in quiet confidence, even if she was sometimes shrouded. The
new regime of Christianity, no matter how hard they tried, could not completely obliterate the people’s love and
desire for the natural feminine principle that Goddess provided. She survived in the metaphoric underground, behind the
veil of the Black Madonna, in the guise of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, all of whom have sacred sites which dot
the countryside in France. Through the lens of sacred travel to such hallowed ground, this time to Chartres Cathedral,
an hours train ride outside Paris, untold herstory becomes quite clear.
Chartres Cathedral, like many other such gothic structures that sprung up in the Middle Ages can be seen as dedicated to
Goddess in the form of “Our Lady,” the Virgin Mary, hence Notre Dame. As such we can clearly see how
the baton was passed from both Isis and Artemis of the Ephesians, both predecessors of Mary and called “Our Lady,”
to the mother of Christ. Within these structures we see the reflection of the essence of the Divine Feminine incorporated
within the sacred geometry of the architecture, carvings, and stained glass, all created by the sweat and determination of
humankind who venerated her. Features within these cathedrals, namely the almond-shaped lancet windows and arches, are
often believed to represent female anatomy or genitalia. Roses, bees, and wheat, common in imagery on stained glass windows,
also are symbolism rooted in Goddess worship. Interestingly, the Church itself was referred to in feminine terms, and
her congregation oftentimes viewed as the Bride of Christ. One wonders, would the Jesus of Gnostic texts, he an advocate of
the feminine and viewed by many as being within a lineage of consorts of Goddess, if he would recognize most of what has become
the dogma associated with the Kingdom he preached about?
Chartres Cathedral and Imagery of the Sacred Feminine
Encapsulated within Chartres Cathedral are a plethora of features and concepts personifying the Feminine Divine like no
other single structure. The very site on which this current cathedral stands, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, has for millennia
been a sacred place of the Earth Mother. First called Carnute, Druids were believed to have worshiped here in the sacred grove,
practicing their skills of divination and related esoteric powers at the holy well, in close communion with Mother Nature.
It is said the local tribes worshiped the Goddess here and whose image was one that depicted her giving birth. Later, as was
the case with so many sacred pagan sites, the area was chosen as the location for a grand Christian structure.
A Romanesque cathedral was first begun here in 1020, but was subsequently destroyed by fire in 1194. Of this structure,
only the west front, the south tower, and crypt survived. Curiously, of all the sacred treasures stored within this wealthy
church, the only piece to survive was the Veil of the Virgin. A Gothic cathedral soon rose upon the ashes of the previous
church, completed in just 25 years, in 1250 CE.
Pressured to adopt Christianity, those venerating Goddess at Chartres simply began to call her by a different name, the
Virgin Mary, recognizing her as one and the same. According to authors Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson, Catholic officials
actually devised a term for images of Mary previous to Mary’s birth called “prefigurations of the Virgin.” Though
not the intent of the Church, this certainly suggests another method by which assimilation of the Goddess and Mary occured.
Called by many the greatest of the French Gothic cathedrals, Chartres’ powerful allure speaks to the faithful who
have always been drawn here. Beloved scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell is noted to have commented on the huge impact
this sacred site rendered on his psyche. Besides its hallowed location, the vast collection of Goddess imagery within includes
two Black Virgins, the tunic of the Virgin Mary, the aforementioned sacred well, the labyrinth upon the floor, sacred geometry,
feminine architecture, and the famous rose stained glass windows.
Beginning below the structure and working up, the large underground crypt is part of the original pagan shrine that was
on the site from earliest times. The largest crypt in France includes two galleries running side by side and Saint Lubin’s
vault, dating to the ninth century. One finds the sacred well, named Saints-Forts, directly beneath the church nave, and where
the original statue of the Mother Goddess giving birth, renamed Our Lady Underground, or Notre Dame de Sous-terre, was kept.
It is believed the original statue was destroyed during the French Revolution and a replica replaces it in the crypt today.
It was carved of dark brown wood in Romanesque style which classifies her as a Black Madonna. She is placed upon the altar
of the Chapel of our Lady of the Crypt, another of her epithets. When traveling to Chartres Cathedral, tours are given of
the crypt, but like in so many places sacred to the Divine Feminine, do not expect the traditional tour guides to focus much
on pagan religious history, particularly that of Goddess, in any detail, if at all.
Moving inside the church one finds the other Black Virgin, Notre Dame de Pilier, referring to the 10-foot (3-m) pilier,
or pillar, on which she stands, though some say it is a reference to the pillar that once stood in the Temple of Solomon in
Jerusalem. She is just one of the many Black Madonnas, or Black Virgins, which are found throughout Europe. Other important
Black Madonnas are found throughout Europe, including in LePuy, France and Montserrat, Spain.
These black or brown-skinned images are important within Goddess Spirituality, because these figures of madonna and child
are believed to show continuity between the pagan Goddess with the Virgin Mary - and through Mary, the Goddess remained
in the spiritual and public lives of the people. Just as with the aforementioned early tribes, and as we see repeated over
and over from place to place, many contemporary Goddess advocates see little to no difference between Mary and Goddess.
In fact, many even embrace Jesus as the son of the Goddess, adding another layer of assimilation between the iconography of
the enthroned Egyptian Goddess Isis who holds her son, Horus, upon her lap, exactly as Mary holds Christ. To some, Jesus
is easily assimilated in the figure of Horus, just as Jesus has been called the son of Sophia. It should be no surprise then,
that some of these Black Virgins have been found to retain beneath their surface layer of paint, the name of Isis. Readers
should also remember other similarities between Mary with the Goddesses, Cybele and Isis, namely, they were all called
“Queen of Heaven,” and conceived their sons by other than natural means.
When Church officials are asked about the dark skin of these Madonnas, images seemingly considered a thorn in the side
of the Church, they sometimes make the absurd reference to the statues being dark due to the soot from candle smoke, never
admitting association with Goddess. No feasible explanation is given as to why only the skin is dark and not the clothing
on the images. This author can attest to being at the Vatican and asking about Black Madonna imagery only to have the
Church representative roll her eyes in disgust and me away as if the inquiries were certainly a nuisance.
Other aspects of Black Madonnas that seem to be common are similar elements of their history. Some of these statues
just miraculously “appeared” to fishermen and farmers. Others say these dark skinned statues came back with soldiers
who had been on the Crusades. Theories proliferate regarding the darkness of her skin, with some scholars citing the Black
and Brown Madonnas as originating from Africa, or with the darker skinned Isis and Artemis.
Practitioners of Goddess Spirituality often identify her darkness as a metaphor for the identity of the Goddess being “veiled”
behind the guise of Mary. Some cite her darkness as representative of the Gnosticism and alchemy she embodied, or the “dark
unfathomable depths of knowing” which is Wisdom or Sophia. Scholar Margaret Starbird, when speaking of Chartres, notes
it became a “center of enlightenment, the seat of a cult of Maria-Sophia, a goddess of wisdom.” The darkness
of these madonnas might even be synonymous with her chthonic powers of regeneration. Her darkness is also related to Mary
Magdalene and the Grail lore which has taken hold in popular culture.
Whatever the specific source of her darkness, and there were no doubt many, there was a resurgence of interest and devotion
in the Feminine which accounts for all the madonnas and cathedrals established during the Medieval period. Humankind
simply would not be denied their mother. Pilgrimages to these images of the Divine Feminine became all the rage, and
cathedrals built in her name became the focus of master craftsmen such as the Templars and Freemasons who employed the aforementioned
elements of sacred geometry within the architecture of these sacred structures.
Another of these architectural elements is the spire which has been associated with the sun and moon which is seen by some
to combine the masculine and feminine in balance. This cosmological connection was often positioned within sacred geometry,
ascribing to a delicate balance and harmony, not to mention an order of heavenly bodies. Starbird believes the Knights of
the Temple, or Knights Templar, were behind the design and construction of Chartres as they attempted to restore the feminine
principle in Medieval society. She states the Templars, “had access to the exoteric wisdom of the classical world, perhaps
preserved in Islamic sources that members of the order encountered in the Middle East. Their knowledge of mathematics and
engineering gave birth to the Gothic style of architecture, which spread almost overnight, as if by prior plan, across the
face of Europe during the period from 1130 to 1250.” She states the guild who built Chartres were named the Children
of Solomon, a direct reference to the King of Jerusalem, thought to have written the Song of Solomon, a metaphor for the “sacred
marriage.” Interestingly, she tells of medieval gypsies who believed the Notre Dame cathedrals of northern France were
situated to form a mirror image of the constellation Virgo. It should be noted, that until the time of the Inquisition, the
ancient arts and sciences of astrology, alchemy, mysticism, and psychology flourished within cathedral architecture and popular
More imagery in which the Sacred Feminine lives within Chartres are the depictions of the Virgin in stained glass, including
the rose windows associated with Mary Magdalene and the Grail myths. The lancet windows of Chartres are sometimes believed
to be representative of the female vulva as the womb of birth and regeneration. The tunic and girdle, thought to be that of
the Virgin Mary, have long been kept here as objects of veneration for thousands of medieval pilgrims. According to Elinor
Gadon, Mary was wearing the tunic when Gabriel told her she would bear God’s child, and the girdle was believed to have
dropped to Earth from her body as she ascended to heaven at the Assumption.
While sculptures around the cathedral are replete with imagery related to Mary and Mary Magdalene, the final aspect
of Chartres to be covered herein is the 11-circuit labyrinth inlaid on the floor of the church. It measures 42 feet (13 m)
wide and is said to be the same dimension as the aforementioned rose window. While labyrinths were a common element of medieval
churches, this particular one is unique to herstory, having at the center a brass plaque depicting a rose with figures of
Theseus, the Minotaur and Ariadne, all associated with Goddess and/or mythology of Minoan Crete. The word labyrinth,
which means “House of the Double Ax,” comes directly from the word labrys, which is the sacred double-sided ax
of the Minoans in Crete.
According to the traditional Church dogma, a labyrinth either represented a pilgrim’s journey to Jerusalem and
back again, or the Way of the Cross. It was used by Christians as a tool of penance with pilgrims expected to follow
the path on their knees. It should be noted that labyrinths, which are similar in form to swastikas, have pre-Christian roots
which may have symbolized an inner journey, or a return to rebirth. It is no surprise then this labyrinth in Chartres
cathedral shows Ariadne leading Theseus from the labyrinth, an act which Goddess advocates believe in itself is a metaphor
Other thoughts on labyrinths: They might be likened to the symbolic meaning of the kiva of the Native Americans, also a
place of rebirth. Further, unlike a maze, one cannot get lost in a labyrinth as there is only one way in and out. It
might also symbolizes one’s journey into the otherworld where one might commune with the Divine. It is a meditative
tool, helping one to become centered. The symbol of the labyrinth is spiral-like and as such is reminiscent of the spirals
on the Neolithic sites of Newgrange and Malta, indicative of the concepts of death and rebirth. The “in-and-out”
movement one experiences while walking a labyrinth have been adopted into spiral dances which practitioners of Goddess Spirituality
often incorporate into rituals and celebrations. Interestingly, the labyrinth is said to have marked the gate of the Sybil
of Cumae, an oracle similar to those of Delphi and Didyma. In pagan tradition this was an entry to the underworld, but in
Christian context, it became the door to Hell.
It might certainly be said that Chartres, for so long a repository of the many faces of the sacred feminine, is like the
deep well of birth and rebirth that reflects the spirituality of Goddess herself.
About the Author
For over two decades, Karen's work has been fueled by her intense interest and passion for travel, comparative religions,
ancient cultures, and Goddess Spirituality. A prolific writer, published author, and tour organizer, Karen's most recent
published work blends her experiences of women-centered multiculturalism evident in archaeology, anthropology and mythology
with her unique literary talents and travel experience throughout the world to pen Sacred Places of Goddess: 108 Destinations.
Her second book Walking an Ancient Path, a guide toward mainstreaming Goddess, will be available in bookstores June
2008. Tate's work has been highlighted in the Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers. She lectures and appears
before local spiritual congregations regularly, as well as being interviewed on radio and television. Tours to sacred
places of Goddess in France and Turkey are planned for 2008. For more information, please go to www.karentate.com
You may learn more about the work of Karen Tate by using the links provided below:
Voices of the Sacred Feminine Internet Radio
http://www.karentat e.com/Tate/ radio_show. html
Sacred Sundays Begin Again January 2008
http://www.karentat e.com/Tate/ sacred_sundays. html
Tours of the Sacred Feminine coming in 2008:
PARIS - May 2008 or Two weeks in TURKEY - October 2008