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.
He describes his first views of Chartres and his latest:
During a recent trip to Paris I decided it was time for a return visit, and on an autumn Sunday morning my wife, our friends, and I traveled sixty miles southwest of the French capital to take in this architectural wonder. It was crisp and sunny, perfect weather for viewing the celebrated vitraux, widely considered the finest in the world. As we entered the great church, which was largely constructed between 1194 and 1230, High Mass was in full swing—the scene heightened by the combination of majestic organ music, chanted liturgy, clouds of incense, and banks of votive candles.
Carried away by the splendors of the moment, I did not initially realize that something was very wrong. I had noticed the floor-to-ceiling scrim-covered scaffolding near the crossing of the nave and transepts, but had assumed it was routine maintenance. But my more attentive wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter—who as a Columbia doctoral candidate took courses on Romanesque sculpture with the legendary Meyer Schapiro and Gothic architecture with the great medievalist Robert Branner—immediately noticed that large areas of the sanctuary’s deep gray limestone surface had been painted.
You can see more recent pictures of the changes on NYTBR blog. The pictures above and below were taken by my husband in 2010 and are copyright (c) 2010 by Mark U. Mann (not to be used without permission).
Another pilgrim to Chartres noticed the changes, especially to the statue of Our Lady of the Pillar. And here is yet another view. The organizer of the restoration expected some negative response, according to this article from 2009 in The Independent:
Concerns have been expressed, in particular, about the effect of the restoration on Chartre's exquisite stained-glass windows: the most complete, and to many people the most beautiful anywhere in the world. The glass is also being gradually restored, largely with money raised by charitable appeals.
"You could argue that the power of the windows has been increased by the cathedral's dark interior and that their beauty will therefore suffer," said Mr Fresson. "Our first impression, from the work so far, is that the effect will be different, but no less beautiful."
Finally, this architect notes that the restoration involves two different time periods:
Since the sanctuary of the Altar in the choir was already anachronistic, the renovation may be accentuated the differences! If we stay on track for a Paris visit every two years, perhaps we will go back to Chartres in 2016 and see nearly the finished product.