Wednesday, December 17, 2014
The restoration of Chartres: second thoughts
Several people have asked me what I think about the “restoration” of Chartres Cathedral, in the light of the recent piece by Martin Filler for the New York Review of Books. (Here, in case you’re wondering, is why anyone should wish to solicit my humble opinion on the matter.) I have commented on this before here, but the more I hear about the work, the less sanguine I feel. Filler makes some good arguments against, the most salient, I think, being the fact that this contravenes normal conservation protocols: the usual approach now, especially for paintings, is to do what we can to rectify damage (such as reattaching flakes of paint) but otherwise to leave alone. In my earlier blog I mentioned the case of York Cathedral, where masons actively replace old, crumbling masonry with new – but this is a necessary affair to preserve the integrity of the building, whereas slapping on a lick of paint isn’t. And the faux marble on the columns looks particularly hideous and unnecessary. To judge from the photos, the restoration looks far more tacky than I had anticipated.
It is perhaps not ideal that visitors to Chartres come away thinking that the wonderful, stark gloom is what worshippers in the Middle Ages would have experienced too. But it seems unlikely that the new paint job is going to get anyone closer to an authentic experience. Worse, it’s the kind of thing that, once done, is very hard to undo. It’s good to recognize that the reverence with which we generally treat the fabric of old buildings now is very different from the attitudes of earlier times – bishops would demand that structures be knocked down when they looked too old-fashioned and replaced with something à la mode, and during the nineteenth-century Gothic revival architects like Eugène Viollet-le-Duc would take all kinds of liberties with their “restorations”. But this is no reason why we should act the same way. So while there is still a part of me that is intrigued by the thought of being able to see the interior of Chartres in something close to its original state, I have come round to thinking that the cathedral should have been left alone.