Monday, December 22, 2014

On the Restoration of Chartres Cathedral - Guest Article by Mr Lucas Viar

My thanks to an old friend, Mr Lucas Viar Basterra, for providing us with this assessment of the on-going restoration of the cathedral of Chartres, and critique of some of the controversies related to it. Mr Viar was born in Houston, Texas, but has lived most of his life in Bilbao, Spain. After studying architecture in San Sebastián, and Restoration and Sacred art at La Sapienza in Rome, he has worked for the Municipal Museums of Florence and the Spanish Cultural Heritage Institute. He is currently starting his own firm. 

photo from 
Many NLM readers will be familiar with the cathedral of Chartres as the destination of the Péle, the Pentecost pilgrimage organized by Notre-Dame de Chrétienté (Our Lady of Christendom). Every year several thousand Catholics from all over the world walk together the 60 miles that separate Paris from Chartres. The cathedral can be seen from miles around, like a beacon rising from the rolling green fields of the landscape. It is truly a breathtaking sight.

The great cathedral at Chartres is not only an important Catholic centre for France, It is also one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture. Chartres defines the archetype of what a Gothic cathedral should be. It’s proportions, arches, stained glass windows, spires, sculptures, are what all other Gothic churches in France are measured against.

The building has had a fortunately uneventful history. It survived the French Revolution almost unscathed, when churches such as Notre-Dame de Paris were plundered, vandalized or repurposed. It was also heroically saved from bombing during World War II by an American Army Officer. This makes the cathedral of Chartres one of the best preserved 13th century Gothic churches in France.

The vaults before restoration. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert
Too often we are saddened by reports of the demolition of beautiful churches, but here I am pleased to discuss the efforts that are being made to help this wonderful monument to our faith survive for another eight centuries. In 2009, the French government, which has owned the building since the Revolution, embarked on a massive restoration campaign. The works have been scheduled to last for a decade and cost over 20 million euros. The vast majority of the work is being carried out on the interior of the cathedral, and includes the restoration of the spectacular stained glass windows.

Everybody seems very happy to see the windows cleaned and restored, but another side of this restoration is proving to be more controversial. I am referring to the alleged “repainting” of the vaults, pillars and walls of the church. The fact that the interiors of medieval churches were commonly plastered and painted seems to be something new and somewhat uncomfortable to some in the art history community, not unlike the idea that Greek sculptures were vividly colored. In 1989 the first findings of mural painting at Chartres were published, and an extensive sampling campaign conducted in 1994 determined that around 80% of the interior surface of the church had preserved its 13th-century decoration.

The original decoration emerges during the cleaning process.
The design painted on the vaults and walls of the cathedral was a simple one, a light ochre background over which lines were painted in white to simulate masonry. One of reasons medieval builders did this was to cover up any irregularities or faults in the actual stonework, and give the interior a tidy, continuous finish, with an appearance of strength and quality. Over time, this first rendering was darkened by dust, soot and grime. With the passing of the centuries the walls and vaults were whitewashed to give the interior a cleaner look. These washes were fairly thin, and so with time, the lines beneath them started to appear. This factor, coupled with more soot and grime, made the visitor believe that what he was seeing was actual stone.

The aim of the restoration in progress is to uncover these original decorations. I believe that most specialists agree that 13th-century mural decorations have the same historic importance as 13th century stained glass. Therefore, I find that the effort to clean, consolidate and preserve them very laudable. A short video published by the French Ministry of Culture shows different stages of the restoration process. At 00:36, we can see how the painted decoration appears miraculously when the grime is removed with a brush. Other parts need to be painstakingly cleaned with a scalpel. The parts where the 13th century rendering has been lost are repainted in imitation of the original, a process is known as reintegration. Today, halfway through the project, we can see side by side the before and after states of the nave.

The vaults of the sanctuary, ambulatory and choir have been cleaned and reintegrated, while the rest of the nave remains a dark grimy gray. The contrast is enormous. Restoration has also concluded on the 18th century decorations of the sanctuary, including gilding and faux marble.

The nave and the restored sanctuary. Photo by Marianne Casamance
At this point, enter the art critics: The Spectator’s Alasdair Palmer a couple of years ago, Le Figaro’s Adrien Goetz, and last week Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books. They use words such as tragedy, disgrace, sacrilege or scandalous makeover. I find the latest of these critic articles, that by Mr. Filler, particularly aggressive.

As an architect specialized in heritage restoration, I feel a strong empathy towards the people behind the restoration at Chartres. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Prof. Anne Vuillemard-Jenn. The subject was historic mural painting in French Gothic churches, among them, Chartres.

Everybody is entitled to an opinion, and, in the case of these gentlemen, it’s the way they make their living. I would certainly not argue against criticism towards some of the criteria applied in Chartres. For example, one could argue endlessly on the manner and degree in which the walls were cleaned, or on if they should have reintegrated the missing parts using a muted color instead of reproducing the masonry motif, or if the vision of the stained glass has been distorted by a too bright interior.

Mr Filler, fueled by the feeling of disappointment during his last visit, accuses the team lead by Frédéric Didier, of repainting the cathedral in what he terms “garish”colors. He doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that what we see today has been there for the past 800 years. He is keen on the idea that what he saw when he last visited Chartres 30 years ago was not an accumulation of grime and soot over this decorations, but actual stone.

In an attempt to discredit the professional capabilities of the project’s director, Didier, he brings up a previous project, the Sanctuary of the Sacred Heart at Paray-le-Monial. This church, where St Margaret Mary of Alacoque had her famous visions, had underwent a very aggressive renovation during the first half of the 20th century, when all the walls were scraped to bring out the stone. The project, directed by Didier, who according to Mr. Filler “wrecked” the church, included the rendering of the bare stone walls in white and ochre, colors close to the few original remains left.

The article in the New York Review was almost immediately answered by two renowned scholars, Madeline Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger. As members of the American Friends of Chartres advisory board they have had a very detailed knowledge of what has been done there, and in their response they politely point out the article’s mistakes and describe clearly the extent of the works. Nevertheless, Filler responds shortly after, with another aggressive tirade, doubting the impartiality of these two scholars and the quality of the scientific research behind the project.
Vaults of the nave. Photo by M. Mensler
If one strips away the disqualifications and the pejorative descriptions from his writing, the only arguments that Filler has to criticize the restoration are of a subjective, aesthetic, and almost emotional nature, which could be summarized as: “I don’t like it because it doesn’t look medieval enough”. As I have said, we are all entitled to opinions of that type.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: