Which do you prefer? The black or white Madonna of Chartres cathedral in France — neither or both? Your call. Of this much there should be no doubt: Historical preservation is a cause well worth supporting. But which part of that history is best preserved? Just selected slices of it? And if so, which ones would you choose to save, new or old or a mix? Let’s hope we can all agree on one thing: The novel concept of brand new history is an obvious contradiction in terms.
According to Benjamin Ramm in the Sept. 2 New York Times, Patrice Bertrand recalls hearing his mother tell him about her pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Black Madonna at the cathedral 60 miles southwest of Paris. But now he’s bothered and bewildered when he sets out to pay homage to the icon. “It is not here anymore,” he reports. It seems the Black Madonna has been bleached white, like some cheap blonde. All in the name of saving her.
An officious little plaque explained that “the unsightly coating” of grime the statue had accumulated through the years and centuries is gone. The cathedral is scarcely recognizable now that the smoke from the burning candles her devotees had been so long accustomed to lighting in her honor had been brushed away. So had the residue from the oil lamps that had once darkened the walls and exquisite stained-glass windows.
Clean, well-lit progress had come to medieval Chartres, and it might take some getting used to — if the facelift is accepted by people seeking faith, hope and charity. And today’s visitors might react with more shock than awe.
The more legalistic of worshippers have been heard to complain that this grand modernization project violates the Charter of Venice, adopted in 1964, which bars any redesign of historical monuments for cosmetic rather than structural motives.
“I’m very democratic,” the restorer-in-chief Patrice Calvel explains, “but the public is not competent to judge” the work of his august self. Not that such haughtiness has kept the mere public from objecting — loud and clear. Various entries in the visitors’ registry call his approach to history and faith “arrogant.”
Professor Jeffrey F. Hamburger, a specialist in medieval art at Harvard, asserts that there is “no reason to be nostalgic or romantic about the dirt.” So much for the idea of holy soil that has moved millions over the ages. To associate Gothic structures with “dark, brooding gloom,” he adds, “is fundamentally misguided....” For they should not be treated as “monuments to melancholy.” How about as literally groundbreaking tributes to an historic time in Western architecture when flying buttresses introduced a whole new vision of Western architecture?
The culture vultures of the United Nations, aka UNESCO, call the cathedral’s old windows “a museum to stained glass” that deserve their own shade of paint — bleu de Chartres, a mix of cobalt and manganese. Those of its windows that have been left just as they were over the centuries now serve as a kind of before-and-after commercial for this brand-new holy relic. Gallic logic has triumphed once again over the hard-won experience of the ages.
What seems to have been lost at Chartres isn’t only the cathedral’s holiness as it has been “improved” beyond shadowy recognition by these interior decorators. And it now stands as an example to beware for those entrusted with the care of other holy sites around the world. What about Italy’s old Venice, which a distinguished American visitor said might be a fine city if only it were drained of all that excess water? Arise, you moderns! You have only your history to lose.
Paul Greenberg is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.