A visit to Chartres Cathedral, located about 80 kilometres from Paris, can be a confounding experience.
The contrasting spires are impressive. So are those soaring stone buttresses. And the glowing stained glass windows - in cobalt blues and ruby reds - inspire a sense of awe. But making sense of it all? For that you need Malcolm Miller.
Born in England, Miller came to Chartres as a university exchange student in the 1950s and couldn't quite get it out of his system. So he bought a house in the old town and became the cathedral's first authorized English guide. Since then, he has been knighted twice by the French government - and next month he celebrates 50 years of telling the church's story.
"Cathedrals can be read like books," he says. "Many of them have pages missing, but here at Chartres the text is still almost complete in medieval stained glass and sculpture of the 12th and 13th centuries."
The stained-glass windows of Chartres recount the history of the world - from Creation to the Last Judgment - as it was understood in the Middle Ages. Most medieval worshippers could neither read nor write, but they could easily understand biblical "texts" told in stained glass.
The windows also provide a fascinating glimpse of everyday life in panels that Miller describes as "commercials" for donors. The Noah window, for example, was paid for by the carpenters, wheelwrights and coopers, so panels show them at their crafts. Other guilds appearing at their trade include apothecaries, fishmongers and butchers. And shoemakers are even shown offering a stained-glass window to the cathedral.
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 - and he always asks his visitors to return. "I'll be here until Judgment Day," he declares.
Still, he may not be around quite that long. So if you are in Paris, forget the tiresome decadence of Versailles. Hop on a train to Chartres at Gare Montparnasse and walk up to the cathedral. If you're lucky, Miller will be there waiting for you - and you'll understand the cathedral in a whole new way.
In high season, Malcolm Miller gives English-language tours
Monday to Saturday (except during special services) at 12 and 2:45 p.m. In the off-season, he also offers one daily tour at noon. Tours are $16. For more information, call 33 237 28 15.
What sorts of stories do the stained glass windows at Chartres tell?
Let Malcolm Miller explain some of the panels on the Good Samaritan and Adam and Eve window - one of his favourites. It combines the parable of the Good Samaritan with the narrative of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve.
"The lower half of the window tells the parable in a straightforward way," he says, "while the upper half shows scenes from the Book of Genesis related to the interpretation of the “parable."
The numbered panels (right) match up with Miller's descriptions below (1-6):
1. "This is a rare medieval depiction of God in human form breathing life into Adam's open mouth. In that age, God would more often be shown in a more abstract way - usually as fingers under a cloud."
2. "Here, Adam is alone and naked in the Garden of Eden - or Salem, which means 'peace.' So we have two Salems: the Garden of Eden as Paradise Lost and the Heavenly Jeru-Salem, which can also be read as Paradise Regained."
3. "In this remarkable panel, God has caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam as he gently draws Eve from Adam's chest. God supports Eve's head with one hand while his other grips her arm. And look at how the two naked figures of Adam and Eve seem to merge into one"
4. "In this panel, a stern-faced God points his finger at the forbidden fruit while the tempting serpent twists around the trunk of the tree towards Adam and Eve. The pair huddle together with Eve's hand outstretched. This is the scriptural definition as the Bible makes no mention of apples."
5. "Adam has done it. He's taken a bite of the forbidden fruit and it's stuck in his throat. In one of the sculptures outside the cathedral, as in this window, Adam is shown holding his neck with one hand - hence the origin of the Adam's apple. There's actually a medieval pun here: When used as an adjective the Latin word 'malus' means 'evil,' but when used as a noun it means 'apple.' "
6. "God scolds Adam and Eve and expels them from Paradise. Condemned to work as set out in the Book of Genesis, Adam digs while Eve sits behind him spinning."
7. This particular stain glass window, the Good Samaritan and Adam and Eve window, was donated by the local shoe makers guild between 1210 and 1240, and their representation is shown in the bottom panel