An intensive restoration of France’s Chartres Cathedral that replicates the interior’s original colors and patterns has earned a polemical rebuke from the critic Martin Filler, who charged that the method makes “authentic artifacts look fake.” Writing in the New York Review of Books, Filler sounded the alarm after a recent visit to the 13th-century edifice, where he encountered faux-marble and other allegedly original embellishments painted on as part of an ongoing restoration begun in 2009 and slated for completion in 2017. The $18.5 million refurbishment, initiated by the French Ministry of Culture with financial support from the European Union and the American Friends of Chartres foundation, is one of the largest undertakings of its kind in a country renowned for its medieval architecture.
The restoration strategy at hand is widespread in France, and Filler cites the American Chartres specialist C. Edson Armi’s critique of the practices of Frédéric Didier, the French restoration architect responsible for the Chartres job. Armi, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cited Didier’s incorrect painting-over of an earlier project, the Romanesque Basilica of Paray-le-Monial, in “fire-engine orange” based not on “trace[s] of Romanesque paint, but instead [on] a small patch of fifteenth-century color.”
Filler further marshals two specific arguments regarding the infidelity of the restoration to the church’s original aesthetic: First, that too little is known about medieval pigments to know with confidence that contemporary approximations are in fact authentic, and second, that modern, electric lighting in the cathedral renders moot any question of fidelity to the sepulchral gloom that defined the church’s aesthetic during the medieval period.
The criticism is not universal, however. While Filler ominously notes the head of the French Ministry of Culture’s historic preservation unit Patrice Calvel’s comments from a 2010 talk at Harvard, in which Calvel stated that the work on the Chartres Cathedral should be of “international concern,” Calvel’s public comments indicate a positive attitude about the Chartres situation. Calvel, who retired in 2013, told the La Croix website that same year that “Finding a 13th-century interior this complete is exceptional.”