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Chartres - Techniques of Concealment

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

Chartres from the garden behind. A flat façade masks jumbles of buttresses, shadow, and light, mazes of passages and openings to nowhere in particular. (Photo by author, 2018)


In passing, a tour guide advised visitors to note the statue of Modesta, the fourth-century woman who had converted to Christianity in defiance of her father, according to Chartres’ lore. Though Modesta can also be seen elsewhere in the cathedral’s stained glass, her gothic statue on the north façade shows her with her right hand opened and her palm held out, effacing, exposed to an unrepresented other – a gesture of acceptance, the tour guide informs. Other figures take up this posture in the cathedral’s stained glass – Mary at the annunciation. Noah, too, when God commands him to build an arc.

I wonder what kind of a yielding to the will of another this gesture entails. If it discloses acceptance, it could just as well be read as a plea to stop. “Too much.” “Enough!” “Okay, I’ll do it.” Or, the hand upheld reflexively to block a blow. A retort to the unbearable, to a relentless other whose demand doesn’t slack.

Modesta’s hand is upheld to the other, but her face is turned away.

Her yielding was one toward death. As a punishment, Modesta’s father, the pagan governor Quirinus, had her killed, thrown into a well. Covered over and concealed for centuries, perhaps due to its pre-Christian associations, the well, more than thirty meters deep, was only unearthed in the early twentieth century. Its top is circular, symbolizing the heavenly, but, visitors can make out that the dark water at its bottom shimmers in a square, associated with the earthly, its corners pointing in the four cardinal directions.

Modesta’s will was tethered to another other’s dogged call. The well as discussed in Chartres’ lore, transforms the father’s punishment into a feeble act of desperation, a fragile attempt to retrieve ownership of the will of a daughter which had already been lost, as well as a case of mistaken valuation germane to the idolatrous and pagan in Christian discourse. (The father’s pagan interpretation of Modesta’s conversion transforms it into an identity that can be put on or taken off, adopted or disavowed, rather than as a symptom that cannot be given up.)

“Call no one on earth your father.” The lesson here is that the father’s knowledge pales in comparison to Modesta’s terrible experience of truth – palm opened, face turned away.


If prayer is a “tree of gestures,”[1] this movement – hand upheld and effacing -- inspires a mapping of the vicissitudes (turns, changes, from the Latin vicissim, by turns) of Christian spiritual life, which always entail conversion (turning about).

Visitors to Chartres turn about in its labyrinth – exposed only for several hours on summer Fridays, when the chairs that usually cover the tiles marking its path are removed. When it’s busy, visitors cross, bump, act impatient. The path is narrow, and potential brushes of shoulders have to be accommodated by shifting slightly out of the way, or with little turns and adjustments. To this end, one poster erected around the labyrinth instructs visitors in its proper use in different languages. The English reads,

Warning! Never consider the labyrinth either as a game, nor as a selfish exercise. Walk it sensibly, slowly, without stopping, and with awareness of others.

At one point, a young boy crosses into the labyrinth to pull his mother out. A man walking behind me is impatient, asks a companion upon entering if he should be wearing shoes, when he sees others’ feet bare on the path. By contrast, the man in front of me seems serious, determined to walk the path meditatively, but a woman keeps crossing into the labyrinth, pretending to walk its path near him, so she can touch him – put an arm around his torso for a moment and then continue pretending to tread the lines, occasionally crossing in and out for a quick dose of contact. He might stop for a quick moment to accept her gestures of affection, but still walks on.

When I return in the afternoon, things are quieter. But one woman walks the path very slowly. This creates a sort of traffic jam, with several people caught up behind her, and, at the same time, her own little labyrinth training school, with the people behind her – maybe initially caught up or annoyed – learning how the labyrinth “should” be walked, with what speed and what decorum. She stops for a long time before she reaches the center, spends only a few moments there, then wanders back out with more speed, her face quietly teary.

It's hard to know whether what is enjoyed is an internal experience that could be hard to articulate, or whether covering up and shrouding that experience itself might give some enjoyment too, or maybe both.


Another woman walked the labyrinth with Modesta’s gesture with her palm upheld, her eyes almost closed and her face zen-like, without any trace of affect.

The labyrinth is the habitat of the dawdler. The path followed by someone reluctant to reach his goal easily becomes labyrinthine. A drive, in the stages leading to its satisfaction, acts likewise. But so, too, does a humanity (a class) which does not want to know where its destiny is taking it.[2]

The labyrinth is an exercise to forestall satisfaction and completion. A series of enfolded pathways accentuate the center, once marked by large brass or copper plaque depicting an image of a minotaur, it was melted during the French Revolution. The center now appears as an otherwise unremarkable spot in the middle of the floor of the church, if not for its embellishment by the labyrinth’s patterning.

If the OED defines forestall as to “prevent or obstruct (an anticipated event or action) by taking advance action,” the etymology it provides is more illuminating, pointing not just to prevention or obstruction of an anticipated act, but to possibility of future profit, to an economy wherein value accrues through blockage and delay:

Old English forestall 'an ambush' (see fore- and stall). As a verb the earliest sense (Middle English) was 'intercept and buy up goods before they reach the market, so as to raise the price' (formerly an offence).

Subject to the playful twists and turns of the drive, mystical arrivals accrue value through their thwarting, delay, and never-complete obstruction. Still, hints of a spiritual experience slip through, indexed in little signs – an unmoved face wet with tears, the performance of some effort to “keep it together” and to shroud felt-intensities.[3]

The relic-gift that made the space we now call Notre-Dame de Chartres possible was a veil that Mary was said to have worn during the torture and crucifixion of her son. This shroud was the authorization and catalyst for Chartres’ multiple constructions, rebuildings, embellishings over millennia and amid destruction, decay, and ruination, soot and plaque encroaching inside and out. Rend during the Revolution, two remaining pieces survive, housed in large golden reliquaries and confined behind thick iron bars.

Like the layered turns of the labyrinth, or the hand upheld in acceptance as the face turns away, veils have been used both to embellish what is concealed, or (as in the case of perversion) to seize upon the object of concealment (rather than the object being concealed) as itself as a source of gratification that one can possess and enjoy. Modesty, embedded as it is in the name Modesta, entails the power and pleasures of concealment, sometimes associated with spiritual affects – modest, stoic faces wet with tears.

A reliquary containing a piece of the veil behind thick, iron, interlaced bars, shaped like crosses. (Photo by author, 2018)

[1] Michel de Certreau, “Cet arbre des gestes,” in La Faiblesse de croire (Paris: Seuil, 2003).

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Central Park,” in Selected Writings, 1938-1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 171. Benjamin continues, “If it is imagination that presents correspondences to the memory, it is thinking that consecrates allegories to it. Memory brings about the convergence of imagination and thought.”

[3] “An index is a sign which would, at once, lose the character which makes it a sign if its object were removed, but would not lose that character if there were not interpretant. Such, for instance, is the piece of mould with a bullet-hole in it as a sign of a shot; for without the shot there would have been no hole; but there is a hole there, whether anybody has the sense to attribute it to a shot or not.” Charles S. Peirce, Philosophical Writings of Peirce, edited by Justus Buchler (Dover, 1986), 104.

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