Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017
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Reading Chartres

France’s medieval masterpiece is an open book for the Brit who’s led tours for 50 years

In April 2008, Malcolm Miller, an urbane and scholarly Englishman, celebrated 50 years of telling the story of one of Western civilization’s sublime achievements to enthralled audiences from around the world. In the process, he has been knighted twice by the French government and become something of a legend.

Malcolm Miller first came to Chartres in 1956 as a student from Britain’s Durham University, and, by the end of his exchange year, he had become captivated by the medieval cathedral. After completing his studies, Miller returned to Chartres to teach at a local school. But he couldn’t stay away from the cathedral and, in 1958, became its first authorized English guide. In 1970, Miller bought a 15th-century house in the old town and since then has devoted his life to interpreting the cathedral to visitors.

Miller’s feel for the cathedral’s moods and mysteries is visceral as well as intellectual, and his daily talks blend scholarship and humour. “Cathedrals can be read like books,” says Miller. “Many of them have pages missing, but here at Chartres the text is still almost complete in medieval stained glass and sculpture from the 12th and 13th centuries.” The windows and sculpture describe the history of the world, as it was perceived in the Middle Ages, from the Creation to the Last Judgement.

Miller’s book analogy is particularly apt. In the absence of printing, medieval worshippers could neither read nor write, but they could readily understand the “text” of Biblical stories told in stained-glass windows. Painstakingly removed during both 20th-century World Wars, the windows of Chartres are an incomparable display of medieval genius.

The windows also provide a fascinating glimpse of everyday medieval life through the “commercials” of the window donors. The Noah Window was given by the carpenters, wheelwrights and coopers, and the bottom panels of their window show them at their crafts. Other guilds appearing at their trade include apothecaries, blacksmiths, fishmongers and butchers. In the bottom corner of the Good Samaritan and Adam and Eve Window, shoemakers are even shown offering a stained-glass window to the cathedral.

Malcolm Miller’s love and knowledge of the cathedral are matchless, and he touches the emotions of all who listen to his talks — whether they are religious or not. With children, he likens the windows to the world’s biggest comic book. He also says “I am still learning about this amazing building. I do not know when I go to the cathedral what I shall speak about. I always ask my groups if anyone has been with me before, then I show different things.”

Nowadays, a white-haired Miller, dressed immaculately in blazer and university tie, equips his audience with digital headsets. During an hour’s performance — and that’s what it is — Miller might “read” no more than a single window and an exterior portal, but he brings the cathedral alive in an unforgettable way. Sitting with his back to the Jesse Window, he explains that medieval windows were read from the bottom up and from left to right. In precise, measured tones, Miller then proceeds to relate, panel by panel, the story of the rod of Jesse as told in exquisitely luminous ruby and cobalt blue glass.

All too soon, the tour is over, but Malcolm Miller always asks his visitors to return. “I’ll be here until Judgement Day,” he declares. But he will not be there for ever. So if you are planning to be in Paris this year, take a day out of your trip. Forget the decadence of Versailles, hop on a train to Chartres, then walk up to the cathedral. If you are very lucky, Malcolm Miller will be there waiting for you — and you will never look at a cathedral in the same way again.

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