Alasdair Palmer questions the ill-conceived makeover of Chartres cathedral which robs us of the sense of passing time that is part of its fascination and mystery
Should old buildings look old? Or should they be restored to a condition where they look as if they could have been put up yesterday? Those questions are raised in a particularly pertinent form by the work going on at one of the most beautiful and inspiring of all old buildings: Chartres cathedral in France.
Most of Chartres cathedral dates from between 1194 and 1230, when the bulk of the colossal stone structure, with its nearly 200 stained-glass windows and thousands of sculptures, was built. The extraordinary speed of its construction means that Chartres has an architectural and decorative unity that is unique among surviving cathedrals, most of which took a hundred years or more to complete, and were then altered drastically over the succeeding centuries.
Chartres has suffered from the inevitable indignities inflicted by time. The paint with which the medieval artists originally covered the statues and the walls faded and flaked off within a few generations. Centuries of burning wax candles covered the interior with a thick layer of black soot. But Chartres remains far closer to the original building than almost any other medieval cathedral. The biggest effect of the intervening centuries since 1230 has been the accretion of the patina of age. A sense of the passing of time is part of the experience of looking at Chartres. The stone, the glass, the sculpture — it all looks very old, and its age is part of its fascination and its mystery.
Or at least, it is in those parts of Chartres cathedral that have not yet been cleaned by the latest restoration project. It isn’t in those parts where the restorers have finished their work, for they look brand-new. There’s no patina of age here: there are only clean and bright surfaces.
Is that an improvement? The restorers insist that it is. And when it comes to the stained-glass windows, it is difficult to disagree with their judgment. Before cleaning, much of that glass was pock-marked with dark patches that completely obscured large sections of it: the parts of the glass that have not been restored still suffer from those scars. Each of the 186 surviving windows tells a story. Crucial episodes from many of those stories were missing, blacked out by the grime and dirt that adhered to the glass. The results of cleaning that grime off are a revelation: the colours are enhanced, and the images themselves are clearly visible, especially if you have a pair of binoculars handy.
But the restorers are also cleaning the interior walls and ceiling of the church, and here the results are more questionable. The cleaning of the west end of the church has now been completed. Centuries of grime have been removed: the stone has then been covered with a thin layer of plaster, and painted a cream colour. Lines that look as if they follow the joints between the under-lying stones have been painted in a lighter colour. The bosses in the roof have been gilded. The capitals of the pillars have been painted a brilliant white.
This has two effects. One is that, in replacing the blackened stone with cream-coloured paint, the restoration means that there is a very significant increase in the ambient light, as it reflects back off the whiter surfaces. The result appears to diminish considerably the effect of the stained-glass windows, as you can see when you compare the windows of the west end with those of the transept. The walls and ceiling of the transept have not been cleaned, and as a consequence the colours of the rose windows stand out against the blackness of the uncleaned walls. The effect is magical: the rose windows look like the gates of paradise.
But that effect is lost when the walls and ceiling have been cleaned and painted a shade of white. The stained-glass windows no longer stand out as islands of light against a black background. They are surrounded by light, which inevitably diminishes their impact.
The other effect of the restoration of the interior walls and ceiling is that it makes the restored parts of the church look brand-new. In 2017, the date when the whole restoration project should be finished, when you enter Chartres cathedral you will no longer be confronted by something that looks as if it was built nearly 800 years ago. It will look as if it could have been finished yesterday.
That, for the restorers, is part of the point of the restoration. They have said that they want to make the church look as it would have done when it was finished in the 13th century. But it is far from obvious what ‘returning the cathedral to its original state’ should, or could, involve. The most natural way to interpret the idea is to say that it would mean that we could ‘see Chartres as the people who built would have seen it’. That, however, is impossible. We don’t know exactly what Chartres looked like 800 years ago: the restorers know that the sculpture was painted, for instance, but they do not know with what colours. They will leave the sculpture uncoloured, which is certainly not how it would have originally appeared.
Even if that problem could be solved, we still could not see Chartres as the first pilgrims who arrived in the 13th century saw it, for the obvious reason that, when we visit it, we’re aware that the Chartres that stands in front of us is nearly 800 years old. And try as we may, we cannot obliterate our knowledge of that truth.
Furthermore, we don’t have, and cannot have, the same beliefs as the people who built it and saw it in the 13th century. Even the most committed Christian today is not going to be able to recover the outlook of someone from the Middle Ages, still less share it. Believing that God created Adam and Eve, for instance, and that they then introduced death into the world because they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, requires you to hold a radically different set of convictions today than would have been required when Chartres was built, and there was no theory of evolution, and no naturalistic explanation whatever of how the earth came into being.
We are also aware of the architectural heritage created in the years since 1300, and it affects how Chartres looks to us. We who are aware of skyscrapers, railway stations and elevated motorways cannot experience medieval architecture in the way medieval masons and peasants would have done.
What then remains of the idea of ‘returning Chartres to its original state’? The research on which the restoration is based has been very careful. But it cannot generate a vision of the church as it would have looked to the people who arrived to worship in Chartres in the second half of the 13th century. It therefore cannot provide a justification for the aesthetic judgment that Chartres looks better when it is cleaned so that it looks new. It is rather a way of repeating that judgment.
Many people share it. Malcolm Miller, one of the world’s greatest experts on Chartres cathedral, who has lived with it and studied it for more than 50 years, is one of them. He thinks that the increase in the amount of light that the cleaned white walls generate is glorious, and very much in the spirit of gothic architecture. He insists that the fact that cleaning makes the inside of Chartres much lighter is precisely the effect that those who built it would have wanted.
Perhaps — although perhaps, were they alive today, they would prefer to see their 800-year-old building look its age. I recommend that you visit Chartres to make up your own mind, comparing the restored and the unrestored parts of the church for yourself. But hurry: once the restoration is completed, it will be impossible to compare the old version with the new one. The old cathedral will be gone.
Malcolm Miller’s tours of Chartres cathedral are available to visitors on most days, except Sundays, at 12:45 and 2 p.m.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 12, 2012