Restoration Tragedy – An Apology (Dennis Aubrey)


This post must begin with an apology – in the first essay about the restoration of churches, I used clever phrases instead of dealing with the difficult issues. “Restoration Tragedy” was not really about tragedy, like Abadie’s violation of the Cathédrale Saint Front in Perigueux, the bombing of the cathedrals in Reims and Cologne, or the destruction of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino. What happened to Saint Nectaire and Notre Dame du Port is sad, but not a tragedy; it is a question of aesthetics. But I was trying to be humorous and make a play on the phrase “Restoration Comedy”, and the line about “the dowager dressed like a debutante” disguised the fact that I had nothing useful to offer to the discussion. I expressed my dislike and left it at that.

The comments of George Hoelzeman induced me to think more about the issue; to go beyond my initial impressions and determine why the restorations are unsatisfactory. It boils down, as always, to something simple; it is the experience of the church – aesthetic, personal , or spiritual – that should guide the restoration. Since a church was created as a place of prayer, it should invite us to explore – to explore the church, ourselves, and faith.

Door to the Abbaye de Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

But these restored churches don’t offer that experience. Instead of inviting us to explore, the new lighting and painting force the churches to reveal all of their secrets and beauties immediately, for instant gratification. The tourist can grab a couple of shots with a consumer camera (how often do these annoying little blazes of useless flashes flicker in the periphery of ones vision), light a quick candle, and scurry on to the next attraction. Not only is the lighting contrary to the spirit of the building itself, but is most often accompanied by disastrous choices in lighting fixtures.

North side aisle of Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) (Photo by PJ McKey)

The churches should be seen as much as possible with the light that is available in the buildings themselves, and not depend overly on artificial illumination. This is not just a preference, but is based on experience in the ways that light has always been used to communicate. In the Dordogne, there are many caves filled with prehistoric art. Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume are two of the most famous, but there are caves all over southern Europe teeming with these images. There exist many curious examples of overlapping images, which are confusing, in a way. My first impression was that they were over-painted, one image over another, but at the Grotte de Rouffignac, I was shown something else. Rather than use a flashlight to illuminate the overlaid engravings incised into the wall, the guide used a candle. I was stunned. Instead of a jumble of images, I saw movement, animation. The flickering light created the sense of motion in the images and I realized that the effect was not accidental. These were movies!

The early Romanesque churches are the same. The original churches could not have a great deal of light because the walls had to be thick and unbroken to support the heavy stone barrel vaults. As the development of vaults came to create groin vaults, there was room for small clerestory windows, and as the quadripartite vault developed, there was room for large open spaces, and consequently, more light. But Notre Dame du Port, Saint Savin, and Saint Nectaire did not have quadripartite vaults. Their barrel vaults kept them fundamentally dark and shadowed. They may have been brightly painted with polychrome patterns like Saint Austremoine in Issoire, but the overall sensation of the space would not have been brightness. There was simply not enough light. The relative scarcity of light in the Romanesque churches is part of the fascination, because the source is part of the design. Consequently, the church would reveal itself to the faithful as they moved from one section to another, just as movement of light created the movement in the cave paintings and engravings.

Basilique Saint Julien, Brioude (Haute-Loire) (Photo by PJ McKey)

Oftentimes, the light in a church is designed to play a specific role in the celebrations of the rituals of worship. Like the great prehistoric dolmen of Stonehenge, light was designed to strike a particular place at a particular hour, or a particular hour even of a particular day. It may strike the altar in celebration of the birth of Christ, or a crucifix on the day associated with his Passion. This effect would not be possible if the church were brightly lit. And how many times do we see the spectacular light piercing through the darkness into the church, echoing the words of the Christian savior, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12).

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) (Photo by PJ McKey)

In Saint Savin, Saint Nectaire, and Notre Dame du Port, these were sights that could be seen, the light of God piercing the darkness and bringing hope to mankind. But this is no longer possible in these churches. One of the fundamental illustrations of the meaning of God in the life of medieval man has been eliminated. No more can one thrill to that sight. Such an aesthetic decision can be forgiven in Saint Savin where the details of the extraordinary frescoes deserve to be illuminated. But in Saint Nectaire and Clermont-Ferrand, there is no justification.

By illuminating the whole church brightly and evenly, the restorers violate one of the fundamental principals of the Romanesque church. Through their nine centuries, they would never have been seen that way, nor would they ever have been intended to be seen that way. Full illumination destroys the mystery and the power of the structures.

The shadows and mysteries of Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

It is not as if there are no ready models in France to guide us in this. Notre Dame la Grande, in Poitiers, is a perfect example for dealing with a Romanesque church, long vistas with candles and discreet lighting at one end.

In the great Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun (Côte-d’Or), we see the same wonderful vistas. The alternating light and shadow allows us to feel the power of towering nave walls and the barrel vault, the delicate beauty of the engaged pilasters, and high above, the small clerestory windows. We sense the iconography of the stone itself.

The nave of the great Cathédrale Saint Lazare in Autun (Côte-d'Or) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

And so, to the restorers, I would ask that you consider the light when you undertake your tasks. Ask how the building revealed itself before the advent of electric lights and try to allow the visitor to experience that journey. Turn off your lamps and look at the church alone at night by candlelight. See what happens to the structure, and learn. There is mystery to great art, and when you remove that mystery, you remove the call to examine our lives. The church becomes merely an exhibition, cold and still. You have removed the life from the stone.

If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.

One response to “Restoration Tragedy – An Apology (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. By the way, the extraordinary shot of Saint Austremoine in this post (along with the Brioude and Clermont-Ferrand photos) was taken by PJ this year. It is, to my mind, the single best shot we took of 12,000 during May and June.

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