Before the birth of our Saviour, circa 5 B.C., the image of Our Lady of Chartres (and, according to some sources, perhaps even earlier, at around 100 B.C.), a statue of Mary seated on a throne and holding a child on her knees, was carved in a forest in the midst of the plains of La Beauce, by order of Priscus, king of the people of Chartres, the Carnuti tribe. Julius Cesar’s account “On the War of the Gauls” (De Bello Gallico) mentions that once a year all the Druids of Gaul (modern day France) would gather there, to decide disputes and hold religious celebrations. The Druids are said to have worshipped in a cave in this location, and it is said that the sculpture on the altar of their shrine was the one dedicated to the "Matri Futurae Dei Nascituri." This old tradition is supported by the discovery of druidic artefacts and religious emblems during restoration after the ravages of the Second World War.
According to the old story, the Druids heard of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (Is. 7:14). They instinctively knew that this would be the one true God who would prove their old gods to be mere idols, and so they ordered a statue of this unknown virgin and child to be sculpted and placed on the altar.
This image was set up afterwards with the inscription “Virgini pariturae” — that is “The Virgin who is to bring forth” — in the same place where it is seen at the present day. There are still some surviving old references this “small black immemorial image”, which was apparently pre-Christian in both appearance and origin. The ancient statue of the Virgin Mary was famously described by the celebrated art historian Pintard in 1681:
“The Virgin sits on a chair, her Son sits on her knees and He gives the sign of blessing with His right hand. In His left hand He holds an orb. He is bare-headed and His hair is quite short. He wears a close-fitting robe girdled with a belt. His face, hands and feet are bare and they are of a shining grey-ebony colour. The Virgin is dressed in an antique mantle in the shape of a chasuble. Her face is oval, of perfect construction, and of the same shining black colour. Her crown is very plain, only the top being decorated with flowers and small leaves. Her chair is one foot wide with four parts hallowed out at the back and carved. The statue is twenty-nine inches tall.”
Today's Our Lady of the Under Ground, or Notre Dame Sous Terre, statue is a replica of the old Madonna, the original one having been destroyed during the chaos following the French Revolution.
St Potentianus, second Bishop of Sens, whom the Apostle St Peter had sent into France, stopped at Chartres where he blessed this image, and dedicated the cavern as a church in the Year of Our Lord 46 AD (Sebastian Rouillard, Parthen; c. iv. n. 1). The first Christian church on the site was made of wood.
With its special Black Madonna, Chartres became one of the most important cathedrals of the Middle Ages, as a locus of eastern and western Christian unity.
While an earlier church was replaced in 1020 by Gothic edifice; the original crypt and underground grotto were preserved.
The enthusiasm of which Notre-Dame of Chartres became the object is attested by the "Poème des Miracles" (1210), published by Antoine Thomas, and by Jean le Marchand's poem of 1262. The consecration of the cathedral occurred in 1260, and St. Louis attended the ceremony. The stained glass windows date back to the thirteenth century, and are the finest in the world, containing 3889 figures. The upper windows were presented by St. Louis, and St. Ferdinand and Queen Blanche of Castile. The porches and windows represent in magnificent symbolism the glorification of Mary.
In 1322, Pope John XXII declared that Chartres was the oldest church in all of France: “Accepted that the Benevolent Virgin, mother of God, had chosen for her venerable temple, when she lived among men, the church of Chartres.”
Among the pilgrims who came to Chartres history mentions St. Louis who, in order to reach there, travelled seven leagues on foot; Philip the Fair; Charles the Fair; Philip of Valois; John the Good who went there three times and left his pilgrim's staff, which has become the bâton cantoral of the Chapter; Charles V who went thither twice barefooted; Louis XI; Henry III who made eighteen pilgrimages; Henry IV who was crowned there on 27 February, 1594; Louis XIV and Popes Pascal II, Innocent II, and Alexander III. There are also records of pilgrimages by several English monarchs: Matilda, Richard I and Edward III. More recent pligrims have included Napoléon III, Charles de Gaulle, Péguy and Huysmans. The object of this pilgrimage is threefold -to venerate:
- the statue of Notre-Dame-sous-Terre, inaugurated in 1857, and modelled after the old statue burned in 1793, being therefore a reproduction of the figure honoured by the Druids. Devotions are held in the Carolingian crypt which is the largest in France, and the site of the MSM's canonical erection;
- the "Vierge Noire de Notre-Dame-du Pilier" (Black Virgin) in the upper church, which the MSM are honored to carry in its procession through the streets of Chartres every August 15th during the Feast of the Assumption; and
- the "Voile de la Vierge" (Veil of the Blessed Virgin) or "Sancta Camisa", given to Charlemagne by Constantine Porphyrogenitus and Irene, transferred about 876 by Charles the Bald from Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) to Chartres, and raised as a standard in 911 by Gantelme, the bishop, to put to flight the Norman Rollo. In 1360 Edward III of England, and in 1591 Henry Henry IV of France, passed reverently beneath the reliquary containing this veil, which the MSM are proud to be the honor guard of every August 15th during the Feast of the Assumption.