Sacred Spaces and Originalism

Some of you will remember the comedian Steve Martin. Pretty dry, not for everyone. (But I always liked it.) Here’s his famous Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres:

Mr. Rivers was raised in the city of New York, had become involved in construction and slowly advanced himself to the level of crane operator for a demolition company. The firm had grown enormously, and he was shipped off to France for a special job. He started work early on a Friday and, due to a poorly drawn map, at six-thirty one morning in February began the demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The first swing of the ball knifed an arc so deadly that it tore down nearly a third of a wall and the glass shattered almost in tones, and it seemed to scream over the noise of the engine as the fuel was pumped in the long neck of the crane that threw the ball through a window of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The aftermath was complex and chaotic, and Rivers was allowed to go home to New York, and he opened up books on the Cathedral and read about it and thought to himself how lucky he was to have seen it before it was destroyed.


This isn’t that, although I’m not the only one to recall Steve Martin in connection with what’s going on at Chartres Cathedral. As the New York Times reports, the “restoration” of the Black Madonna at Chartres, part of an ongoing decade-long project, is arousing strong feelings:

The pilgrim did not find what he was searching for. As a child, Patrice Bertrand heard his mother recount details of her visit to the shrine of the famous Black Madonna of Chartres Cathedral, 60 miles southwest of Paris. Now Mr. Bertrand, 41, of Nantes, was following in her footsteps. But he was perplexed by what he discovered: “The statue I came to see is not here anymore,” he said. The Black Madonna had become white.

Back to the original. Or as we liturgists and Vatican II theologians say, Ad fontes. This is artisticressourcement. Rod Dreher calls it the “Desecration of Chartres.”

Medieval cathedrals were not about “dark, brooding gloom,” Harvard medieval art historian Jeffrey F. Hamburger reminds us. They were bright and luminous and colorful. All the dirt and soot came later. The darkness is part of tradition, one could say, not the original.

The restoration at Chartres (which is in many ways a replay of the squabbles over the Sistine Chapel restoration) raises many interesting questions for theologians and liturgists and church artists.

  • Is original always better?
  • Do we realize that we can’t possibly experience the original in the original way because we can only live in our own era? (As back-to-the-original conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt once quipped, a deceptive cadence that no longer deceives isn’t really a deceptive cadence.) So why the original?
  • Which is more important, church as architectural monument or church as place for today’s liturgy? Which is more respectful of the original building and original purpose?
  • How much should one respect the sentiments of those attached to “accretions” added later to the original? (Attachment to, for example, Chartre’s Black Madonna.)
  • Originalism is a recent idea. Church spaces have been living, growing, changing for centuries, at least until restorationist movements of the 19th century first got the idea of reconstituting original forms. Is there a case for respecting the truly original context, in which further growth is legitimate? (We could call this “original anti-originalism.”)

I don’t have a problem with going back to the original – whether it’s Bach on early instruments or dirt removed from medieval statues. I like the new possibilities opened up by the originalism. But I remind myself that I’m liking the original because it is, for me, something new to behold.



  1. I guess, having studied the architecture and cultures of antiquity and the middle ages decades ago, I was already mentally adding in color to the faded modern survivors, so it’s not a shock to me to see them freshened/tarted up, as it were. (And heavy accumulation of dirt and grime are not a form of protective foundation makeup.) One problem for Americans is that our baseline for architecture of these periods is so limited: it’s only a slice of Europe (essentially, Greece-Italy-France-England). Relatively few Americans know about the marvels of the gothic of north-central Europe, like Backsteingotik, which often displays beautifully painted and stenciled interiors.

    It is important to understand how latitude plays a role in the lighting of these interiors. Boston, Massachusetts is at roughly the same latitude as … Rome. In Northern Europe, sunlight enters these ancient glories at a lower (and more gentle angle, especially for more of the year) – and also there’s greater variation in where the sun rises and sets along the horizon (azimuths) over the course of the year. Where buildings in southern Italy and Spain (at latitudes roughly like southern Virginia USA) modulate incoming light to modulate its comparative harshness, those in northern Europe do not have that need. (And buildings in the lower half of the lower 48 US States have even harsher light to modulate – Houston and New Orleans share a similar latitude with Cairo.)

  2. My (limited) sense from non-first hand exposure to photo and video of the restoration suggests that it’s generally a net positive – the interior seems to glow with the soot and grime removed.

    But I do think the restoration of the Black Madonna was a mistake. Its appearance has become part of its devotional attachment. One might as well clean off the Black Madonna of Częstochowa (an act which might imperil your safety).

  3. When we arrived in our current home 4 years ago the newly-restored wood floors and the paint job were immaculate. 4 years and three active kids later, things aren’t as bright and shiny, but it feels like home. My 2 cents – sometimes a church that is too clean feels a little unnatural. I’ve never experienced the grime and soot in old churches as “gloomy”; my impression was always that there was a palpable sense of history. The churches felt lived in. A lot of that “grime” is the smoke from countless votive candles over many generations of faithful, which to me is more beautiful and impressive than a bright clean wall.

    1. “A lot of that “grime” is the smoke from countless votive candles over many generations of faithful, which to me is more beautiful and impressive than a bright clean wall.”

      True. As well as the smoke of incense.

    2. True. Some of the “grime” also comes from neglect and ignorance.

      A restorer is as much an artist as the original creator, and hopefully as good. The custodians have also contributed their vision, choosing whether blackened walls or statues are good or bad or just too much work.

      I had a pastor once who stopped passing out candles at the Easter Vigil because he didnt like the wax dripping on pews and carpets. It would not be my choice, but it was an artistic decision that fit with other ways his personality impressed itself upon the building. The black madonna is probably the result of someone very different, who chose to let the grime accumulate instead of cleaning incessantly.

  4. I love how the restoration has enhanced the light of the stunning widows with which Chartres is blessed.

    Had the original statue been made from black marble/stone, as others are, there wouldn’t be a discussion. I think this, however, is a case where “tradition” benefits from being brought out and reconsidered.

    To be able to see the original form of the statue standing, as the artist may have intended, in the as-near-as-possible-original form of the cathedral, is a rare and worthwhile opportunity.

    I’d certainly be interested in hearing your thoughts on the other questions you raise though, Anthony.

  5. FWIW, I don’t think the issue here is with originalism or tradition, at least with Rod Dreher’s gripe. Rather, it is with a narrow idea of what an aesthetic of mystery or the sacred should be. His comments on the wreckovation lament the loss of a sense of mystery along with the dark walls. But Mystery according to the Gospels is more dynamic and fresh than Hollywood likes to portray it.

    1. Hi Audrey,
      Any time someone calls something a “wreckovation” they’ve descended into polemic and name calling. I’m not sure why you would want to use this sort of rhetoric. Do you think this is fair?

      1. Oops. I meant to put that word in quotes. It was Rod Dreher’s term as used in his article linked above. No, I wouldn’t have used it myself. But there does not seem to be a way to edit my previous comment. hm…

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