The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)


We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And then he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

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.

The Barbarians have breached the gates


There are no words.

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.

Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux (Dennis Aubrey)


Every once in awhile we look at the list of churches we have profiled and are astonished that we have missed something important – this most recent was the discovery that we have not written about the Cathédrale Saint Front in Périgueux, one of the most unique Romanesque churches. In the case of Saint Front, we have an example of a southwestern domed church with one of the most arresting profiles of any church in Christendom.

Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux, Photo copyright Christian Foucher

Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux, Photo copyright Christian Foucher

There are many descriptions of the cathedral that give its date of foundation as early 11th century (1010-1047). This seems to be based on the assumption that the church is modeled on Saint Mark’s in Venice and coincides with the journey of Gerald de Salignac, the Bishop of Périgueux, to the Holy Land (via Venice) at that time. But however good the story, it is not true. While there was definitely a church built by the Bishop Frotaire de Gourdon, begun in 990 and consecrated in 1047, that is not the present church.

I have found two chronicles of the church that reference the date of the destruction of the earlier church. The first is a document stating that Saint Madeleine of Vézelay was burned on the same day as Saint Front. It is a fact that the abbey church in Vézelay was burned in July 1120. The second reads “In the year 1120, 22nd of July, the Monastery of Saint-Front of Périgord was burnt with many men and women. William of Alba-Rocha, Bishop of Périgueux, in whose time the Monastery of Saint Front was burnt down, with all its ornaments in sudden conflagration, for the sins of the people, and the bells in the bell tower were melted in the fire. At that time the monastery was covered with timber roofs.”

Another reason that we can confidently date the cathedral to the 12th century is a comparison with the cupolas of the nearby Cathédrale Saint Etienne de Cahors, consecrated in 1119. The cupolas there are made of roughly hewn stone and required a coat of plaster for finishing. The stereotomy at Saint Front is finely worked and didn’t require plastering, indicating a period of time where the workmanship improved. It is very clear that this church was built in the 12th century.

Crossing to south transept, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing to south transept, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

The structure of the church, considered somewhat common in the east, is unique in France. Saint Front is built on the plan of a Greek cross with a center chancel surrounded by four equal areas. The five areas of the church are the central chancel, transepts on the north and south, the nave to the west, and the choir to the east. Beyond the choir is the apse. There are indications that further bays might have been intended for the nave in the west that would have changed the structure to the more prevalent Latin cross. Internal evidence suggests that the church was always intended to have the form of a Greek cross.

Ground plan, Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux

Ground plan, Cathédrale Saint Front de Périgueux

The five areas are defined by a dozen massive pillars and each is topped with an imposing cupola. Originally they were of different sizes, but in the restoration, Paul Abadie made them identical. The cupolas are 12.35 meters across and the crossing cupola is 27.25 meters high, slightly higher than the four on the arms of the Greek cross. Each cupola is carried by pendentives created by the pillars. Notice the chamfered ring around the base of each cupola.

Cupolas, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cupolas, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the unique features of Saint Front are the double aisles through each of the colossal piers supporting the central cupola – there is an opening for the aisle in each of the four faces. There are also two windows on each face of those piers.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today, the altar has been placed under the chancel crossing so the effect is somewhat like “theater in the round”.

Chancel crossing to apse, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing to apse, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse is covered with an oven vault and features a magnificent unpainted retable from the 17th century. The carving features the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.

Apse and retable, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse and retable, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are small side chapels on either side of the apse, almost invisible from most of the church. One of the interesting views is from a distance through the massive nave and chancel piers.

Apsidal chapel through nave pillar, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apsidal chapel through nave pillar, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

The twelve large piers also have another interesting design function – they divide each of the five volumes of the churches into the shape of a cross. In a way, this makes a puzzle that asks, “how many Greek crosses can be found in the plan of main body of Saint Front?” The answer is first, the five large spaces themselves, then an additional five spaces within each large space, but we must add eight more – the shapes inside the piers of the chancel and transepts. The intersecting aisles make these Greek crosses in themselves. We have eighteen Greek crosses in the plan of the church.

Chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The western entrance to the church is through the remains of what is known as the vielle église, the old church, which is a remnant of the Carolingian church that burned in 1127. We can also see the impressive organ above the entrance.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Readers of Via Lucis should find it no surprise that the architect in charge of the restoration, Paul Abadie, made significant changes to the Cathedral when he restored it. The arched vaults that carry the pendentive were originally pointed. In order to make them more like Saint Mark’s, the putative inspiration for Saint Front, he made them rounded. He also completely altered the eastern end. The original apse was very shallow and was replaced in the 14th century by a large chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony that was over 18 meters long. Abadie removed this and replaced it with the apse we see now. In order to accomplish these changes, the architect actually pulled down much of the original church. What we see today is a copy, an interpretation.

Nave from west porch, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from west porch, Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

I have read that women of Périgueux who saw the church after restoration wept for the destructions that they saw. ‪John Henry Parker‬ wrote that Saint Front has been “deprived of its value in the history of art,” and is nothing more than a “modern church studied from a Romanesque original.” All of the unique touches that made Saint Front unique in its differences from the eastern models from which it was probably derived are gone. In search of a perfection that never existed, Abadie destroyed the unique character of this great church. Today, we can admire the splendid Cathédrale of Saint Front de Périgueux created by Abadie and only speculate on what was destroyed.

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

For those who are interested, here is a link to a fine 360° immersive image of the Cathédrale Saint Front.

Location: 45.183721° 0.722982°

Paul Abadie and the Restoration of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre d’Angoulême (Dennis Aubrey)


The French adore their history and patrimony and it should come as no surprise that they initiated the first national program of preserving their monuments. The government established the Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1837 and poet and writer Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen and other works, was appointed the first Inspector General of Monuments. Many of the finest French architects of the day were commissioned to evaluate and restore France’s great architectural heritage.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

But from the beginning, there emerged a dualism that has never been resolved. Should a restoration program 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). In either case, there is little possibility of recovering from the changes made once they are begun.

Nave and pulpit, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave and pulpit, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

Paul Abadie, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Image in the Public Domain)

Paul Abadie, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Image in the Public Domain)

In the history of French architects who worked for the Monuments Nationale, few are as controversial as Paul Abadie (1812-1884), who is best known for the church that he designed for Paris, the Basilique Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre. Abadie was a gifted architect, of that there is no doubt. Grandson of a Bordeaux plasterer and son of a famous architect, Abadie worked with Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc on the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris and later directed the restoration of the four great domed churches of the French southwest – the Abbatiale Sainte-Marie in Souillac and the three cathedrals of Saint Front in Périgueux, Saint Etienne in Cahors, and Saint Pierre in Angoulême. They became his specialty and his passion.

The church in Angoulême that Abadie was selected to restore, the Cathédrale Saint Pierre, was built in the first half of the 12th century, consecrated in 1128 during the episcopacy of the legate Girard d’Angoulême. The church has a cruciform plan with an aisleless nave of three bays, a transept, and choir with radiating apsidal chapels. The nave and crossing are spanned by large domes supported by pendentives while the transepts and choir are covered with barrel vaults.

Nave, Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is an extensive sculptural program on the west facade, which we will talk about in a later post. This magnificent facade was, unusually, in the form of square, but that did not agree with Abadie’s concepts and he completely changed the profile by adding a gable and bell towers.

This is the crux of the matter with Paul Abadie’s work. His fine understanding of Romanesque architecture and his own artistic gifts meant that he seemed to have little patience for work that did not meet the standards of his refined and somewhat classical sense of beauty. His obituary in “The Builder”, Volume 47 (August 16, 1884) puts a positive spin on this by writing that his works “… indicate sincere research and a profound feeling for the architecture of the Middle Ages, imitated in its principals and broad lines, but wisely M. Abadie has repudiated whimsicalities and capricious exaggerations.”

While to the rest of us, whimsicalities and capricious exaggerations are often integral to Romanesque architecture, Abadie sought to remove them. But, in addition, he often did worse. In an edition of The Ecclesiologist from October 1855, there is a commentary of his restoration of the transitional church of Rioux-Martin in the Charente: “M. Abadie restores the apse, moves the sacristies from the east end to the new quasi-transepts, and adds angle-pinnacles to the tower at the base of an octagonal spire. This restoration seems to us less satisfactory than might have been wished.”

This tendency to re-create instead of restore is illustrated by two photographs taken by members of the Mission Héliographique, Gustave Le Gray and Adolphe Braun. The first photograph was taken immediately prior to Abadie’s restoration of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème and the second soon afterwards.

Gustave Le Gray. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1851. Épreuve argentique à l’albumine à partir d’un négatif sur papier ciré, 31,6 x 24,0 cm. Collection CCA. PH1999:0094

Gustave Le Gray. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1851. Épreuve argentique à l’albumine à partir d’un négatif sur papier ciré, 31,6 x 24,0 cm. Collection CCA. PH1999:0094

In the first, we see the west facade of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème as a square surface, with some rather unpleasant structures above the cornice, clearly unsuccessful later additions to the cathedral.

Abadie’s solution to the restoration was to remove these additions, but that was not enough for him. In order to meet his own conception of Romanesque architecture, he added the gable and the two towers, topped with his famous pine cone pinnacles that were featured in the clocher at Saint Front. He completely altered the original design of the cathedral.

Adolphe Braun. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1859 ou après. Épreuve au charbon, 50 x 38,9 cm. Collection CCA. PH1981:0441

Adolphe Braun. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1859 ou après. Épreuve au charbon, 50 x 38,9 cm. Collection CCA. PH1981:0441

However – and this is an important however – the resultant church that Abadie created in his restoration of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême is certainly a finer structure than the one that submitted to his ministrations. I don’t think anybody would argue that fact. His removal of the ugly porch of the west portal and opening up of the doorway is much more faithful to the Romanesque intent. When I showed the “before” and “after” photos to PJ, she immediately noted that the “after” version was better.

But the additions of the gable and towers, while faithful to other Romanesque models, had nothing to do with this specific cathedral and the structure lost much of what once made it unique. Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême was changed to fit the conception of what was medieval by a 19th century restorer with refined classical tastes. There is no chance that Abadie would have indulged in the re-creation of medieval painted interiors as did some of his colleagues; his was the severe purity of white stone and elegant structure. Abadie was better served building his own church on Paris’ Mount of Martyrs.

Dome, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dome, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral of Angoulème is a fitting successor to many religious structures sited in the same place in the past – a temple dedicated to Jupiter in Gallo-Roman times (almost certainly on the site of an even earlier shrine), a 4th century cathedral (subsequently destroyed by the Clovis shortly after he defeated the Visigoths at Vouillé in 507), a successor rebuilt in the 6th century (destroyed by Normans in 981), another consecrated in 1017 but only lasted a century because it was too small, and finally, the cathedral we see today dedicated to Saint Peter, which has lasted longer than all the others combined. Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème remains one of the great churches of France, one of a group of domed churches that are distinctive and elegant. The tides of history wash back and forth creating and destroying, and I guess that restoration is just one of those surges.

Nave to chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave to chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

But there is mystery to great art and the contemplation of that mystery is one of the ways we examine our own lives. No man or woman ever penetrates the mystery completely. What is valuable is the contemplation, not the explanation. To recast the mystery into our own vernacular is like a translation of Shakespeare or Molière – we can understand the plot, but we lose the poetry. The mystery is lost. When we remove that mystery, for ourselves or more devastatingly for others, we remove the call to examine our lives. The church becomes merely an exhibition, cold and still. We have removed the life from the stone.

Location: 45.648920° 0.151790°

Theories of Architectural Conservation – A Guest Post by Douglas Read


Theories of Architectural Conservation – or How did we get from what we had to what we have?

Few of the old buildings we see around us today are untouched by modern hands. The older the building the more hands it has passed through and the more changes time will have wrought upon it. To what extent are we seeing what the original architects and stonemasons meant us to see? To what extent can we expect to see their vision intact? Should we expect to see it intact? If not then what should we expect? These and similar questions have been discussed by architectural conservationists for over 100 years.

Firstly what would be a useful definition of conservation? James Simpson has put forward “action to secure the survival or preservation of buildings, cultural artefacts, natural resources, energy or any other thing of acknowledged value for the future” and further suggests updating of this definition might replace the first word “action” with “management of change”. This has the benefit of being straightforward, succinct and acknowledging that change is what we are faced with.

Issu du Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, par Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc, 1856.

Issu du Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, par Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc, 1856.

There are 4 basic stages of architectural conservation:-

1. Maintenance work of an everyday nature, keeping gutters clear, replacing fallen slates.

2. Repair work beyond the scope of regular maintenance… to return a building or artefact to good order without alteration or restoration.

3. Reconstruction: re-establishment of the design of a building or artefact, or of what existed or occurred in the past, on the basis of documentary or physical evidence.

4. Restoration: alteration of the fabric of a building or artefact to make it conform again to its design or appearance at a previous date.

What philosophy guides the conservation architect in his or her work in each of these and how has this philosophy developed over time? Historically 3 major characters have influenced conservation philosophy. These are Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1894-1936).

Basic intervention theories of historic preservation are framed in the dualism of the retention of the status quo versus a “restoration” that creates something that may never actually have existed in the past. John Ruskin was a strong proponent of the former, while Viollet-le-Duc, argued for the latter.

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814 – 1879)  Photo by Félix Nadar

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814 – 1879) Photo by Félix Nadar

Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc has had a huge influence on the development of architectural theory through the 20th Century and to today. Essentially he took structure and function of Architecture as its sole determinants of form, completely dismissing speculative aesthetic systems. In effect he preceded Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” by several years.
Viollet-le Duc published his influential « Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture » in 1854. A second important work appeared four years later. His “Entretiens sur l’architecture” and “Dictionnaire du mobilier” of 1858 contained discussion on goldsmiths’ work, musical instruments, jewellery and armour in addition to furniture. His own sketches accompanied the text. Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

During the early 1830s, a popular feeling for the restoration of medieval buildings developed in France. Viollet-le-Duc, returning during 1835 from study in Italy, was commissioned by Prosper Mérimée to restore the Romanesque abbey of Vézelay. This was the first of a long series of restorations; Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations at Notre Dame de Paris brought him national attention. His other main works include Mont Saint-Michel, Carcassonne, Roquetaillade castle and Pierrefonds.

Facade of Église Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay before restoration, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Facade of Église Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay before restoration, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc © Photo RMN-Grand Palais – G. Blot

Viollet-le-Duc’s “restorations” frequently combined historical fact with creative modification. For example, under his supervision, Notre Dame was not only cleaned and restored but also “updated”, gaining its distinctive third tower (a type of flèche) in addition to other smaller changes including the gallery of chimeras and Le Stryge which have now become iconic symbols of Notre Dame themselves. Possibly his most famous restoration, the medieval fortified town of Carcassonne, was similarly enhanced, gaining a set of pointed roofs that are actually more typical of northern France on each of its many wall towers. The Chateau de Pierrefonds he took from essentially a ruin to the state where it has served as a location for “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Merlin”. Modern conservation practice considers Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations too free, too interpretive, but some of the monuments he restored might have been lost otherwise.

John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900)

John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900)

John Ruskin was hugely significant in the Anglophone world for his opinions and judgements on all forms of art and architecture, though translated into many languages by admirers like Proust and Ghandi. He is perhaps best known for his early championship of the Pre-Raphaelites. His writings especially “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849) and “Stones of Venice” (1851-53) were highly influential and remain in print today. In the “Lamp of Memory” he wrote, “Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”

A greater divergence from Viollet-le-Duc’s approach would be hard to imagine.

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896)

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896)

William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877 based on the teachings of Ruskin. Morris was particularly concerned about the practice of attempting to return buildings to an idealised state from the distant past (i.e. Viollet-le-Duc’s approach), which often involved the removal of elements added in their later development and which Morris saw as contributing to their interest as documents of the past. He saw this as lying. Instead, he proposed that ancient buildings should be repaired, not restored, so that their entire history would be protected as cultural heritage. This took Ruskin’s approach one step farther – to accept work done to the building since its origin as part of the continuing story of the building and equally valid. The Society is still very active and its principles are followed by land and property owners as important as the National Trust, they run seminars and “hands-on” classes for architects and craftsmen as well as providing scholarships.

The philosophical argument remains current when restoration is being considered for a building or landscape. In removing layers of history from a building, information and age value are also removed and lost forever. However, adding features to a building, as Viollet-le-Duc did, can be more appealing to modern viewers. The argument as to which approach is “correct” is played out in front of us all when we visit any ancient monument or restored building. Sometimes it looks “new” – the Viollet-le-Duc solution. Sometimes it looks like a patchwork doll with contrasting pieces of old and new – the Ruskin/Morris solution. Is there a definitive Right or Wrong?

Today’s conservation architect is guided by the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter (1999), developed under the aegis of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in succession to the earlier (1964) Venice Charter. It was designed for application in Australia, but has since been seen world-wide as the Gold Standard of Conservation philosophy.

The Charter gives clear and helpful guidance to the practitioner and is very clear on definitions and in particular includes the assessment of the cultural significance of the building as well as its material and current or future uses. Cultural Significance is defined (in Article 1) as”aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations” while conservation is seen as “all the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance”. Article 3 urges “respect for the existing fabric, use, associations and meanings” and importantly explains that “traces of additions, alterations and earlier treatments to the fabric of a place are evidence of its history and uses which be part of its significance. Conservation should assist and not impede their understanding”.
Thus in practical terms the Charter is the offspring of Ruskin, but its enthusiasm for cultural significance may be said to derive from Violett-le-Duc. The conservation architect should make as little alteration to the fabric as possible, but should enhance the public’s understanding of the cultural significance of the building or place.

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