Thousand-year-old stone churches, as durable as they appear, need care. The Romanesque churches in France have been subjected to war, violent religious iconoclasm, revolution, fire, collapsing vaults, neglect, and age. These churches are the property of the French people, not the Catholic Church, and their representatives are charged with keeping this religious and architectural patrimony intact. In 1834, the writer Prosper Mérimée was appointed the first inspector-general of historical monuments, a fortuitous choice. A man of learning and sophistication, he had a deep appreciation for the beauty and historical significance of the monuments in this care.
One of his first acts, in 1835, was to assign twenty-one year old Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to restore the abbey of Vézelay, which resulted in a stunning success. Viollet-le-Duc eventually restored Notre Dame de Paris and hundreds of other structures in France.
So it is clear that the French have a long history of preserving their monuments. But at the base of it all is a dualism that has never been resolved. Should the restoration merely take the building as it exists and repair it so that it will continue to exist in the form to which it has evolved over the years? In other words, should the building look like it did yesterday, only in better condition? Or should, for example, the restorer remove additions that were made to a structure in the years since it was originally built? Often these additions are disastrous failures and aesthetic blunders. Should the restorer attempt to understand the minds of the original builders and re-create that structure?
The first choice does little to improve the building, and the second can lead to irremediable damage and loss to the church. In some cases, the “restoration” creates something that never existed; indeed, Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a means to return a building to “a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time” (Dictionnaire raisonné). The works of Paul Abadie are, to me, the worst example of this kind of restoration. The great cathedral of Saint Front in Périgueux is nothing like the edifice that was built in the twelfth century, but rather like what Abadie thought it should have looked like. In the process, he destroyed much of what actually existed. To this day, the people of Angoulême and Périgueux resent his “restorations.”
This subject has become important to me because of three works that we saw restored on our last trip – the abbey church of Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe in the Poitou, the Basilique Saint Nectaire, and the Basilique Notre Dame du Port, both in the Puy-de-Dôme.
I have known the church at Saint Savin since I was a boy, having lived in Chauvigny and Poitiers, just down D951 from Saint-Savin. The church has remarkable 11th century frescoes covering the barrel vault above the nave, a riot of color and visual story telling. The church in those days was old, musty, and unlit. The delicate frescoes have suffered great damage, even during my lifetime. About eight or nine years ago, the French began the desperately needed process of restoration (helped by the fact that Saint-Savin was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The question for me at the time was precisely the question posed in this essay: Would the church be fixed up in order that the frescoes could be preserved, or would the church be restored to some view of what it was like in the past?
On the whole, the change in the church was positive, because of the bad condition it was in previously. While the church is too brightly lit and the yellow color is overdone, the look harmonizes with the architecture and, most importantly, the vault frescoes. As a setting for those frescoes, the restoration serves well.
The Basilique Saint Nectaire is another of my favorites, but from my adult life. One of my favorite photos was taken here in 2006 and I loved the look and feel of the rough volcanic stone from which it was made and the dark, hidden corners and nooks that emerged as one moved through the arcades. The “puys” of the Puy-de-Dôme are volcanoes, and their stone was used to make many of the churches of the region. After the restoration, we lose the sensation of that stone and we feel instead plaster and the paint. It is not unpleasant, it is somewhat attractive, but there is no mystery and no sensation of the Romanesque. The church is over-lit, over-bright, and probably over-restored.
But this is nothing like the restored Notre Dame du Port. This great church is hidden away in a hillside neighborhood of Clermont-Ferrand, and it was always a place of discovery and secrets. Now, however, it is the same yellow that was used in both Saint Nectaire and Saint Savin, and it is lit with horrendous chandeliers. Every surface is visible, clean, and clear. The official excuse is that it makes the perfection of the design more apparent, but at what a cost!
Seeing the restored Notre Dame du Port, the venerable doyenne of Auvergnat Romanesque churches, was like seeing a dowager dressed like a debutante. There was no sense of the age and dignity of the structure. It was as if centuries of devotion and veneration were whitewashed away.
The only positive thought I can bring to this subject are that there is no apparent damage or destruction to the churches, and with time the yellow will fade and the textures of the stone will re-emerge. Perhaps these structures will resume being churches instead of tourist attractions. This will be seen as another phase in the long history of French restoration and hopefully it will fade as surely as the color polychrome paint from the original churches.