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.”

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

Credit
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.

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The restoration has not diminished some visitors’ devotion.

Credit
Roberto Frankenberg for The New York Times

The project’s critics have argued that…

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