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How Not to Restore an 800-Year-Old Gothic Cathedral

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UPDATE: Two advisory board members of the American Friends of Chartres Cathedral have responded to Filler, and Filler has responded to their response.

Architecture critic Martin Filler recently took a trip to France's Chartres Cathedral, and was surprised to find the 800-year-old Gothic church in the throes of an $18.5M restoration effort the French Ministry of Culture began in 2009. In a juicy screed on the facelift published in the New York Review of Books, he calls it a "scandalous desecration" akin to sticking a pair of brand new arms on the Venus de Milo.

Filler characterizes the dismay he and his wife, architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter, felt when they saw that portions of the interior were painted in "bright whites and garish colors," despite scant evidence of the cathedral's initial color scheme:

The first portion she pointed out was a pale ochre wall patterned with thin, perpendicular white lines mimicking mortar between masonry blocks. Looking upward we then saw panels of blue faux marbre, high above them gilded column capitals and bosses (the ornamental knobs where vault ribs intersect), and, nearby, floor-to-ceiling piers covered in glossy yellow trompe l'oeil marbling, like some funeral parlor in Little Italy. Filler holds that, in embarking on a "wholesale transmogrification" rather than a more sensitive cleaning, the Ministry of Culture's Monuments Historiques division has fallen prey to "the belief that a heavy-duty reworking can allow us see the cathedral as its makers did," which is "not only magical thinking but also a foolhardy concept that makes authentic artifacts look fake."

There's also the matter of artificial lighting, which most definitely was not present 800 years ago:

Before the intervention, it was a shadowy Nautilus shell where each successive window emerged with the surprise and force of a revelation. Now, the pale new atmosphere, heightened by modern lighting, recalls a picture by Pieter Saenredam, the Dutch Golden Age artist who specialized in views of chaste Gothic church interiors that had been stripped and whitewashed during the Protestant Reformation to expunge the rich embellishments of Roman Catholicism. You know you're doing something wrong when your restoration project aligns you with religious reformists rather than, you know, preservationists. Finally, we arrive at the most cringeworthy change so far, the repainting of the cathedral's so-called "Black Madonna," which has "transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll."


· A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres [New York Review of Books via Arch Daily]