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A Controversial Restoration That Wipes Away the Past

Ms. Woods emphasized that what appeared “fake” to some is, in fact, faithful to the original. The bony white colonettes and the multicolored ceiling keystones may seem garish, but they were aspects of the medieval cathedral (along with opulent wall hangings and portal statues painted in vivid colors). Yet we do not have medieval eyes, and we cannot see the world as pilgrims of that era did.

Leila A. Amineddoleh, a cultural heritage lawyer who sponsored the “Save Chartres Cathedral” petition, said that by adding “a shiny coat, some of the restoration creates the impression that the cathedral is new.”

But Prof. Jeffrey F. Hamburger, a medieval art historian at Harvard, said that there is “no reason to be nostalgic or romantic about the dirt.” The association of gothic buildings with “dark, brooding gloom” is “fundamentally misguided,” he said; they are “not monuments to melancholy.”


The cathedral is the centerpiece of the city of Chartres, 60 miles southwest of Paris.

Roberto Frankenberg for The New York Times

The restoration seeks to reconstitute a temple of light, to challenge the popular perception of Gothic dejection. But in doing so, it raises an intriguing question: What happens when our inherited assumptions about the past come into contact with layers of accumulated myth?

Then there are some inconsistencies in the medieval restoration: The cathedral has electric lighting (although the brighter interior actually minimizes the need for artificial light), the elegant but uneven stone floor remains untreated and the apse boasts restored baroque marble. It is a challenge to identify at what point an innovation is consecrated into tradition, and which version of Chartres ought to be conserved.

Unesco describes the cathedral’s 176 windows as “a museum to stained glass” that warrants its own hue: bleu de Chartres (a combination of cobalt and manganese). The few remaining uncleaned windows now serve as an advertisement for the restoration of the others, which have been cleansed of grime and freed of strips of makeshift leading.


The restoration has not diminished some visitors’ devotion.

Roberto Frankenberg for The New York Times

The project’s critics have argued that the increase in ambient light, reflecting off the painted surfaces, diminishes the impact of the stained glass. (Writing in the newspaper Le Figaro, the art critic Adrien Goetz compared it to “watching a film in a cinema where they haven’t switched off the lights.”) Prof. Madeline H. Caviness of the American Friends of Chartres says that the intense colors actually complement each other — the light walls make the windows more luminous. On an overcast day the interplay between the two enhances the legibility of the stained glass — each window tells its own biblical narrative — but on a bright day the intensity of the light can make it hard to see.

The impact of the restoration is particularly noticeable because the walls of the transept, at the center of the cathedral, have yet to be cleaned. Its rose windows glow like gems in the darkness, akin to the effect at the cathedral’s Gothic contemporary, Notre-Dame de Paris.

This week, the Archbishop of Paris appealed for $119 million for urgent restoration to maintain the exterior of Notre-Dame. Its stone structure is crumbling and its gargoyles are damaged, but the cost of repairs goes far beyond the $2.4 million annual budget allocated by the French government. Although the interior scaffolding at Chartres has come down, this is only a temporary measure. In 2019, renovation of the transepts will finally begin. The $18.5 million restoration is running approximately three years behind schedule, in part as a result of funding shortfalls.

We do not know the names of those who planned and built the cathedral at Chartres, “this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest,” as Orson Welles called it in his film “F for Fake.” Now, too, the Black Madonna is a memory: The gift shop sells a postcard only of her blanched visage, rosy-cheeked as if blushing. To illustrate the complexity of the controversy, it should be noted that the statue was commissioned as a copy of a much-admired earlier Madonna. Her name? Notre-Dame la Blanche — Our Lady the White One.

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