By Florence Hallett
When in 2014, six stained glass windows were removed from Canterbury cathedral to star in an exhibition at the Getty Museum, California and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, it seemed that the Rubicon had been crossed. As the Met boasted in its exhibition publicity, this was the first time that the windows had left the cathedral precincts in their 850-year history; now, they were not only to be removed, but removed far away and subjected to the extreme risk of air transportation.
In the past, various circumstances have led to the temporary removal of stained glass, with routine cleaning and maintenance the most common cause, followed by war and conflict. During the Reformation and the English Civil War and more recently during the Second World War, glass was, on occasion, removed and stored to protect it from danger.
This is of course, fundamentally different to removing glass in order to put it on display in museums thousands of miles away and thousands of miles apart. The glass at Canterbury, made by men alive at the time of Thomas Becket’s death in 1170, had seemed as immovable as the cathedral itself, a building old enough to have more in common with the rivers and hills than the relative transience of bricks and mortar. It is fair to say that the very fact of their transatlantic tour has changed the character of these windows irrevocably.
Art up in the air
Some 20 months ago, as the Canterbury glass touched down in New York from the Getty in California, we asked how in the middle of the one of the worst years in aviation history the Met could be confident of the safety of air transportation [How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures]. As we begin 2016 fresh with the news of recent air disasters, aeroplanes have not seemed more dangerous in decades – indeed, on February 15th this year, the Art Newspaper reported that American Airlines and seven others are being sued over damage to a Lucio Fontana sculpture when it was flown from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.
And yet, preparations are underway for another cargo of stained glass to take to the skies, as windows removed as part of the controversial, wholesale restoration of Chartres cathedral form the centrepiece of an exhibition originally scheduled for 2016, but currently postponed, to be hosted by an as yet undisclosed US museum.
As at Canterbury, the removal of the Chartres glass for restoration has been taken as a convenient opportunity to send it overseas. Where we speculated as to whether the Church had received any payment for the loan of the Canterbury windows (a question to which we still do not have a definitive answer), in the case of Chartres, just such a transaction is known to have taken place.
A fund-raising quid pro quo
While the cost of the controversial repainting of the cathedral’s interior has been met by the French state and donors including Crédit Agricole, Caisse Val de France et Fondation, and MMA assurances, the restoration of the cathedral’s famous glass has been funded in part by the American Friends of Chartres (AFC), an organisation that works “to raise awareness in the United States of Chartres Cathedral and its unique history, sculpture, stained glass, and architecture and their conservation needs”.
Based in Washington, the AFC has ambitious plans to fund the restoration of the cathedral’s windows and sculptures. In 2013 it announced on its own site, and via the crowdfunding website razoo.com, that in return for funding the restoration of the Bakers’ Window (two lancets and a rose in the nave), the 13th-century glass would travel to a US museum. Indeed, the still extant webpage makes explicit the nature of the exchange, proclaiming:
“American Friends of Chartres INVITES YOU to Restore and Bring to the United States a 13th-Century Stained Glass Window for Museum Exhibit
WELCOME TO AMERICAN FRIENDS OF CHARTRES’ UNPRECENTED [sic] PROJECT: THE RESTORATION OF A MEDIEVAL STAINED GLASS WINDOW FOR EXHIBIT IN AMERICA.”
In appealing to members of the public to donate to the project, the AFC invokes American efforts to save Chartres from destruction during World War Two, treating the fundraising project as the corollary of the cathedral’s status as “a wonderful testimony to the friendship between the French and American people. The French people honor every year the memory of the Americans who contributed to saving the cathedral from destruction at the end of WWII.” But why, if the AFC is so concerned for the welfare of the cathedral, must the glass be removed from the building, and subjected to a transatlantic tour?
Speaking to French Morning in 2014 about the plans to exhibit the windows in the US, Dominique Lallement, the president of the AFC said: “The lancet windows measure more than 6 meters in height, which means there will have to be a structure built similar to the cathedral to accommodate them.” Given the success of the Canterbury exhibition, which represented a huge coup for the Met, already notorious for its ability to secure rare loans from reluctant lenders, the Chartres exhibition is likely to be equally high-profile, on a scale indicated by the planned construction of a special display area within some as yet un-chosen or unannounced venue.
A “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”
Perhaps the significance and sensitivity of the deal were indicated by the official reaction to architecture critic Martin Filler’s heartfelt but thoughtful attack on the repainting of the cathedral interior. In his blog on the New York Review of Books website, Filler expressed shock at the “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”, and accused the French government of breaching the international rules of conservation established in the 1964 Charter of Venice.
As Filler’s article spread around the internet, those in charge of the restoration were notable for their silence. Patrice Calvel, the architect who oversaw the project prior to his retirement over three years ago was high-handed in his dismissal of Filler, saying that he had never heard of him. He had previously refused to respond to a highly critical report in Le Figaro, telling the Guardian that its author Adrien Goetz “has no competence in this matter.”
From the horse’s mouth…
Less reticent than the architects and restorers, however, was Caroline Berthod-Bonnet, who at the time was head of fundraising at Chartres, but has since left the role. Speaking to the Guardian in response to Filler’s blog she asked: “What will be the effect on our sister organisation in the United States, which is raising money to restore stained glass windows to be displayed in the US?”
By highlighting the link between the restoration project as a whole and the loan of the glass to the US, Berthod-Bonnet’s comment cut to the heart of the matter, but without providing any plausible justification for so rash and ill-advised an operation. In fact, the only extended defence of the repainting project has come from Professors Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, American academics and members of the AFC’s advisory panel, the organisation masterminding the loan of the glass to the US. Responding to Martin Filler via the New York Review of Books website, they adopted a tone of weary condescension, describing Filler as “well-meaning but also misinformed”, conjuring up a picture of a hopelessly deluded aesthete, clinging to a romantic but impossible vision of glorious decay.
Revelations beyond restorations and recreations
Professor Hamburger has been a loyal supporter of the Chartres restorers, writing a second defence of the project for Apollo last April, in which he argued that “The restoration of the false masonry proved more of a revelation than a restoration, let alone a recreation”. Either naive or a wilfully blinkered interpretation of the flimsy evidence produced in support of the work, Hamburger’s statement ignores the complexities of the material evidence that exists while also dismissing out of hand the ethical, philosophical and aesthetic problems this project presents.
Hamburger and Caviness are keen to put distance between the deal struck in relation to the windows and the restoration project overall, but the relationship between glass and masonry is so thoroughly entwined, on every level, that they are not entirely convincing. Stained glass is such an intrinsic and essential aspect of any Gothic building, as exemplified at Chartres, that common sense dictates that any programme of cleaning and restoration must take into consideration both elements.
Accordingly, the rationale put forward by Hamburger and Caviness in support of the restoration hangs on the relationship between glass and masonry, and they insist that: “Combined with the restoration of the windows, the restoration of the original color scheme in fact enhances the perception of color in the windows.” In both intellectual and practical terms, the projects to repaint the masonry and to clean the windows are mutually and irrevocably dependent.
Such interdependency seems also to extend to the fundraising projects relating to Chartres. In their response to Martin Filler, Hamburger and Caviness emphasised that the AFC “raises funds only for the restoration of the windows” but fail to explain the function of this arbitrary divide. Dominique Lallement, president of the AFC, told us: “To the best of my knowledge, no donor to American Friends of Chartres is supporting other aspects of the restoration”. But records of donations made to the cathedral’s funding organisations over the past five or six years suggest that there has been overlap between the funding of different aspects of the restoration. In addition, there seems to have been professional overlaps among key players.
The Revelation Brokers
Both the president of the AFC, and its former vice-president, the late Pierre Louis-Roederer, are listed as donors to Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde (CSM), AFC’s sister organisation. In addition, the president of CSM, Servane de Layre-Mathéus is an honorary member of the Board of Trustees at the AFC, a position which affords no voting rights. Today, CSM raises money for the restoration, principally, of stained-glass windows but has also funded work on the organ, the steps to the high altar and the liturgical furniture in the choir and has a more general role in co-ordinating fundraising efforts made on behalf of the cathedral.
While recent fundraising efforts have focused on the restoration of the glass, in the lifetime of the current programme of works its scope has been broader. Indeed, CSM newsletters of March 2008 and February 2009 explain that in addition to financing the restoration of stained-glass windows, it contributed the full cost of a trial restoration of the Chapel of the Apostles (the axis chapel). This trial, completed in 2009, involved the application of a latex peel to reveal “the traces of old polychrome decorations” beneath layers of dirt. The 2008 newsletter anticipates that “The experience gained from these important preliminary works should enable the Monuments Historiques division of the Ministry of Culture to undertake the far more ambitious program of restoration of the vaulting of the nave.”
Asked to what extent donors to AFC are also involved in funding other areas of the project, Dominique Lallement said: “our fundraising activities are totally separate, as well as the use of our funds. To the best of my knowledge, CSM is also working only on the restoration of the stained-glass windows. CSM finances a percentage of the restoration costs of certain windows, and AFC finances other windows. Thus, for our first project, AFC financed 50% of the restoration costs of the 5 lancets of the South Portal, and the French Government financed the other 50%. For our second project, AFC finances 100% of the restoration costs of Bay 140, the Bakers’ Window.” While both CSM and AFC now confine their activities to the glass, CSM’s funding of a trial that informed the restoration overall, seen in light of the close working relationship between the two organisations, and the crossover of personnel, surely undermines the rather curious attempts to separate the work on the windows from the project as a whole.
Just as the French restorers have failed to respond to criticisms regarding the treatment of the cathedral’s walls, AFC have adopted a similar approach when it comes to sharing information on the cleaning and restoration of the windows. When we asked AFC to supply us with high-resolution files of their photographs showing the removal of the Bakers’ Window in Bay 140, Craig Kuehl of the AFC replied: “Before we provide the photos, we’d like to see your draft article, especially the references to the photos. Otherwise we can’t give the authorization.”
As advisors to the AFC, Hamburger and Caviness’s defence of the restoration programme clearly cannot be separated from the AFC’s prestigious and lucrative coup to bring the glass to the USA. The anxiety expressed above by chief Chartres fundraiser Catherine Berthod-Bonnet, seems astute in hindsight, having anticipated the wider consequences that such negative publicity could bring to the entire project – a project that, in truth, extended far beyond the cathedral itself and into an intended commercial deal with an American museum.
A petition demanding an immediate halt to the restoration work was started in the autumn by American student Stefan Evans and has attracted such high-profile signatories as Professor Sophie Guillouet, an art historian at the University of Rouen.
Watchdogs that Don’t Bite
The petition argues that the 1964 Charter of Venice – a document setting out internationally agreed principles for the care and restoration of ancient buildings – has been breached, and makes particular reference to articles 3 and 6. Article 3 stipulates that “The intention of conserving and restoring monuments is to safeguard them no less as works of art than as historical evidence”, a guideline that would seem to have been compromised at Chartres not just because distinctions between building phases have been muddied, but also because evidence of 800 years of aging has been removed.
Article 6 states that: “The conservation of a monument implies preserving a setting which is not out of scale. Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and colour must be allowed.” Critics argue that current interventions alter the relation of mass and colour fundamentally, and indeed, it could be argued that this is outcome is in fact the primary objective of the project.
In addition, article 11 appears to address the specific actions taken at Chartres, and emphasises the importance of seeking expert opinions beyond that of the person in charge of the project: “The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration. When a building includes the superimposed work of different periods, the revealing of the underlying state can only be justified in exceptional circumstances and when what is removed is of little interest and the material which is brought to light is of great historical, archaeological or aesthetic value, and its state of preservation good enough to justify the action. Evaluation of the importance of the elements involved and the decision as to what may be destroyed cannot rest solely on the individual in charge of the work.”
Given the concerns about the Chartres project raised by experts from around the world, the onus would seem to be on ICOMOS to investigate allegations of such a serious breach or breaches of the very charter that serves as the foundations for the organisation’s existence. But as the charter makes clear that each country is responsible “for applying the plan within the framework of its own culture and traditions” there is little prospect of any meaningful intervention from ICOMOS.
The plight of Chartres is further highlighted by the case of a member of the public who petitioned the European Parliament in 2013, demanding an immediate stop to the restoration at Chartres. A document issued on 31 January 2014, states “The European Union’s competence in the field of cultural heritage is limited.” Despite co-funding the restoration of Chartres, “the Commission cannot interfere in the way national cultural heritage is protected.” The petitioner, an Italian named Marta Mariani, was told that responsibility for the project lies with the French government and the regional prefecture. As neither international outrage nor a petition have so far elicited anything more than disdain from the French authorities, it is clear that no institution has either the teeth or the will to act.
STOP PRESS: At 17.33 today, in answer to an email of 14 February, Florence Hallett was notified by the American Friends of Chartres that:
“The exhibit of Bay 140 which had been envisaged will not take place because of cost reasons. And, to answer your question, of course all the proper authorizations from the French Ministry of Culture and other authorities had been secured by the DRAC-Centre Val de Loire, which had been nominated by the Ministry of Culture to execute the project. All the arrangements for the exhibit of Bay 140 would have been contractually arranged between the DRAC on behalf of the French authorities and the cultural institution that would have exhibited the window. American Friends of Chartres would not have been part of these contractual arrangements.”
Florence Hallett is architecture and monuments correspondent at AWUK and visual arts editor at theartsdesk.com
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