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Restoration Scandal At Chartres Cathedral

Who was it that said one look at Chartres Cathedral turned him into an art historian? Or art-lover for life? Henry Adams? Bernard Berenson? I can’t remember, but it was probably more than one person. Kenneth Clark called it “one of the two most beautiful covered spaces in the world” (Hagia Sophia in Istanbul being the other).

Chartres-cathedral-restorations_jpg_250x600_q85Maybe not anymore. Hear what Martin Filler, writing on the website of The New York Review of Books, has to say after a recent visit:

Carried away by the splendors of the moment, I did not initially realize that something was very wrong. I had noticed the floor-to-ceiling scrim-covered scaffolding near the crossing of the nave and transepts, but had assumed it was routine maintenance. But my more attentive wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter—who as a Columbia doctoral candidate took courses on Romanesque sculpture with the legendary Meyer Schapiro and Gothic architecture with the great medievalist Robert Branner—immediately noticed that large areas of the sanctuary’s deep gray limestone surface had been painted.

The first portion she pointed out was a pale ochre wall patterned with thin, perpendicular white lines mimicking mortar between masonry blocks. Looking upward we then saw panels of blue faux marbre, high above them gilded column capitals and bosses (the ornamental knobs where vault ribs intersect), and, nearby, floor-to-ceiling piers covered in glossy yellow trompe l’oeil marbling, like some funeral parlor in Little Italy.

I haven’t seen this first-hand, obviously, but it sounds like a mess. Take a look at the top photo–that’s what is underway. I couldn’t find an exact parallel picture on the web (though there may well be one), so I posted something similar from Chartres.

What is this impulse to make everything new–even if it is a wrong-headed attempt to restore to the original? I’m not against conservation by any means, but this one does surely seem wrong.

I also agree with another of Filler’s points: “why had we heard nothing about [this] before?” It is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Where was the French press? Where was the European art press? Or did they cover it, and we missed it?

Filler says this effort dates to 2009, when the French culture ministry set out to “do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state. This sweeping program to “reclaim” Chartres from its allegedly anachronistic gloom is supposed to be completed in 2017.”

chartres-cathedral-view-from-labyrinthHere’s what’s wrong with that:

The belief that a heavy-duty reworking can allow us see the cathedral as its makers did is not only magical thinking but also a foolhardy concept that makes authentic artifacts look fake. To cite only one obvious solecism, the artificial lighting inside the present-day cathedral—which no one has suggested removing—already makes the interiors far brighter than they were during the Middle Ages, and thus we can be sure that the painted walls look nothing like they would have before the advent of electricity.

Furthermore, the exact chemical components of the medieval pigments remain unknown. The original paint is thought to have flaked off within a few generations and not been replaced, so for most of the building’s eight-century history it has not been experienced with painted surfaces. The emerging color scheme now allows a direct, and deeply disheartening, before-and-after comparison.

He has many more details, disheartening ones, plus another picture or two of the repainted areas.

But, alas, this seems unstoppable. If you have not already been to Chartres, and luckily I have, it may be too late.



  1. Josh Reynolds says

    God help us! Please!

  2. Traditionalist says

    This is appalling and atrocious–beyond words. Have we completely lost any sense of elegy, any appreciation for the fact that this ancient space inspired poets for centuries in part because of its evidence of age? Do we really want bored housewives like the two in the American Friends of Chartres video spearheading campaigns in Europe that transform our cultural heritage? They glowingly talk of plans to bring a priceless window from Chartres across the Atlantic to put on display in an American Museum. Is the entertainment value of this proposal really worth the risks involved in the transport? Does it make curatorial sense to take a Chartres window out of its architectural context?

    Why do we insist on ransacking the past for pet projects? People are searching voraciously for something to focus on. Maybe the limitations of our electronic culture are manifesting themselves in this way. However, these campaigns to update everything cultural to meet contemporary taste levels are misguided to the point of vandalism. The transformations of cultural institutions like museums, libraries, universities, etc. and of historic monuments like Chartres that we are witnessing–led by well-intentioned populists–is equivalent to the tasteless transformations we are seeing in lovely established neighborhoods, where uncultured people move in, cut down all the trees, bloat the house into a vulgar McMansion, and pour concrete around the formerly green plot they’ve purchased.

    It’s all just a general dumbing down and an erasure of everything those of the past achieved. We will be left with no subtlety whatsoever. Crass is the name of today’s game.

  3. On the other hand, of course, the advent of those little lenses that we hold in front of our eyes dates from after the completion of the Cathedral. So we get rid of the modern lighting, and to be truly authentic in our appreciation of art from before, say, 1400 when glasses first appear, we should walk in with our natural, flawed vision and take our chances. No. Better to see what the artists intended. After all, to achieve the detailing of mortar and faux marble and all, the artists back in 1200 must have worked by candle- or torch-light, not in the deep Cathedral shadows that I remember from visits over the past decades. So to see what they had in mind inside as well as outside, more light! And remember, much of the charm of Notre Dame de Paris is 19th century kitsch after the depredations of the beloved Revolution!
    Now lets paint the outside of Chartres!

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