The Restoration of Chartres Cathedral

Looking back at the controversy over the restoration of Chartres cathedral, and a look at some commentary available on-line: an article in the Spectator in 2012 by Alasdair Palmer (, a blog by Martin Filler in the New York Review of books blog on December 14 (, and a response to Filler by Madeline Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger on December 17 (

The critics seem to have a point. The essence of Caviness and Hamburger’s defence is that:

‘Careful archaeological work, beginning with that conducted as early as the 1980s by the German scholar Jürgen Michler, has demonstrated beyond doubt that the church’s interior originally was painted in a light ochre, with regular false masonry added in white, which often bears little resemblance to the coursing of the underlying ashlar masonry. The current restoration adheres religiously to this scheme.’

It is striking the way these scholars seem to deliberately miss the point of the criticism: that this is a restoration, and that the plan is to restore it to its ‘original state’ as revealed by recent research. Such restorations went out with the ark. It is what William Morris and the SPAB were objecting to a century and a half ago, when they effectively founded the modern conservation debate. And in any case ‘recent research’ will one day turn out to be wrong, and the building will have been irrevocably changed.

Filler is right to contrast this with the Sistine Ceiling debate, which was a debate about a cleaning, not a restoration. Evidently there is much cleaning-off of the grime of centuries involved here, which is fine, and the head of the restoration project makes much rhetorical noise by referring to the use of vacuum cleaners to do this, saying that they are just doing a vacuum cleaning. But this is disingenuous, since the criticism is directed at a global repainting with modern paint of a scheme lost for centuries. Admittedly, there have been a few quite interesting recreations (for that is what this seems to be) of medieval interiors in some English castles, but these are in what were effectively dead spaces of little interest today, and serve to liven up a dull space and make an interesting didactic point. But such a didactic point at Chartres could have been made with a demonstration sample.

In all this there is little mention on the pro side of a rationale for such restorations. For example, it was normal for Japanese timber temples to be rebuilt on a regular basis in the same form: no concern with the sacredness of original aged materials there. Closer to home one of the critics cites, negatively, the practice of the parishioners of Bavarian parish churches of repainting the interiors of their rococo churches in a horrible pink. But perhaps that pink is the way they were originally, and this is really just regular maintenance of the paintwork. The pro case presented here is essentially that it ‘gives us the cathedral as it would have been experienced by a 13th century pilgrim’. Palmer presents the best arguments for why this is a bizarre and irrational aim. In the case of Chartres one cannot set aside the 800 years of its history, a history that includes a culture of reverence for ancient surfaces, by creating a sudden discontinuity. This is effectively an act like the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan: an explicit attempt to obliterate the ideology that the monument stands for, and replace it with another. ( I don’t mean a religious ideology, but a conservation one.)

It is not simply rhetorical to liken this to turning Chartres into a theme park. It is essentially the same ideology as the recreated Venice of Las Vegas: if you recreate the forms, in modern materials (and in that case, on another continent), you have brought with you all that is essential to the original. But this is an extraordinarily limited ideology, one that ignores the sheer complexity of historical artifacts, both physical—sometimes one can write a book about a tiny irregularity in the surface of a piece of stone in some forgotten corner of a building—and cultural—every action that took place there, and everything anyone has ever thought about concerning it, becomes part of it, and you tamper with this at your peril. To be sure, this argument was also much aired in relation to the Sistine Ceiling: ‘I remember it is as dark and shadowed, and my cultural memory has been disrupted by the cleaning; therefore it is a bad thing to do.’ But the upside there was that the cleaning revealed what had been hidden: the true colours of the fresco that were sitting there all the time under the grime. In this case, nothing is revealed: instead, a particular vision of what a limited aspect of the building might have been like once is imposed on the building. But that is what digital recreations are for: if I want to get a sense of what it might have been like once upon a time, I would rather see the movie.

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Comment, Restoration and Conservation, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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