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.