The Chartres Cathedral in France has long been a crowd favorite, drawing millions of Catholic pilgrims and art lovers every year who come to bask in the famous blue glow of its 13th-century stained glass. But the love may be souring. A new petition against the cathedral’s restoration claims work done over the past six years has irreversibly damaged the 800-year-old building and erased centuries of the history that makes it so special.
According to author Stefan Evans, the restoration has made the cathedral’s interior look like it was built just yesterday. Its walls and vaulted ceilings have been covered with historically inaccurate paint and plaster. And many architectural nuances — for instance, the fact the north tower was constructed in the 16th century in a different style from the rest of the church — have become imperceivable. He writes:
An analogy is a headless statue: a responsible restoration uses filling material and supports when necessary to prevent limbs from breaking. An irresponsible restoration adds a new head and covers the intact limbs with a material that renders the age of the original and newly added parts indiscernible.
Evans and the petition’s co-sponsors — Franco Scardino, Leila Amineddoleh, and Adachiara Zevi — believe the restoration violates the 1964 Venice Charter. Articles 3 and 6 of the charter prohibit conservators from adding new construction, demolishing, or modifying historic buildings in ways that affect their composition and color.
Begun in 2009, the €15 million restoration is being implemented by the Monuments Historiques division of the French Ministry of Culture, with funding from the EU and American Friends of Chartres. The project leaders hoped to transform the cathedral’s interior to look just like it did back when it was consecrated in 1260.
But they were under no illusions that the restoration would be celebrated by all. “There is no doubt that we will lose something, even if we gain a great deal,” Gilles Fresson, the historian overseeing the work for the cathedral’s rectorate, told the Independent at the time. “The sense of mystery, the sense of the passing ages, which you receive when you enter the dark interior of today will be replaced by something fresher and much more dynamic.”
So it’s no surprise that not everyone has liked the look. In 2013, a woman visiting Chartres was horrified by the restorations and petitioned the European Union to stop them. The EU responded to her complaint by claiming to not be responsible for the restoration. Then in November 2013, Adrien Goetz published an article in Le Figaro comparing his recent experience at the much brighter-than-normal cathedral to “watching a film in a movie theater where they haven’t turned off the lights.”
Just a month later, Martin Filler visited the cathedral and was similarly appalled by the restoration work. In a scathing blog post published by The New York Review of Books, he called it “scandalous” and said it was the equivalent of “adding arms to the Venus de Milo.” He went on to complain that the repainting of the cathedral’s Black Madonna had “transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll.” The article went viral, prompting many more pieces like it. (Though it contained one inaccuracy: it stated that the piers in the apse had been repainted in yellow faux marble even though it had been there since the 17th century. Some think that may have delegitimized other correct accusations about faux brick joints that had been repainted.)
Patrice Calvel, then-overseer of the restoration project for the French government, offered a rebuttal in an interview with The Guardian. “It has the full weight of the administration of state, historians and architects who decided over a 20-year period what would be done,” he said. “All I’ve done is a bit of vacuum cleaning.” And many, including Madeline Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, agreed, calling it a “careful and historically responsible renovation.”
The authors of the current petition wholeheartedly disagree. They’ve asked the French Ministry of Culture to immediately halt the restoration so that at least the transepts, which have yet to be painted, might be saved. It remains to be seen whether officials will listen to their plea, or whether it comes too late.