The New York Review of Books is up in arms about the daring attempt to give Chartres Cathedral some of the painted color it may have had for a short time earlier in its history: “A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres.” The glossy yellow fake marbling is likened to “some funeral parlor in Little Italy.” Ouch.
You can read the full story there, but the main concern of the reviewer is that the authenticity isn’t really authentic:
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.
Believing Christians have reason to be skeptical of this mindset – it views living worship spaces of living Christian communities primarily from viewpoint of artistic preservation rather than liturgical and devotional needs. The idol of originalist authenticity, which, be it noted, is a rather recent one in Western history, does not do justice to the Christian artistic tradition which brought forth such masterpieces. Our forebears felt free to add Gothic choirs to Romanesque spaces, and then to plaster Gothic spaces with Baroque ornamentation. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but the tradition has lots of dynamic vitality.
To be sure, it is heartening to see that the author was initially more taken by the liturgy (the reformed liturgy) than he was by the space:
As we entered the great church, which was largely constructed between 1194 and 1230, High Mass was in full swing—the scene heightened by the combination of majestic organ music, chanted liturgy, clouds of incense, and banks of votive candles.
Carried away by the splendors of the moment, I did not initially realize that something was very wrong.
That’s a good sign. And the reviewer acknowledges some of the inherent tensions between religious and artistic ends:
Observant Catholics[‘] … primary interest in the cathedral is religious rather than aesthetic…
He notes that observant Catholics
have been particularly appalled by one aspect of the program: the repainting of Our Lady of the Pillar, the early-seventeenth-century devotional statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child familiarly known as the Black Madonna.
But I’m sure surprised that all this is going on and is even in vogue in France. The reviewer writes:
In fact, medievalists have been alarmed for some time about this approach to renovation, which despite its recent vogue in France seems to violate international conservation protocols
At any rate, it could be worse. It always could be worse. Do you remember this from Steve Martin? Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.