This article titled “US architecture critic sparks row over Chartres Cathedral restoration” was written by Anne Penketh and Kim Willsher in Paris, for The Guardian on Friday 19th December 2014 15.05 UTC
When the American architecture critic Martin Filler and his wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter, visited the country recently they decided to view the progress of an eight-year restoration project at the Unesco world heritage site, 50 miles southwest of Paris. Its soaring interior is being cleansed of centuries of pollution and grime from candles and oil lamps.
But their visit has caused an extraordinary row, with Filler accusing the project’s architect, Patrice Calvel, of a cultural desecration akin to “adding arms to the Venus de Milo”. Calvel has hit back, telling the Guardian that the work on the 800-year-old cathedral “is not taken on lightly to satisfy the fantasies of a few”.
Filler and his wife, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, an architectural historian, were so horrified by what they saw that he denounced the “scandalous” makeover in his blog on the New York Review of Books website.
The searing criticism followed an article in Le Figaro that described the cleaning as similar to “watching a film in a cinema where they haven’t switched off the lights”.
Filler’s main complaint is that the €15m (£11.7m) state-run makeover, which began in 2009, set out “to do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state”.
He singled out the cathedral’s historic Black Madonna, whose “repainting” had “transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll”.
Filler called for the “foolhardy” project to be reversed.
In Chartres, the head of the project’s private fundraising arm expressed alarm at the possible impact of the article on international public opinion.
“What will be the effect on our sister organisation in the United States, which is raising money to restore stained glass windows that are to be displayed in the US?” asked Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde’s Caroline Berthod-Bonnet. The non-profit organisations are raising money from private sources to support the restoration, which is mainly funded by the French state, regional authorities and the European Union.
Calvel, the architect in chief of the French culture ministry’s historical monuments division, who oversaw the project until retiring from the civil service two years ago, vigorously defended the restoration. “It has the full weight of the administration of state, historians and architects who decided over a 20-year period what would be done.”
He stressed that there was no repainting over more than 80% of the cathedral interior, which has now been revealed in its original colours dating from 1220-30.
“All I’ve done is a bit of vacuum cleaning,” he said, adding that he did not know Filler and noted that two US experts on the advisory board of the American Friends of Chartres Cathedral had responded to the “misinformed” criticism.
In their contribution to the New York Review of Books – which prompted a rebuttal by Filler – Professors Madeline Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger defended the “careful and historically responsible renovation”.
“I’m serene,” Calvel said. “I’ve got an entire scholastic community behind me.”
As for the criticism in Le Figaro, Calvel said he would not respond to the writer “because he has no competence in this matter”.
Calvel and Berthod-Bonnet acknowledged that the cleaning of the Black Madonna had been controversial. “There’s been some shock,” said Berthod-Bonnet. But Calvel said any major restoration was likely to provoke criticism from some quarters.
Asked whether the parishioners had been consulted, he said: “I’m very democratic, but the public is not competent to judge.”
He said the project had first been explained through the initial restoration of a chapel, “and people were delighted”.
British historic interiors conservator Helen Hughes said that the “top down” French approach to restoration contrasted with procedures in the UK, where users were routinely consulted. During a recent tour of historic interiors in France, Hughes said, she “noticed that conservators talked about the state rather than the involvement of taxpayers and stakeholders”.
Meanwhile, Calvel’s research has proved that the exterior of Chartres Cathedral was also painted in the 13th century, in the same colours as the interior. In medieval times, “everything was painted”, mainly for protection from the elements, he said.
“But if we tried to do that on the outside I would be hanged.”
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