Mary’s dress – Medieval Chartres

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A linen cloth inside a glass case: Mary's tunic

Mary’s tunic, preserved in a glass case in the treasury of Chartres cathedral in France

Romantic story of Mary’s dress

According to a popular story, about 800 ADIrene, the Empress of the Roman Empire in Eastern Europe and West Asia, wanted to become more friendly with Charlemagne, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe.

Read more about Irene
Read more about Charlemagne

By making an alliance, they could both be more powerful (They were even thinking of marrying each other).

Irene wanted to give Charlemagne a really impressive present. So she sent him a great treasure – the silk robe (or dress) that Mary was wearing when she gave birth to the baby Jesus.

Charles the Bald (painted during his lifetime)

Charles the Bald (painted during his lifetime)

Now the real facts behind the story

Sadly, this cloth probably wasn’t really sent by Irene.

More likely, Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald, bought the tunic somewhere. Nobody knows where it was before Charles the Bald. Weaving experts think the cloth was probably made around the time of Charles the Bald, so probably it was new cloth when he bought it, and not more than 800 years old as he thought. (But see below for some other ideas.)

Read more about the Carolingians

Mary’s dress in Chartres Cathedral

Charles the Bald gave the dress to Chartres Cathedral around 850 AD for safekeeping, and it has been there ever since. Thousands of Christian people came every year on pilgrimage to Chartres to see Mary’s dress and pray to Mary there.

The dress survives a fire

When the old cathedral – with a wooden roof – burned in 1194 AD, people were horrified to think that the holy dress – the Camisa Sancta – had burned up with it. Three days later, when the building was finally cool enough to go in, the priest ventured in and found that the tunic – in the basement – hadn’t burned after all! And there was much rejoicing.

Read more about the fire at Chartres

Mary’s dress and the French Revolution

The people of Chartres rebuilt their cathedral bigger and better, all in stone, and they kept Mary’s dress safe there for another six hundred years, until the French Revolution in 1792. The Revolution was determined to break the power of religion in France, and revolutionaries broke open the gold case and took the dress.

Read more about the French Revolution

After the Revolution, in the 1800s, pieces of the dress were returned to Chartres, and put back into their case, where they still are, today.

So was Mary’s dress the real deal?

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that there are at least two points in this story where the real dress could have been destroyed and replaced with a different dress:

First, after the fire of 1194. Did the original dress burn up in the fire and get replaced by the priests who didn’t want to admit that their famous treasure had burned up?

And second, after the French Revolution. Again, did the original dress (or its replacement from 1194) get destroyed in the Revolution and get replaced with another piece of very old cloth? There’s really no way to tell now.

Do people still worship Mary’s dress today?

Yes, thousands of people still come to Chartres today to pray at a place they feel has such a strong connection to Mary.

More about Chartres Cathedral

Bibliography and further reading about Chartres:

Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction, by David Macaulay (1981). Beautiful drawings and clear text explain exactly how medieval craftsmen built a cathedral, from foundation to the stained glass windows. Easy reading.

Chartres cathedral
Pilgrimages
Medieval religion
Medieval Europe
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By |2018-09-01T06:36:45+00:00August 4th, 2017|History|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Mary’s dress – Medieval Chartres. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 4, 2017. Web. October 23, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

2 Comments

  1. George ellias August 30, 2018 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    Another fake relic like the shroud of turin!

    • Karen Carr September 1, 2018 at 6:29 am

      Yes, pretty much, though earlier than the Shroud of Turin. Maybe that’s what gave Turin the idea!

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