The Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres is in the middle of a restoration process that has engendered a great deal of controversy, most of which has fortunately died down. The major source of this was Martin Filler’s article in the New York Review of Books and the subsequent rebuttal by Jeffrey Hamburger and Madeline Calviness. Much of Filler’s objection is that he does not agree on the precise period of history that is the target of the restoration and that it will somehow remain the Chartres of Henry Adams Mont Saint Michel and Chartres or Joris-Karl Huysmans’ La Cathédrale.
We will cover more of this restoration debate later, especially after a discussion of the purpose and the discoveries with Gilles Fresson who works at the cathedral. But it was not only the restoration of the church that was castigated by Filler. The restoration of the famed Black Madonna Notre Dame du Pilier aroused his wrath.
“Observant Catholics,” Filler writes, “whose primary interest in the cathedral is religious rather than aesthetic, have been particularly appalled by one aspect of the program: the repainting of Our Lady of the Pillar, the early-seventeenth-century devotional statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child familiarly known as the Black Madonna … Whenever and however Chartres’s Black Madonna acquired its mysterious patina — through oxidation or smoke from candles and incense — it was familiar as such to centuries of the faithful until its recent multicolored makeover, which has transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll.”
We can see in the pre-restoration version of the vierge that Notre Dame du Pilier was indeed black. Her “patina” was the result of years of soot accumulation from the devotional candles lit in her honor, dirt, and other accumulations. She was dressed in regal robes and crowned in order to remind us of her special status.
The restoration removed the accumulation of soot and revealed the traces of the earlier, if not original, polychrome paint. The decision was made to restore these colors, including the clothes, so that there was no need for the robes and crown.
Filler finished his tirade with “We know that ancient Greek statues were painted in vivid polychrome and adorned with earrings, spears, and other metal accouterments. But the idea of actually adding such long-lost elements to, say, the Parthenon Marbles would be even more controversial than the longstanding debate over where those sculptures should be housed. Officials in charge at Chartres now are engaged in a pursuit as foolhardy as adding a head to the Winged Victory of Samothrace or arms to the Venus de Milo.”
Filler seems very fond of using the term patina to refer to the process of aging in both the cathedral and in the status. Just to give you an idea of what “patina” really represents at Chartres, we offer the following photograph.
Notice that there are three levels of restoration here. To the left, the columns show the cleaned columns with no subsequent treatment. These columns feature lighter areas that are the paint from the original construction of the cathedral, especially in the lower regions. The center, the choir, shows the restored apse with the restored windows above at the clerestory level. This section has been repainted according to the best information available from the cleaned columns. Finally, the dark, almost black band on the right, is the uncleaned, unrestored south transept. In real life it is easily this dark, perhaps even darker. The cathedral was dark and mysterious, which offered a certain charm and certainly for Huysmans, was the fitting look for his Chartres.
Ultimately, we are faced with a choice of which version of Christianity the cathedral should represent. Should it be the joyous Christianity of 13th century Chartres, or the dour, post-rationalist Christianity of the industrial age?
We would love to hear from our readers about this restoration, in particular that of Notre Dame du Pilier.