Notre-Dame de Chartres Returns to XIII.c Glory

Two million visitors a year walk in expectation of awe through the doors of Chartres, one of France’s most famous cathedrals, which now, following the first stage of a mammoth restoration, is showing a side of itself once cloaked in centuries of grime.

Chartres Cathedral, a jewel of Gothic art is being transformed by a monumental restoration project (Credit:TFI)


The €15 million renovation at Chartres is the largest historic monument restoration project in France today and is designed to rid the cathedral of its epithet as being “one of the dirtiest monuments in France”.

This Gothic cathedral, a Unesco Heritage Site, is the only one to have retained all of its XIIIth century original plastering. Restorers taking it back to bare bones as it were, have had the unique experience of working with materials more than 700 years old and in doing so releasing long hidden details on its stone walls. The restored part of the great choir now radiates all its Gothic splendour and according to a recent Paris Match report  is captivating visitors.

For a long time, writes Frédérique Féron in the Paris Match article: “no-one dared touch Chartres. Its architecture, sculptures, stained glass windows, polychrome interior, this miracle, unsullied by wars and revolutions, had preserved almost every aspect of the original work except for its luminosity, lost in time to the ravages of age, pollution and candle-smoke grime.

“The famous stained glass windows had paled through corrosion, the cathedral interior was darkened by pollution, but the keepers of the monument hesitated to distort ‘the spirit of Chartres.’ “

The famous stained glass windows paled through corrosion are being faithfully restored (Credit: TFI)

However tourists arriving in ever growing streams were not fighting shy of voicing disappointment: “That’s the cathedral! But it’s disgustingly dirty! ” was a frequently heard complaint. Indeed Chartres authorities themselves designated the cathedral one of the dirtiest monuments in Europe, hardly, as the author of the magazine article notes, “a good image for France — the top tourist destination in Europe — or indeed for its role as an historical cultural capital”.

Read also this later report highlighting a number of critical opinions about the restoration Critics Attack France’s Largest Ever Restoration Work: The Majestic Chartres Cathedral

Associations concerned with protecting the monument: Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde and Les amis de Chartres (Chartres sanctuary of the World, Friends of Chartres), took up the cry and finally convinced the authorities that urgent action was required. “Thus it was”,  writes Frédérique Féron, “the first major refurbishment in the history of the cathedral to take the decor back to its original XIIIth century state, was finally begun.

“The challenge was that Chartres was to be the only Gothic cathedral in Europe ever restored to that state. Luc Pelletier, chief architect of the works, said the restoration teams made ‘a very bold choice. For the first time in the history of restoration, it was decided to restore the interior back to its initial state. Generally, restorers will go back to the last restoration and if we had followed that logic, we would have stopped at the work done in the XIXth century.’  ” he told Paris Match.

Watch this 4.30 min January 7, 2013 film reportage by TFI for some idea of the intricacy of the project

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

” ‘The orange ochre wash of the XIXth and XVth centuries disintegrated easily. Below them the original layers of XIIIth century enduit were virtually intact clinging to a rough stone work foundation,’  says Irene Jourd’heuil, curator of historic monuments. But intact for how long?  ‘This is the issue. For the XIIIth century original is now vividly exposed and no longer protected by subsequent restorations,’  said Luc Pelletier. ‘… If nothing is done to protect this enduit  or plaster, it will be black again in less than half a century.’ “

In the transept, a huge gas blower that heats the building raises ground dust and deposits it on the stonework. ” ‘We will have to consider another way of heating,  a suction and exhaust air system and introduce  electric candles,’ ” adds Patrice Calvel, one of the curators of the project.  In the meantime,  cathedral clergy are taking eco-measures by lowering  heating to 13 ° C in mid -winter and opting for 100% natural wax candles which make less smoke.

Artist restoring leaded light to part of a Chartres window

“As the first stage of the restored interior was returned to public access,  Italian restorers started on the Ambulatory. Their huge scaffolding has been moved over and work on this stage is returning Notre Dame to its former glory, while also providing a unique opportunity for scientists, historians and archaeologists  to gain unique insights into the architecture and decorating methods of earlier centuries.  They are also extracting some of the Old Lady’s precious secrets.

“Historian Arnaud Timbert says he believes she has been cheating about her age. ‘It would appear the cathedral is older than we previously thought: On the cuttings of the bare stone, one sees traces of archaic tools that were in use before the Gothic age … ‘  Under the arches of the nave, between two Roman towers, the restorers uncovered two hidden trompe-l’oeil windows that nobody had ever seen before. Traces of enduit coating showed that the entire exterior of the cathedral had once been painted in ochre… And the teams expect to find further secrets. The experts will be swarming over the scaffolding and recording works and events until 2016, the anticipated date of project completion.”

The stained glass windows of Chartres are known around the world due to their famous cobalt blue colour, clear and deep, known as “the blue from Chartres”. Chartres Cathedral retains the largest collection of medieval stained glass windows preserved in the world, which is remarkably well-maintained until today. There are 176 stained glass windows (including small rose windows), which corresponds to a surface area of 2 600 m2, yet inferior to that of Metz Cathedral (6 500m2). Three stained glass windows from the XIIth century have been preserved, notably with inimitable cobalt blue colours, the secret formula of which has not been discovered.- French Moments.

Located 80 kilometres south west of Paris, Chartres Cathedral is considered to be the most representative, complete and best preserved of all the Gothic cathedrals of France. At Chartres cathedral masons built a structure unique in the world, entirely designed to the architectural style of the time, yet distinguished by its originality: Chartres Cathedral is austere, elegant, vast, rigorous, radiant, balanced, wise and daring. Notre-Dame de Chartres, called the “Acropolis of France” by Rodin in reference to its high aesthetic and spiritual significance, has remained until today the largest French sanctuary devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary, notes the French Moments website  which offers an extensive and detailed history of the monument and its historic and religious significance on a page originally in French but translated into English by Virginie Frédéric and Sophie Sysavanh for French Moments.

Link: The official cathedral website 

 Story: Ken Pottinger

 For news and photos about another large restoration project on the imposing Cathedral of Saint André in Bordeaux read Cynthia Hinson’s Archi-trouve blog here:

“As part of the restoration of the Cathedral of Saint André here in Bordeaux, the 1860 paint scheme is being painstakingly recreated. Not only are the allegorical paintings in the chapels being restored, but also the brightly-colored patterns that once decorated the walls, columns and vaults…

Enhanced by Zemanta

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to our RSS feed!

One Response to Notre-Dame de Chartres Returns to XIII.c Glory

  1. Pingback: Critics Attack France’s Largest Ever Restoration Work: The Majestic Chartres Cathedral | FrenchNewsOnline

You must be logged in to post a comment Login