One does not like to use the word “rape” carelessly in rhetoric. But what is going on at perhaps the finest-preserved ensemble of medieval cathedral art in the world deserves it. In the classical sense of the word, rapere, as in abductions by Zeus, Our Lady of Chartres is being stolen from us by the megalomania of a self-deceived cabal, and its interior being replaced with a gaudy pastiche.
There has been a lot of discussion of the quite drastic change to the largely 13th-century interior of Chartres Cathedral in the press, most notably Martin Filler’s all-out attack in the NY Review of Books, and a subsequent rebuttal by esteemed art historians Jeffrey Hamburger and Madeline Caviness. Also worth reading is this piece from the New York Times.
Anyway, this is my blog, not a historically detached analysis or summation of the controversy in the press. This is my personal reaction after my first visit to the cathedral in June 2016. I went with an open mind – there is a chance I could have liked it – and actually I surprised myself with how much I despised it.
There is quite an aggressive tone to the rebuttals to accusations of destruction of the historical record, and the defence is often patronising. We critics are blinded by our adherence to a “modernist aesthetic” in our appreciation of bare stone. They are merely “restoring” (whether this means revealing or reapplying is never really consistent) the false-masonry pattern that the “original creators” envisaged. But, not surprisingly behind this absolutist, almost Trumpist defence, seems to be deeply deceitful, and flagrantly violating the 1962 Venice Charter on art restoration. But most of all they’ve also deceived themselves in thinking what they’ve done to Chartres Cathedral is not a horrible, horrible thing.
Firstly, they have restored a number of areas of the Cathedral to schemes of totally different dates. The first thing that sticks out in the restoration is the east end. You very rarely, if ever, see the interior of the apse of Chartres in Gothic textbooks, even though, liturgically, it was the most important part. Surveys of architecture nearly always have the elevation of the nave as a metonym of the whole building. This is because the presbytery arcades were recut for a Counter-Reformation sanctuary: still pointed but with classical soffit decoration instead of mouldings, and diamonds at the apex of the arch. The sanctuary is, to paraphrase Pugin, decked out with furniture like the saloon of a hotel. It’s quite a shock, but now that all the 18thc polychrome has been restored, it’s a particularly striking blot on the building. The spandrels are pale blue, which is tolerable, but the piers are painted in a faux-marble tiger-stripe pattern. The effect is more like a whore’s boudoir than the sanctuary of Our Lady Immaculate. Of course it should not be ironed out, but this re-vivifying of its colours make it unduly prominent in an extremely important Gothic building where it is, undeniably, not the main attraction.
There are a number of exposed parts of wall painting throughout the Cathedral that don’t fit with the “religiously adhered-to” (that choice of words was so deeply ironic) scheme. The current line seems to be “we’re deciding what to do with it”. Put more false-masonry over it, I bet, for the skewed idea that a cathedral should have all superficial inconsistencies ironed out into a single purity of conception. Where there was formerly bricolage, there shall be naught but bricks.
The other thing is that a lot of the new brick-pattern is clearly painted free-hand and looks rubbish. Every time I’ve seen genuine medieval false masonry it’s so straight it’s clearly been painted with the use of plumb lines and taut horizontal string. All in all, the main point is that the restoration isn’t unnecessary, it’s just not being executed well. It’s sloppy. It’s inconsistent. And it just doesn’t look that good. If you go to the other end of town, you find St Pierre, a fantastic church in its own right. And in its ambulatory it has the remains of medieval paint. Yes, you can imagine it greatly transforming conception of the architecture, but you can see it was painted well. It is forgotten that medieval polychrome was done with all the same subtlety as we expect from the stone underneath. When repainting Chartres, they may have the right ideas, but they don’t have the skill. They’re rushing it, and making a pig’s ear as they go.
If they want to restore Chartres to how it was, then you’d need to put back the altars, statues, candles, a whole chapter of canons, chantry chapels, gleaming reliquaries, chanted Latin, incense and turn it back into the machine d’prier that it was built as. Why re-polychrome the architecture, if you aren’t redoing the statues of choir screen? And the statues of the portals? And building the seven further spires they obviously would have put on if they had the money in the Middle Ages? It ends up not “restoring” any previous state, but instead just being just another unique stage in the building’s history – but one that has destroyed a great deal of evidence, and most importantly, looks like crap.
I don’t doubt that under the grime there was a lot of original decoration to be found. No doubt it needed a clean. But the supremacist, absolutist, heavy-handed way it’s been done, without communication with the wider scholarly community has been lacking. To nearly everyone outside of the immediate team, it’s a shocking surprise quite how far it has gone. It’s a unique experience for a medieval cathedral: nothing feels old, nothing feels real. Rather than engagement, discourse and debate, the restoration team are on constant defence of their drastic alteration of the appearance of a monument that before could easily vie for a place in any modern-planet Earth Seven Wonders. Perhaps then they would realise the problem isn’t with us and our blinkered aesthetics, it’s them and their folly of trying to make a 800-year-old interior “good as new” again in a way no one has ever tried before. One day this foolish “restoration” will be scaled back in its effect. But it would have been better if they’d just done it well time round.