Restoration Tragedy (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Prosper Mérimée (28 September 1803 – 23 September 1870)

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.

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814 – 1879)

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.

The restored nave and frescoed barrel vault of the Eglise abbatiale de Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne)

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?

The frescoed barrel vault of the Eglise abbatiale de Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne)

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.

Arcades of the Basilique Saint Nectaire, Saint Nectaire (Puy-de-Dôme) prior to restoration

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.

Arcades at the Basilique Saint Nectaire after the restoration

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!

The nave of the Basilique Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) after restoration

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.

8 responses to “Restoration Tragedy (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Well said, Dennis! You’ve touched on one of the most challenging issues related to restoration/preservation of these great spaces. This question becomes even more complex in historic structures in places like the U.S. where they are not held by the State and are living places of worship for contemporary congregations. At what level – and in what manner – can the genius of our own time be blended with that of previous generations while respecting the character and intention of the original designer and builder? These are truly difficult questions to address, and not all answers result in a happy conclusion.

    I will say, however, that your photo of Notre Dame du Port lends the space a certain dignified beauty, although I can definitely see what you mean about it being too “fresh” and having lost some of the character that only antiquity can provide.

    Excellent article!

  2. Thanks, George. As far as the photo of ND du Port, appreciate the thought that we captured the beauty, which still exists. But there is something about small mystical corners of discovery which seem to me to be inherent to the great Romanesque churches. When they are over-restored, as I believe this church was, everything is visible. There is no way that this would have been the case in the 12th century, of course, and the builders made these discoveries part of the structures. It is that which I miss.

    As far the situation in the US, you are right. The wonderful Unitarian Meeting House in Provincetown has trompe l’oeil three-dimensional alcoves, pilasters and panels painted onto all four walls by Carl Wendte, an artist from Hanover, Germany. This church is in need of restoration, but there is no agency that is taking responsibility for it. If it is lost (there seems to be no immediate danger), a unique building will disappear forever.

  3. Another example in the U.S. of the challenges of restoration/preservation is Frank Lloyd Wrights famous Unity Temple in Chicago. Its in a serious state of disrepair, but the congregation that still gathers there lacks the means of restoring such a historic structure. Ironically, if the building were less historic, the congregation could/would fix it up, but at the same time would wind up altering it beyond Wright’s original design, which is precisely why it is so historic.

    The Medievals (and those who followed) generally weren’t concerned with historicity and cultural significance when they decided to repair, renovate or otherwise modify their (now historic) buildings. As a result, you can find a remarkable overlay of different styles and construction in the same building. That, of course, is precisely the challenge you mention in the article.

    These issues were made even more complex in places like Germany after WWII when the question arose about how to deal with historic and meaningful churches which had been destroyed in the War. Several approaches were taken in different places, some with happier results than others. But perhaps that is a discussion for another day.

  4. I gather that the purpose for restoration of these sacred spaces has nothing to do with worship or religious experience, nowadays… totally at odds with the aesthetic process of restoration, regrettably. The general public in France likely wants to use these monolithic public spaces that sit on valuable land and take up so much room for performance venues and ceremonial but civil weddings, etc.

    So, whoever is holding the purse strings in each district gets to decide how much and what sort of lighting to use. It isn’t the church paying for it, is it? Even if it were, they’d be just as likely to opt for modernizing the churches.

    (“I’d like this place better if I could see the darn thing… those poor folks back then … too bad it was so dingy and dark. I bet it smelled, too. It will look nicer for our pictures if we put in flourescents…”)

  5. Unfortunately, Tom, you are probably right about the fact that the restoration has nothing to do with worship or the religious experience. There has been a truly hideous attempt to modernize the Catholic churches in the US (usually blamed on Vatican II), but that is coming from within the church itself. But in France, these churches are considered part of the National Patrimony, and the restorations are funded at that level for the most part. So I believe that something more dangerous is going on – a government program of restoration according to bureaucratic guidelines. I’m trying to find out more, and will let you know when I come across something of interest. But the very thought of aesthetics governed by “bureaucratic guidelines” makes me shiver all over.

  6. Pingback: Those who precede … (Dennis Aubrey) « Via Lucis Photography

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