Unworldly splendour

The medieval cathedrals of France were an attempt to re-create the mind of God

When I was ten, my mother packed my two siblings and me into our creaking Renault 4 and took us on a drive across France. The trip's primary purpose was didactic: we were to be inducted into the country's architectural glories, and in particular its Gothic cathedrals. This being France, however, food inevitably played a prominent role. Aided by The Michelin Guide, my mother picked out restaurants for us to stop at en route. She must have chosen well, because I'm ashamed to say that, of these two aspects of the journey - the cultural and the culinary - it is only the latter that etched itself on my memory.

Twenty years later, I remain as partial to French food as ever, but I have come to regret the lack of attention I paid to the cathedrals. It was largely in the hope of making up for this failing that I recently hatched the idea of another French road trip. This time culinary distractions would be kept to a minimum. I would stick rigidly to my purpose, which was to arrive at an appreciation of the beauty and majesty of Gothic architecture. And my chaperone would be not my mother, but my girlfriend, whose many merits include owning an open-top car.

We set off one afternoon during May's short-lived heatwave and took the car tunnel from Folkestone to Calais. Our first target was Rouen in Normandy, which we reached around noon the next day. Rouen Cathedral is very big - it rears up almost comically over the buildings that surround it - and it is, from the outside, a bit of a mess. Over the centuries, lots of extra bits have been grafted on to its 13th-century frame. These include an extravagantly lacy, 15th-century "Butter Tower" and a 19th-century cast-iron spire, which Flaubert said looked as if it had been designed by a whimsical boilermaker.

This riotous exterior, however, merely serves to make entering the cathedral more dramatic. Stepping through its portals, you feel as if you have been cast from the confusion of daily life into a realm of miraculous order. My first impression of the interior was a view down one of the side aisles, which extend past the transept (the cross section of the main body of the building) to the far end, nearly 300 metres away. It is a staggering sight, one that was replicated, on a much larger scale, when I crossed into the nave. Structural repetition of this kind occurs frequently in Gothic architecture - it is one of the style's defining features. This got me wondering: could it be that the master builders of the Middle Ages, when dreaming up their projects, had in mind an eternal cathedral, a fantasy of endless pillars and arcades, of rib-vaulted aisles stretching into infinity? I don't think such a notion is entirely fanciful. One of the purposes of these buildings was to offer to the faithful a glimpse of the divine order. In a sense, what their architects were trying to inscribe in stone was nothing less than the mind of God.

From Rouen we headed along the coast to the small town of Coutances, in west Normandy. The cathedral there is not particularly famous, but it has a serene beauty. Its interior is deliciously airy. The pillars - or piers - glide upwards, seemingly in defiance of gravity, and light floods in through the lantern tower high above the crossing. The building is also a sort of riddle: encased within its 13th-century Gothic structure is a Romanesque church, preserved intact. So brilliant is the concealment that you can only catch glimpses of the Romanesque brickwork through the triforium (the small arches above the arcades).

The next and final stop on our tour was Chartres, in the Île-de-France. Chartres is the one cathedral with real box-office appeal; it is to the Gothic what the Sistine chapel is to the Renaissance. The reasons for this aren't hard to fathom. It has two knockout features. The three main porches are festooned with a dazzling array of sculptures, ranging from outsized represen tations of patriarchs and saints to minuscule depictions of buildings and animals. And inside are 28,000 square feet of stained glass.

In The Story of Art, E H Gombrich describes Gothic cathedrals as "buildings of stone and glass such as the world had never seen before". Entering the murky interior of Chartres, you know exactly what he means. The 700-year-old windows gleam out from a sea of black, their colours extraordinarily vivid. Most spectacular of all is the gigantic rose window in the facade, depicting the Last Judgement.

Chartres is often held up as a kind of ur-cathedral; it is seen as embodying the Gothic style and, indeed, the entire medieval world-view. This is the assumption, for example, of Philip Ball's fascinating new book, Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind (Bodley Head, £20). But my visit left me feeling that, in one sense, Chartres is actually rather un-Gothic.

One of the hallmarks of this style is weightlessness. Structures are designed in such a way as to conceal their load-bearing points. Gravity is dispersed throughout the edifice. Yet that is not quite the case with Chartres. While it has all the standard Gothic features (pointed arches, flying buttresses, and so on), it also has an undeniably earthbound quality; there is something hulking and monumental about it. It strikes me that this sense of simultaneously embodying its period while at the same time standing outside it may be at the root of the mystique that Chartres has acquired.

After three days considering such matters (and, it must be admitted, some pretty decent meals), we were transported back to England by means of that very modern feat of engineering - the Channel Tunnel. I felt that I had achieved my purpose of gaining an understanding of the Gothic, but I also came away feeling that cathedrals should not have too many concepts and technical words thrown at them. In the end, the most fitting attitude to adopt in the face of their unworldly splendour is one of hushed awe.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug