Chartres Cathedral Make-Work Scheme
A Columbia University trained architectural historian, Martin Filler, has reported (A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres) his great shock when visiting Chartres Cathedral to discover that:
“In 2009, amid a rising wave of other refurbishments of medieval buildings, the French Ministry of Culture’s Monuments Historiques division embarked on a drastic, $18.5 million overhaul of the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral. Though little is specifically known about the church’s original appearance—despite small traces of pigment at many points throughout the interior stonework—the project’s leaders, apparently with the full support of the French state, have 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.”
Filler (correctly) notes 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.”
At Chartres, although the interior had initially been painted, Filler further notes that:
“…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.”
Shocking though the case is it is no aberration. To the contrary, it is part of a well-established mania for the execution of aggressively radical transformations of world heritage buildings, the most dramatic of which was the notorious so-called restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes in the 1980s. In his New York Review blog, Martin Filler maintains – despite all criticisms and evidence – that the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling did no harm and he declares that “in the opinion of many, myself included, the ultimate emergence of characteristically high-keyed Mannerist colors—acidulous pinks, greens, yellows, and oranges—from beneath the Sistine ceiling’s long-predominant blues and browns confirmed the project’s correctness”. (For the material and historic evidence of injuries published on this site, see Michelangelo’s disintegrating frescoes)
At St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the opposite process to that underway at Chartres was executed. Here, parts of the original painted interior applied by Sir Christopher Wren had survived and their pigments had been analyzed. It was known that Wren had applied three coats of oil paint to produce a uniformly warm not-white, not bare-stone finish. The cathedral’s present architect surveyor, Martin Stancliffe, harboured a modernist infatuation with dazzling white interiors and, accordingly, he stripped St Paul’s of the last vestiges of its original painted interior surfaces. Having done so, he then greatly increased the amount of artificial light to heighten the effects of his own historical falsification. See our accounts:
Concern on the repainting of the Chartres Cathedral was first raised in the Spectator on 12 May 2012 (Restoration tragedy ~ Alasdair Palmer questions the ill-conceived makeover of Chartres cathedral which robs us of the sense of passing time that is part of its fascination and mystery). The contempt for history in Grandiose Conservation Projects is as much a constant as their high costs. Against the estimated $18.5m at Chartres the whitening at St Paul’s Cathedral (inside and out) cost £40m.
Self-evidently, major transforming restorations serve substantial vested material and professional purposes. They also take place in economic and cultural climates. The now long-running attempt to create a United States of Europe is an economically and politically failing enterprise. As manufacturing jobs flee the continent and democratically elected governments are replaced by bureaucrats, make-work schemes in the cultural sector are finding great favour as a means to stimulate compensatory economic growth. Not only do such grand and labour intensive restoration schemes make jobs for their duration, they stimulate tourism which is now one of the world’s greatest industries.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (See the future of tourism), the UN’s World Tourism Organisation reckons that, by 2020, the number of travelling tourists will approach 1.6 billion, double the number who packed their bags this year. Those directly employed by tourism worldwide will rise from 238 million this year to 296 million, or one in every 10.8 jobs, by 2018. The USA will build 720,000 new hotel rooms over the next ten years, and a further 432,000 will be built in Asia over the same period. In this respect, we discussed the pressures to create blockbuster exhibitions and increase the velocity of borrowing and lending works of art by disregarding the known risks in two posts in 2011:
In 2001 we complained of the role being played by heritage bodies in stimulating tourism with recreations of long-lost historic interiors – see:
In addition to boosting tourist revenues, another benefit of major restoration projects is that they continue to make work further work down the line. At Chartres, the interior was untreated for 800 years but its new and speculative livery will rapidly go dingy and need re-doing every twenty or so years. As we have recently seen, within twenty years at the Sistine chapel, urgent restoration measures have been carried out (in part in secret) because Michelangelo’s frescoes are physically disintegrating following the destruction-by-restoration of his final coat of secco painting. As for the resulting over-bright “restored” colours, to compensate for their already fading appearance, a new, immensely brighter artificial lighting system (with thousands of LED lights) has been installed. As the great “conservation” merry-go-round goes round, lightening, brightening, physically undermining and aesthetically falsifying, it is becoming increasingly necessary for those concerned for the integrity of our common artistic heritage to join the dots and to “follow the money”.
M. D. 15 December 2014
Above, top: Chartres Cathedral, with repainted vaulting in the choir contrasting with the existing nave and transepts in the foreground, Chartres, France, July 11, 2012
Above: The ambulatory of Chartres Cathedral, with repainted vaulting visible (right), July 11, 2012
Photographs by courtesy of Hubert Fanthomme/Getty Images. For more photographs and for treatment of statuary, see Art History News
UPDATES: 16 December 2014. The painter and former Rhodes Scholar Edmund Rucinski writes:
This even further compounds the damage done during the horrid “restoration” of the stained glass. Instead of doing the proper thing and sandwiching the original glass between protective layers of modern clear glass and re-leading the windows, the original glass was impregnated with some acrylic which filled in all the tiny irregularities that gave the original glass its famous quality.
Bear in mind that the leading naturally deteriorates and needs to be re done every so often (like replacing deteriorated stonework)…..so none (if any) of the original medieval leading is there anyway.
The result of the glass ‘restoration’ was to give the appearance of a garish plastic reproduction of the originals. This impregnation with the offending plastic may never be able to be reversed.
Fortunately, I managed to see Chartres before the vile attack on the windows. [See below]
For a grossly irresponsible and exploitative treatment of glass from Canterbury Cathedral, see How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures viz:
“An exhibition of stained glass that has been removed from “England’s historic Canterbury Cathedral” has arrived at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, after being shown at the Getty Museum in California. The show (“Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters”) is comprised of six whole windows from the clerestory of the cathedral’s choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. These single monumental seated figures anticipate in their grandeur and gravity the prophets depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They are the only surviving parts of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, once one of the most comprehensive stained-glass cycles known in art history.”