First Contact in France – Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


Last week we finally arrived in France, got our car and drove immediately to Chartres. Our objective was the restored cathedral that we have been documenting for the last six years.

We had lunch with the magnificent Servane de Layre-Mathéus, president of Association Chartres, sanctuaire du monde who has raised so much money in service of her beloved cathedral. She described Chartres as the “Cathedral of Life.” “What don’t you see here that you see in all other cathedrals?” she asked. I could not come up with an answer. “Tombs, she said. “There are no tombs for the dead here.” Once she mentioned it, one could not miss the absence. This is the home of the beloved Virgin and it was not a place for death. The cathedral reflects that purpose now and the difference from the years prior to the restoration is marked.

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Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I won’t get into what I consider the ridiculous Martin Filler screed on the restoration (and I hesitate even to link to it). I am sorry that his personal preference for the dark, moody, cathedral with its “patina” is gone, but to call the current restoration “scandalous” is simply the work of a provocateur. The difference in the sensibility of the cathedral is enormous. One can actually see the architecture, appreciate the brilliance of the stained glass, and understand the purpose of the building.

The restoration of the interior is not quite finished. The two side aisles and the transepts are still waiting, and several bays of windows are not done. PJ’s shot from the northern side aisle to the nave and crossing shows the difference in the restored-unrestored areas.

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Side aisle to crossing, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by PJ McKey

Shooting vaults in large cathedrals can be challenging when using a wide angle lens. It is not like I can lay down and just shoot up … the angles must all align properly, the tripod takes a special setup and I use a laser to center the shot. As a result, there is usually a small crowd of onlookers curious to see what I am doing; certainly there is an element of theater to it all.

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Nave vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But this shot was made more difficult by an example of bad photographic etiquette. I was almost completely finished with the setup, probably fifteen minutes’ work, when a woman came up and asked me to move, as a “professional courtesy”. She was with a photographer who needed to take a full nave shot for a postcard. I reluctantly agreed since I had another fifteen minutes or so of work, stowed my equipment and moved to the side aisle. There I saw what “professional courtesy” meant to her. She was standing next to a photographer with a small consumer camera taking handheld shots with a built-in flash from the back of the church! This is as useless as taking a picture at the Super Bowl using a consumer flash camera. I was furious; and to make it worse, they “chimped” over almost every photograph. Finally they finished and I was able to go back to my shot, but had to start from scratch. Some day I will do a post on photographer-to-photographer etiquette, one of my pet peeves.

Our only disappointment in the three days here was our inability to visit with the rector of the Cathedral, Gilles Fresson. This kind and generous man was completely consumed with the preparations for a broadcast of the Sunday mass on French television and his own interview on the history of the cathedral. Next year, for sure!

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Chartres Mass (cfrt Productions)

An article on the restoration of Notre Dame de Chartres


Our colleagues at American Friends of Chartres (AFC) have posted an interesting article on the restoration of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres by AFC Trustee Craig Kuehl. The article includes photographs on some of the restoration work that is proceeding on the stained glass windows of Bay 140, AFC’s current project.

Claire Babet explains the work to be done on Bay 140 (Photo by Craig Kuehl)

Claire Babet explains the work to be done on Bay 140 (Photo by Craig Kuehl)

The first photograph above shows the before/after state of a section of the window that was used for a test-cleaning. The second photo below gives a hint at the enormity of the challenges faced by the stained glass restoration specialist Claire Babet and her team as the windows arrive for processing.

Chartres windows after arriving at Atelier Vitraux of Claire Babet (Photo by Craig Kuehl)

Chartres windows after arriving at Atelier Vitraux of Claire Babet (Photo by Craig Kuehl)

The artisans of Claire BABET Vitraux must disassemble the entire window, clean and process each individual piece of glass, and then remount the ensemble to its original form.

Removing the lead lining  (Photo by Craig Kuehl)

Removing the lead lining (Photo by Craig Kuehl)

These photos and this article are an excellent introduction to the nature of the work being done to preserve and restore the treasures of the cathedral. We’ll try to keep you posted on the work as American Friends of Chartres helps Bay 140 comes back to brilliant life.

Restoration in Miniature – Notre Dame du Pilier (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“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.”

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Pre-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pre-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.”

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

“Patina”, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

The Barbarians have breached the gates


There are no words.

Glaine-Montaigut – The Misfortune of Good Intentions (Dennis Aubrey)


The Auvergne region of France has such enormous riches of Romanesque churches that we sometimes overlook the smaller gems. In the town of Glaine-Montaigut, about twenty miles due east of Clermont-Ferrand, we found the Église Saint-Jean. More important, perhaps, it was just five miles from Billom, with whose church the leading family of the town, the Aycelin de Montaigut, were strongly associated.

Saint Jean was constructed as a priory church in the late 11th and early 12th centuries and was built with yellow arkose, a form of sandstone that gives the church its warm tones.

Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The two bays of the nave and the side aisles appear to be the earliest part of the church. The massive cruciform pillars separate the nave from the side aisles and lead up to a clerestory level that supports the barrel vault covering the space. The color scheme of the painted decoration (modern based on original remnants) is yellow and red with blue-black and white accents on arches.

Nave, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles have the same color scheme and are covered with demi-berceaux, half-barrel vaults. Despite the half-barrel vaults, there are large windows in each bay of the aisle.

Side aisle, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The crossing has some interesting features; the each of the four arches are pierced with double-arched openings

Crossing, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse is a small, narrow space, but elegantly composed. Each of the three windows is framed with a pair of slender columns topped with a historiated capital. The oven vault features the remnants of a Christ in Majesty fresco.

The fresco – and the rest of the church – suffered a great deal of damage from a a catastrophic renovation in 1886 when a local parishioner funded the restoration himself. The choice was made to cover the walls and pillars with a thick layer of gray cement. This not only obscured the paintings that had survived, but introduced a great deal of humidity to the church, which damaged what had not already been destroyed.

In an attempt to give some artistic form to the brutal covering treatment of the Église Saint-Jean, the oven vault with the painting had been covered with a sky-blue cement layer. What has been recovered of the oven vault painting is the image of Christ enthroned, flanked by unidentified saints. It was recently pointed out to me by Claire Dane, one of our readers, that this is a representation of the Deësis; Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Saint Peter, and John the Evangelist.

Altar, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The latest restoration in 1992 started with the task of removing the cement. This in itself was a huge and difficult task. When the process was completed, there was a layer of rubble three feet deep on the floor of the church. The work was, most fortunately for all of us, successful and one of the benefits was to discover the traces of colors were found throughout the church. These remnants were used to guide the more fitting task of restoring Saint-Jean to her Romanesque origins.

Arch detail, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Arch detail, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Even the capitals, which are located mostly in the choir and the crossing, show traces of the original polychrome on the sculpture.

Capital, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Église Saint-Jean, Glaine-Montaigut (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Jean in Glaine-Montaigut bears witness to the difficulties inherent in restoration, or even historic preservation. Good intentions, as evidenced by the good burgher of the town, are not enough. Fortunately, this church survived those intentions and we are able to appreciate the medieval splendor of a small priory church.

Location: 45.755626° 3.389159°

The Destruction of History (Dennis Aubrey)


So many times we have written about the destruction of the great Romanesque and Gothic churches that we photograph. The litanies are endless and the wars tiresome in their repetition. The Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution, World War I and World War II have all taken a huge toll on these magnificent buildings. But to witness the destruction taking place before our eyes brings a completely new dimension to my personal agony. In our article on the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddhas of Bamyan and the systematic destruction of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims in World War I, we touched on this.

The news the last few days is about ISIS attacking artifacts, some of them identified as antiquities from the seventh century B.C., with sledgehammers and drills, saying they were symbols of idolatry.

Assyrian statues of winged bulls

Assyrian statues of winged bulls

Now we have word that ISIS has defaced and destroyed artifacts in Mosul, including Assyrian statues of winged bulls from the Mesopotamian cities of Ninevah and Nimrud. Video released by the newest barbarians to assault the cultural history of humanity shows a man using a power drill to deface the works.

As so often throughout history, the excuse was religion. “The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him.” How many times in our work at Via Lucis have we read variations of these words from Catholics, Huguenots, Calvinists, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and military leaders?

ISIS destroying Assyrian statues of winged bulls

ISIS destroying Assyrian statues of winged bulls

I had thought that perhaps I was inured to these heartless destructions with all of the churches that we have documented that have been brutally pillaged and defaced, all in the name of whatever excuses fit the vandals. But the truth is that I am just as sickened with a sense of loss today as I have ever been.

Defaced statues, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Defaced statues, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If you have the stomach for it, you can read more here.

David Clayton’s “Way of Beauty”


Wall painting of "Avarice", Saint Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan

Wall painting of “Avarice”, Saint Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan

We find that WordPress is a vibrant and active hosting site filled with wonderful people and blogs. We are constantly stimulated by the material here, among them a long-admired site, David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty, or via pulchritudinis. This is a site full of erudite and thought-provoking work and I’m sure that the students at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire are lucky to have him as a professor.

He just published an article on 15th century paintings discovered in a small Welsh church, Saint Cadoc’s in Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. The article describes how restorers working on the site noticed that a patch of 27 layers of whitewash fell off the wall, revealing the painting underneath. This find is another reminder that the churches of the medieval period were covered in imagery and full of color.

There is a permanent link to his Clayton’s site on our Blogroll to the right.