Last week I shared with you the sad state of affairs at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, where an enormous amount of funds need to be raised to save the famous French Gothic church. Today I want to direct you to developments in an ongoing story which I’ve shared with you before, concerning the controversial restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres. As (arguably) France’s most important Gothic cathedral, Chartres has always attracted a great deal of attention from architects, historians, and scholars – and of course, from pilgrims and tourists as well. With the latest phase of restoration completed and more still to come, some of the changes to what most people think of as the quintessential “Gothic” building are going to be quite shocking.
I’ll let the lengthy NYT piece speak for itself, but I particularly wanted to point out how the “Black Madonna of Chartres” is no longer: she’s back to her original white. In fact as the article points out at the end, she was originally the “White Madonna of Chartres”, as “White Madonnas” made of materials such as ivory, alabaster, or white marble were beloved in both Medieval France and Spain – hence the popularity of the names “Blanche” or “Blanca”. Over centuries of soot from candles, incense, and dust accumulating on their surfaces, these statue often developed a dark patina, turning their skin to a black or grayish color. You can see from these before and after images of Our Lady of Chartres, just how dirty this particular statue had become:
Regarding the overall controversy in the art press of the restoration work underway at Chartres, I certainly admit to having a personal perspective – or bias, if you prefer. As someone who has not only studied and appreciated sacred art and architecture for most of my life, but who is also a practicing Catholic, I’ve always found commentary from non-Catholic historians and experts on Catholic art and Catholic buildings to be automatically suspect. In fact, many such highly-regarded commentators, when you dig a bit into their background and writings, are not only not Catholics, they openly hate the Catholic Church, or reject all religion generally.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that you have to believe in God in order to understand Catholic art and architecture. But any Catholic with an art or architecture background can share horror stories of visiting an exhibition, or watching a television documentary, and reacting in horror to the complete misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation of Catholicism by those involved.
Sometimes, the cause of this is simple ignorance. Just two weeks ago for example, I had to correct an international art dealer who had misidentified a late Renaissance painting of Saint Matthew as Saint Peter, when the image was so clearly of the former and not the latter that the error could have been corrected by a 6th-grader in a parochial school. At other times however, one gets the impression that many art experts class Catholicism as being no different from the now-dead worship of Ishtar or Zeus, conveniently forgetting or downplaying the fact that today, in 2017, over one billion people living around the world are members of the Catholic Church.
As Chartres becomes less of a dark, moody place, and returns to something more like its original appearance, there are legitimate concerns that should be considered, from those who want to make certain that the building is not being harmed in any way. But as a Harvard art professor quoted in the Times piece points out, there is “no reason to be nostalgic or romantic about the dirt,” because buildings like Chartres were “not monuments to melancholy.” These were places filled with light, color, and music, built to honor God, and to give believers a preview of the Heaven they are meant to strive for, as Catholics. These are functions which these structures still carry out, many centuries later.
Perhaps the real question we should be asking then, is whether a beautifully restored church poses an uncomfortable challenge to those who prefer to portray Catholicism as something dark, ruinous, and sinister in nature.