Chartres, Painted Over

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.

black-madonna_jpg_250x146_q85The “before” is on the left. And now I have mixed thoughts and am not sure what side I’m on anymore.

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.




  1. How much is this Cathedral a place of active worship (parishioners and pilgrims) vs. a tourist attraction? I have visited as a tourist, never as a worshipper. There are different interests held by worshippers, tourists, preservationists, historians, and others.

    Does lightening the interior help worshippers to pray better? Or to make the church feel like a living institution rather than a museum? If it would somehow help to convert western Europe back to a life of faith, I would paint every cathedral pink with purple stripes. I don’t know the answer, but I know the question that should be asked.

  2. One of the most important correctives I’ve heard to the musical authenticity craze (period instruments especially) is that no matter how authentic your performance is, your audience will never be authentic. In other words, if you play Beethoven on an historically-accurate piano (which will be softer than a modern concert grand), you can loose sight of the fact that his contemporaries heard his music on some of the loudest, most modern pianos in existence at the time. So is the instrument what creates authenticity, or is it a comparable emotional impact on the audience? I don’t know enough about the visual palette of the medieval world to really say how that applies here, but I think it would be an important consideration. My gut impulse is that a riot of color would be grand, overpowering, perhaps luxurious and certainly “other” back in the day. Whereas nowadays we are bombarded by moving, brightly-colored images every second of our lives and the cool, stark darkness of a gothic space is more likely to strike us as sacred. I know color was important in medieval life, Monty-Python sketches notwithstanding, but I don’t think it could approach the sheer amount of color we have around us now.

  3. I like that phrase “idol of originalist authenticity.” I think that you’re on to something there, Father.
    However, are we sure that Filler was at a Novus Ordo celebration of Mass? Incense, chant, majestic organ music and the telling phrase “High Mass” seem to suggest otherwise. Unless he isn’t a Catholic and was just using old, out-dated language and imagery to embellish his article.

  4. There was a similar view of how to deal with historic building at work here in Baltimore when the basilica was restored. There was a strong desire to return it to the original intentions of the architect, Benjamin Latrobe—a Federalist style that might be thought of as an embodiment of Enlightenment Catholicism—from the more “immigrant” aesthetic it had acquired over the decades (things like marble, stained glass, a darker atmosphere). So it went from looking like this to looking like this. Reactions are mixed. Some people like the lighter, brighter interior. Others (and I think I lean more this direction myself) find the restored interior somewhat sterile and unreal. Sort of the ecclesiastical equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #4:
      Thanks for those two photos. I loved this Cathedral when I was in seminary in Baltimore in the 70’s and celebrated a wedding there for two parishioners from Savannah in the mid 80’s and haven’t been back there since. I agree, I prefer the darker “immigrant” aesthetic over what appears to be a contrived, although more historic look now. And you are right, it does look more Colonial Willamsburg and thus a bit Protestant to me in that regard. But it is still beautiful. By the way, I sure hope they haven’t changed St. Alphonsus(?) a block below the Basilica. In the 70’s we joked that a renovation there was dusting all the statues!

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #5:

        I get the Colonial Williamsburg bit, absolutely, and the Protestant bit too. And looking at the later Baltimore photo, I was struck by how similar it is in feel to the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki, which is also extremely white….

        I will be playing for Mass in the cathedral at Chartres in three months’ time and will experience it for myself, so to answer Scott Pluff’s question (#1), yes, it is a place of worship, with Mass every day (some Masses are in the crypt) and other offices too.

  5. I am somewhat disappointed that the article does not mention the possible polychroming of the statues on the outside portals of this Cathedral. That was certainly part of the original color scheme. An ‘impermanent attempt’ to show this polychroming is the ‘sound and light’ show each evening at Amiens Cathedral during the summer time. Here they project large sized colored ‘slides’ onto the front of the Cathedral — so giving the watchers a ‘look at the medieval appearance’ of the statues. The images are as brightly colored as ‘comic book’ illustrations. Looking closely in daylight one can often see traces of the original polychroming on many ancient Churches in France at least. I think that was the common practice throughout Europe including the British Isles too. We are too used to the monochrome stone color statues (besides the polychroming would be a good preservative against polution).

  6. Speaking of dust: it might help to understand the stress on building fabric that accumulates with hordes of pilgrims. This article discusses the buildup of human detritus (dust is exfoliated skin plus the mites that feed on it) on the Sistine Chapel just in the last generation since restoration, a much smaller space with much greater climate control than Chartres. Chartres is not in stasis, even if we can’t see the changes as readily as with a repainting…–sweat-dust-created-million-visitors-year.html

  7. In Versailles there have been some people complaining that the renovations try to recover some supposed 17th century environment in spite of the fact that the palace evolved over centuries; when they don’t have certain information, try to make an educated guess, then make up something that might or might not be accurate, instead of making do with some perfectly fine 18th or 19th century decoration; and give financial priority to making those guesses (or should they be called day-dreams?) come to life instead of preserving actual authentic remnants of some statues that are in danger if imminently falling apart.

    In addition, why the craze about recreating the past as we think it was, even when it was poorly thought out? The humungous quantity of gold on the gates at Versailles looks excessive and quite vulgar. Yes, that’s how Louis XIV liked it, but do we have to continue to suffer from his bad taste? It’s a relatively recent change. The gates had been painted some unobtrusive color for decades, and no one thought of asking for more gold then.

    As a friend recently commented when looking at the shiny palace, golden paint, horse-drawn carriages on the street, and other oddities: “It’s just like Disneyland here!” …

  8. “Didier is now in charge of the Chartres repainting, and his resumé also includes what some observers deem his heavy-handed renovation of the Palace of Versailles, begun in 2003. ”

    Oh, no!

  9. Fritz I like both pictures from Baltimore, but it is a shame that they had to reconstruct the fence around the sanctuary.

  10. My first thought when I saw this was, “What would Malcolm Miller say?”

    Miller has been a guide at Chartres since the 1950’s and is considered to be one of the (if not the) foremost authorities on Chartres in the world. When I was aim seminary in Europe in the 80’s I had the great good fortune to tour Chartres with him more than once (no two tours are ever the same.)

    Turns out he is delighted by the restoration, which puts my mind at ease. I would take his word on it long before a reviewer from the New York Review of Books, no matter what credentials his wife has.

    I wonder if part of the reaction might be because a dark gothic interior where stained glass glows like jewels and candles flicker is a narrative that has to a great extent shaped our preconceptions of what a “church” looks like. A bright interior where the windows are more integrated into the architecture doesn’t fit that narrative and so it feels wrong on a visceral level.

  11. Here is an exchange in the NYRB, that takes the debate a bit further. I must admits that I both recoil in horror at Hamburger and Caviness’s suggestion that the votive candles be replaced with electric lights and find it revealing of a sensibility that sees Chartres more as an historical site to be preserved than as a living place of worship. I am intrigued by the idea of restoring some of the medieval color to Chartres, but I am also suspicious of the historicizing mindset that seems to be motivating it.

  12. I would like to see them restore the rood screen that was removed in the 18th century. (Fat chance.) And please no electric votive lights. I think Malcolm Miller had a sharp word or two about the wreckovation (not his words) that occurred around that time – – I would have to look it up to confirm.

    As for Colonial Williamsburg and the renovated Baltimore Basilica, I am a fan of both (and for what its worth, the Richard Vosko-designed church in Williamsburg, St. Bede’s.) If that makes me one of those sneerworthy middlebrows and dilettantes, so be it. The only thing I found problematic about the Baltimore Basilica renovation was having the two high altars. They should have just kept the high altar, thereby having the clergy celebrate mass ad orientem as they would presumably would have in Latrobe’s time. That would have stirred up certain animals, no doubt.

  13. I think my remark about Colonial Williamsburg was perhaps too cryptic. My point is that there is nothing wrong with Colonial WiIliamsburg as a tourist/educational site, but as a place where people actually live their lives it is an artfully constructed illusion. It is fine to like it and to treat it as a reconstruction of a past life. But it would be odd to seek to carry on one’s daily activities in such a place. My concerns with restorations like that of the Baltimore Basilica have nothing to do with aesthetics per se or with historic buildings, but with the fear that it treats the place more as a tourist site of historical interest—a place you can go to see how people lived way back then—than as a living place of worship. Of course, for several hundred people each week the Basilica is a place of worship, and I suspect over time, as the shine wears off, it will begin to feel less touristy and more lived/prayed in.

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