Critics Attack France’s Largest Ever Restoration Work: The Majestic Chartres Cathedral

While few opposing voices are heard in France, a growing storm rages across the Atlantic and elsewhere over some of the more controversial aspects of a massive multi-year restoration project underway at the monumental Chartres Cathedral.

Controversy has hit the restoration work on Chartres Cathedral, France no 1 (Credit Daniel Stockman Flickr October 4, 2014)

Controversy has hit the restoration work on Chartres Cathedral, France (Credit Daniel Stockman Flickr October 4, 2014)

The 800-year-old Cathedral — a Unesco heritage site 90kms southwest of Paris — is considered to be one of Europe’s finest examples of XIIth and XIIIth century Gothic architecture.

A 16.8 million euro refurbishment programme, launched by the French Culture Ministry and supported by the European Union and the American Friends of Chartres Foundation, is one of the largest renovations of its type ever undertaken. In a country brimming with medieval architectural jewels that descriptor –“largest” — is a sure sign of the project’s magnitude and importance.

The work, due for completion in 2017, appears however, to have divided opinions with some sharply dissenting commentary from glass artists and critics in the fields of architecture and art history, surfacing  on the Internet and elsewhere.

Strongly defended by Patrick Calvel, who between 1998 and 2013 was architectural director in charge of the Cathedral project, and the team continuing his work, the cleaning-up of Chartres recently drew fire in North America. The most vociferous attacks have come from the prominent American architecture critic Martin Filler and his wife Rosemarie Haag Bletter, an architectural historian.

As L’Echo Republicain put it in a January 11 2015 report: Until a few weeks ago, critics of the restoration of the Cathedral of Chartres had been few and far between. The most vitriolic criticisms have come from the United States, where architect Martin Filler described the work as a ‘sacrilege’. ”

But then, as his Wikipedia entry notes: “Filler’s criticism is often hyperbolic and antagonistic”. He has for instance, in earlier firestorms of criticism, described the rebuilding of post-reunification Berlin as “a fiasco of immense proportions, the greatest lost opportunity in post-war urbanism”.

Clearly he’s not a man to shy away from controversy and perhaps this is the reason his most recent target, Patrice Calvel, remains stoical about finding himself in Filler’s firing line.

Controversy has hit the restoration work on Chartres Cathedral, France (Credit Daniel Stockman Flickr)

Controversy has hit the restoration work on Chartres Cathedral, France (Credit Daniel Stockman Flickr)

Filler refers to an earlier article in Le Figaro (one of the very few critical accounts in France of the restoration) where Adrien Goetz, a French writer, columnist and assistant professor in the history of art at the Sorbonne, said of the cleaning: “The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. The restoration of the Chartres nave continues, the stained glass windows have undergone a resurrection. The paradox is that you almost have to isolate them from their surrounding stonework to be able to admire them at all now. For at Chartres to stand and contemplate the great windows will soon be like watching a film in a cinema where the lights have not been dimmed.” (L’enfer est pavé des meilleures intentions. La restauration de la nef de Chartres se poursuit: pour les vitraux, c’est une résurrection. Le paradoxe c’est qu’il faut désormais presque faire abstraction des pierres qui les entourent pour bien les admirer. À Chartres, voir les vitraux, ce sera bientôt comme regarder un film dans une salle de cinéma dont on n’aurait pas éteint les lumières.)

According to a recent report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper Patrick Calvel remains serene about the row. “I’ve got an entire scholastic community behind me,” he said. As for the criticism published in Le Figaro (above) , Calvel said he would not respond to Adrien Goetz “because he has no competence in this matter”.

Earlier L’Echo Republicain contacted Martin Filler at his New York home to find he had no intention of being conciliatory: “This is a tragedy. The cathedral and a dozen other architectural treasures are transformed beyond all measure, simply to satisfy the whims of a small group of so-called experts.”

His words, the paper says, are “extremely vigorous”, but again, he makes no apologies: “A critic can be read in minutes, but the effects of the operations on this wonder (of the world) will still be around for many decades. Indignation is required.”

The target of this wrath, the paper notes, is Patrice Calvel, the former chief architect of historical monuments in charge of the work on the cathedral. Patrice Calvel claims he has just been ‘doing a bit of vacuum cleaning’ remarks which prompt a sharp retort from Martin Filler: “His answer reveals a compellingly casual attitude and one that sits badly with such an important restoration project. Maybe he should try to patent a vacuum cleaner that can also do some painting!”

And, adds the paper, don’t mention the supposedly distorted vision Americans tend to have when they speak of the Middle Ages: “It makes no sense to say that we can determine what the cathedral was like at that time. Its impossible to recreate … these (visions) are fantasies as romantic as anything found in a Hollywood movie.”

What really annoys Martin Filler, is the concept of restoration work as it is practiced in France. In his view one should “do as little as possible” in any effort to preserve a building.

Patrice Calvel told L’Echo Republicain that he has no problem with the cathedral restoration work being debated: “The controversy is welcome, provided it nourishes the debate. What is a shame is this American’s lack of modesty. Martin Filler talks about things about which he knows nothing”.

Patrice Calvel added: “The restoration work on the vaulted ceiling, begun in 2009, aimed to bring part of the building, from darkness to light. This dramatic change is not due to the whims of an architect. In our scientific circles we have not just sort of arrived on the scene wearing large pairs of clogs to repaint the cathedral, as these critics would have you believe. People may have trouble believing us, but we have not painted anything. The cathedral was already painted. Specifically, it was coated in daub. We have simply revealed the wall decor that was there and as it is now seen it is almost 80% authentic.

“In the XIIIth century the dark atmospheres to which society has become accustomed in religious buildings were quite foreign to medieval man: for some, the monument should forever bear the grime of history. However the need for light and brightness as a requirement (in churches) was so rooted in the medieval mind that forty years after the opening of the cathedral in 1221, they completely redid the inside (with a lime coat) for the dedication of the monument in 1260. Today, some seem not to want to admit that the cathedral was once a (sparkling) new building . According to their romantic vision, the monument should always bear the grime of history. A lot of research was carried out before we started the restoration work. In 1985, Guy Nicot, my predecessor had already published a detailed report: nothing was done on a whim”, he said.

Watch a video clip of the work in progress:

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres : immersion… by culture-gouv

Elsewhere two European glass artists: Florian Lechner, based in Germany and Udo Zembok who has a studio on the Cote d’Azur, are among the minority of European artisans to record concerns about changes the cathedral restoration has wrought on the magnificent medieval stained-glass windows.

The two men suggest that the results of protective work done on the glass are very unsatisfactory and as a result they set out their issues in a letter sent to UNESCO in Paris.

By way of response they have obtained a commitment to a qualified examination by a UNESCO technical committee. (See here for Unesco’s response to the letter sent by Florian Lechner: UNESCO-Brief).

On the “Glass is More” website the glass specialists write: “Chartres: The Spirit and the Surface: The beginning of my exploration of light and glass was an encounter in 1962 with Chartres during a pilgrimage with 1400 fellow students. The special experience available at that time came from the cathedral’s completely empty interior, coupled with a total immersion by the coloured ‘light carpet’; created by a mystical light resembling a feeling of being fully baptised by it.

“The impressive statement made by Chartres Cathedral and indeed by all cathedrals is the proclamation of the Christian message, a message that here is a ‘walkable’ one. The light penetrating the windows cuts into the dark interior and meets the individual himself. The light wants to get in touch with and act on the human visitors. This comprehensible transition from the spiritual to the material level is an essential expression of medieval spirituality. All this is now meant to disappear in Chartres.

“The restorers have developed a protective skin (with a ‘gelatin-like’ external effect), which ignores the light penetration theme aspect and eliminates its ability to project its message into the cathedral. The original lighting effect and its related intellectual medieval culture idea should not be transgressed in this way.

“Protective glazing destroys the play of light in the Cathedral. Medieval stained glass windows are sensitive. To protect these against acid rain, they are often prefixed with a protective glazing from the outside. A newly developed, patented technology wants to imitate the external view of the windows– including the lead rods — with an enamelled and heat-shaped glass. So what are the internal effects on the church, as a spiritual space, which — over the centuries — has offered a special place to all visitors, thanks primarily to the incident light of the sun? Well for one what is special and unique about the design of the windows is that they reach far into the church and influence the interior by the way they steer the paths of coloured daylight. This diffusion of light was and is an essential expression of medieval spirituality and not only. All of this is now no longer experienced at Chartres Thus gradually we can begin to comprehend the full extent and impact of this protective measure.

Against the Sun and the Spirit: Anyone who has ever dipped into the coloured light and the sounds of a cathedral, anyone who has ever been covered by this supernatural light and has experienced for himself its irradiation, will find great difficulty in understanding why a new technology has been deployed, which in fact erases the spirit of this coloured light (at Chartres),” adds Florian Lechner, “Windows that no longer spread, expand and make tangible their radiance and imaging in the space, become mindless, neutered, stripped of an essential property. This is happening in the Cathedral of Chartres.” (Read more on the technique: VERRES THERMOFORMES POUR PROTECTION DES VITRAUX)

Udo Zembok adds: “With regard to the problematic of providing protection to the windows, and apart from the spiritual context expressed by Florian Lechner above, I think it would be appropriate also to describe the changes to the light (entering the cathedral through the windows) from a purely optical perspective, in other words the physics.

“Without the thermoformed glass protection, light rays pass through the stained glass filtered only by the transparent coloured glass. By the laws of physics light rays are parallel and this is what causes colored lights to be projected onto the walls and floors. By adding the external protective skin, which is translucent and thermoformed, the light rays are now diffused and enter through the coloured panes in an indirect fashion which in turn further diffuses the projected light. In turn this causes the projected image totally to lose its clarity and focus. It now displays on the walls as very diffuse light and affected by halos”.

Despite the chorus of criticism and even calls for the whole project to be rolled back (!), the restoration team shows few signs of having any doubts abut the validity of the work they have embarked on.

Story: Ken Pottinger

Below are excerpts of and links to some of the recent critical articles appearing on the Internet.

Introduction to the research into the Chartres project: construire et restaurer la cathédrale (XIe-XXIe s.), Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Presses Univ. Septentrion, coll. « Architecture & Urbanisme », 2014, p. 23-32. See PDF: intro-mise-en-perspective-Timbert-Chartres-libre

Anger at the idea of skyscrapers in Paris should be matched by anger at the desecration of this monument writes David Brussat on his blog: “If you can’t put an ugly, arrogant addition on Chartres, then at least you can reinterpret, reconceptualize and discombobulate the experience of millions who visit, whether as tourists or congregants. Modernism has severed the connection between beauty and time. What results is propaganda and publicity. This is what is being done at (or to) Chartres. Filler ends by urging that the changes be reversed. I hope this is possible.

Of The Black Madonna another famous artifact in the cathedral Martin Filler writes: “Whenever and however Chartres’s Black Madonna acquired its mysterious patina — through oxidation or smoke from candles and incense — it was familiar as such to centuries of the faithful until its recent multicolored makeover, which has transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll. This appalling project should be of concern to all, but in particular it highlights the flaws of current preservationist orthodoxy. It buys into the same modernist ethos that heaps vast expenditures on cultural institutions. Great museums have been turned into circuses that appeal to those with little genuine interest in cultural artifacts, including additions erected in order to exhibit the egos of deep-pocket money bags whose donations pay for the work but serve mainly as excuses to further degrade institutions, further inflate the already inflated staff and salary of administrators, and raise the cost of admission. Truly necessary upgrades are drowned in a cesspool of money. It is the “popularization” of culture to benefit the one percent. It is change for the sake of change…”

Holy Hell: Critic Alleges Major Restoration of Chartres Cathedral Is ‘Fake’:
“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 New Chartres: An Exchange
Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, reply by Martin Filler
“To the Editors: We write in response to Martin Filler’s well-meaning but also misinformed blog posting concerning the restoration of the interior of Chartres Cathedral. Filler writes, “One can only pray that by some miracle this scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place can be reversed” and expresses nostalgia for the church as he first encountered it, “the scene heightened by the combination of majestic organ music, chanted liturgy, clouds of incense, and banks of votive candles. Anyone who climbed the scaffolding to view the restoration in progress would have witnessed the care with which it was carried out. Restorers began simply by using vacuum cleaners to remove grime centimeters thick, an accretion generated by the candles and oil lamps that Filler remembers so fondly and that continue to endanger the fabric today: one of two fires in recent years caused considerable damage to the stonework. The first took place on the east side of the north transept and very nearly spread round the pier to the wooden screen in the adjacent chapel known as “Notre-Dame du Pilier.” The second fire, which occurred as recently as June 2013, took place inside the west entrance, caused a bench to catch fire, and had the flames spread to the rows of chairs beyond, the results would have been disastrous. It could have been 1194 all over again… (Click the link above for the full discussion)”

Chartres Cathedral Make-Work Scheme
A Columbia University trained architectural historian, Martin Filler, has reported (A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres) his great shock when visiting Chartres Cathedral to discover that: ‘In 2009, amid a rising wave of other refurbishments of medieval buildings, the French Ministry of Culture’s Monuments Historiques division embarked on a drastic, $18.5 million overhaul of the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral. Though little is specifically known about the church’s original appearance—despite small traces of pigment at many points throughout the interior stonework—the project’s leaders, apparently with the full support of the French state, have set out to do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state. This sweeping program to ‘reclaim’ Chartres from its allegedly anachronistic gloom is supposed to be completed in 2017’…”

Concern on the repainting of the Chartres Cathedral was also raised in the (London based) Spectator magazine on 12 May 2012  (Restoration tragedy ~ 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).

The good citizens of Puteaux should be glad that they have so far escaped the opprobrium of Chartres’ critics:

On the Restoration of Chartres Cathedral – Guest Article by Mr Lucas Viar. My thanks to an old friend, Mr Lucas Viar Basterra, for providing us with this assessment of the on-going restoration of the cathedral of Chartres, and critique of some of the controversies related to it: “…At this point, enter the art critics: The Spectator’s Alasdair Palmer a couple of years ago, Le Figaro’s Adrien Goetz, and last week Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books. They use words such as tragedy, disgrace, sacrilege or scandalous makeover. I find the latest of these critic articles, that by Mr. Filler, particularly aggressive…”

How far do you go? Chartres’ Restoration “…The problem with all restoration work is should it be done, how much of it should be done, to which period should it be returned to, and what should be destroyed of subsequent in order to return it to what was ‘original’. The other problem is what modern conveniences do you dispense with, how necessary is electric lighting, for example, in a ‘restored’ Church? The 13th cent work was supposed to be seen in natural light, after all. Even the famous ‘black’ Madonna has been restored. How far should restoration go, especially in a living building like a church? There are all those questions about how to maintain the the restoration, do you ban candles and incense and what about heating which seems to do most damage to ancient painting…?”

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