Architect Defends Controversial Chartres Cathedral Restoration

The difference between the restored and untouched sections of Chartres Cathedral. Photo: Sarah Karlson, via Flickr.

The architect responsible for the restoration work in progress at France’s Chartres Cathedral has responded to criticism that the historic church has been repainted.

Constructed between 1194 and 1230, Chartres has been undergoing restorations overseen by the French Ministry of Culture since 2009, in the hopes of removing the accumulated centuries of dirt and grime left behind by candles and oil lamps. It wasn’t until this week that the project came under fire, with Martin Filler of the New York Review of Books decrying what he believes is heavy repainting and a “scandalous makeover.”

“The belief that a heavy-duty reworking can allow us see the cathedral as its makers did is not only magical thinking but also a foolhardy concept that makes authentic artifacts look fake,” writes Filler.

Patrice Calvel, who retired in 2013 as the culture ministry’s historical monuments division’s architect in chief, and who oversaw the project up to that point, defended the restoration to the Guardian, saying that “it has the full weight of the administration of state, historians, and architects who decided over a 20-year period what would be done.”

While Filler contends the cathedral has retained only traces of its original paint, and that the restorers painted over the original limestone, Calvel insists that the project has revealed original colors, circa 1220–30, and that there has been no repainting in 80 percent of the church. “All I’ve done is a bit of vacuum cleaning,” he said.

Particularly controversial is the newly cleaned Our Lady of the Pillar, or Black Madonna, now pale and rosy-cheeked. In his article, Filler blasts the statue’s new appearance, which he claims has “transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll.”

Restorations are often a tricky business. Workers can be too eager to return a beloved landmark to its former glory, and, sometimes, to the detriment of what remains, they overstep their bounds and recreate elements that have long been lost.

Other restoration jobs gone awry include Pharaoh Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara, outside Cairo, where restorers have erased all evidence of the passage of time (see “Did Inept Restorers Damage Egypt’s Oldest Pyramid?” and “UNESCO Peeved Over Botched Pyramid Restoration Job“), and the infamous “Beast Jesus” of Borja, in northeast Spain, where an elderly lady completely painted over the original work (see “Botched Restoration Of Jesus Fresco Miraculously Saves Spanish Town“).

The $18.5 million refurbishment on Chartres, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is being funded by the European Union and the American Friends of Chartres foundation. The project is set to be finished in 2017.

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