Cleaning House: The Intellectual Challenge Of A Restored Chartres

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:

neg

blanc

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.

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Notre Dame Is Falling Down: Why The French Need Our Help (Again)

If I asked you to name the most famous church in France, more likely than not you would pick the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Thanks to its prominent location in the French capital, its appearance in films, television, and works of art, and its significant influence on church design around the world, Notre Dame is perhaps the best-known religious building in France, even if it’s not quite the most beautiful or interesting church in that country. So it will no doubt grieve you to learn that, as a result of centuries of neglect, Notre Dame is falling down – and needs about 150 million euros to be saved.

As described by the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris charitable group:

Unfortunately, the architectural state of the cathedral is in very bad condition. This does not appear at first glance as the façade was restored in the nineties. However, below are a few examples of the urgent repairs needed :

  • the nearly 100 meter high spire and the 12 apostles that crown it have a large number of cracks and fissures that need an immediate restoration,
  • the aging stonework of all of the flying buttresses are causing problems for the stability of the whole building,
  • many pinnacles and gargoyles are in disrepair or have fallen down and
  • the lead framework of the stained glass windows is weakened

The Ministry of Culture summarized all these needed repairs in a 2014 audit. The overall cost of the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris is estimated to be around €150 million. This estimate includes both the base infrastructure as well as other architectural and cultural treasures. Ideally, these renovations need to be completed within the next 5 years, and at the latest within 15 years.

We can lay the blame for this situation at a number of doorsteps. The passage of time, pollution, declining Mass attendance, poor management, and other factors all have parts to play. However, I suspect that a significant part of the problem lies in the strange relationship which Notre Dame the building has with the congregation which it serves, or rather with the secular government which controls it.

For you see, rather bizarrely, the Archdiocese of Paris does not actually own Notre Dame. It is in fact the property of the French government, which permits the Church to use the Cathedral for religious purposes, but does not provide any funding toward the running of the building. There are comparatively small-scale government grants made to the building for historic preservation purposes, but on the whole, any major restoration costs fall on the Archdiocese’s tab. This head-scratching arrangement was codified at the turn of the previous century, but really began in 1789.

Of the many things which you were probably not taught in school about the French Revolution was the fact that churches like Notre Dame were stolen from the Church by the French government, and desecrated in the name of atheism. In addition to attacks on the fabric of these buildings themselves, where towers, facades, or sometimes even entire structures were torn down, countless works of art contained within them were destroyed or defaced. Graves of the dead buried within these churches were plundered and the bodies thrown onto scrap heaps, while innumerable numbers of books from their libraries were burned, all in the name of worship of the secular French state.

To substitute for Christianity, ceremonies were invented to celebrate the State, or amorphous concepts such as “Liberty”, albeit not a form of that concept which I daresay any reasonable person would care to live under. One of the more egregious examples of this, in the case of Notre Dame, was the celebration within its walls of “The Festival of Reason”, which was described by the Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle in his “The French Revolution: A History” (1837). As part of the bacchanal of blood involved in this event, an actress and prostitute – but I repeat myself – by the name of Amélie-Julie Candeille was dressed as a personification of liberty, paraded around Paris, and brought to the now-desecrated Notre Dame, so that she could be worshiped where the high altar once stood by the President of France and his toadies:

President and Secretaries give Goddess Candeille, borne at due height round their platform, successively the fraternal kiss; whereupon she, by decree, sails to the right-hand of the President and there alights. And now, after due pause and flourishes of oratory, the Convention, gathering its limbs, does get under way in the required procession towards Notre-Dame;–Reason, again in her litter, sitting in the van of them, borne, as one judges, by men in the Roman costume; escorted by wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world. And so straightway, Reason taking seat on the high- altar of Notre-Dame, the requisite worship or quasi-worship is, say the Newspapers, executed; National Convention chanting ‘the Hymn to Liberty, words by Chenier, music by Gossec.’ It is the first of the Feasts of Reason; first communion-service of the New Religion of Chaumette.

After the re-legalization of Christianity in the 19th century there was some improvement to the situation, in the form of an over-zealous restoration project headed by the legendary architect and theoretician Viollet-le-Duc. However, apart from the restoration of some windows after World War II, and the cleaning of the façade twenty years ago, there has been virtually no maintenance work on the Cathedral for nearly two centuries. It’s no wonder, then, that the building is quite literally falling to pieces.

Given the fact that Notre Dame is in the state that she is in is, at least in part, due to the abuse and neglect which she has suffered at the hands of the State, it seems to me that the only proper course of action is either for the French government itself to pay for her restoration, or for the State to wash its hands of the entire cause célèbre by returning ownership of the building to the Church. Neither of these things will happen, of course, since France is too busy paying for important necessities such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s $30,000 makeup bill. In addition, anti-Catholicism is so rooted in the workings of the State, that any attempt to return the Church’s rightful property to her would be doomed to legislative failure.

And so once again, it falls to the international community – and particularly Americans, natch – to take on the work which the French are too impotent to handle themselves. That’s not an excuse for us to sit back and do nothing, of course, while the Cathedral falls into ruin. But it’s rather embarrassing that, once again, the rest of the world has to come to France’s rescue.

Garg

The Assumption: One Miraculous Event, Two Different Artistic Visions

Today as many Christians commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a hugely popular theme in art history, I wanted to share two interesting images of this subject with you. Even if you don’t believe in this dogma, or aren’t even a Christian, I think you’ll be able to appreciate both the beauty and the very different approaches that these artists take in looking at the same subject, albeit two centuries apart. The paintings not only demonstrate the development of Western art, but they also show how individual artists can take a common theme and re-interpret it in very different ways, and in so doing can speak to our own individual thoughts, preferences, and emotions.

The Assumption commemorates the belief, maintained in the Catholic, Orthodox, and certain Protestant churches, that at or shortly after her death, Mary the Mother of Jesus was received into Heaven, body and soul. It’s a belief of far older origin than most people realize, and commemorations of it are documented in 500 A.D. We’re going to focus on the art, not the theology, but you can do some more reading about the latter by following this link. [N.B. This is not the place for those of you who don’t believe in this dogma to get into it with those who do, so let’s just look at the art this morning, shall we?]

Beginning in the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, the most popular model followed by Western artists combined the death of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption into one scene, whose content was informed partially by pious legends and apocryphal stories which brought all of the Apostles back together in Jerusalem for her funeral. This was the model followed by many artists, including Raphael, El Greco, and perhaps most famously, Titian in his altarpiece for the Franciscans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Over time, and perhaps in part due to the influence of the Counter-Reformation, this artistic model gradually fell out of favor, and artists began to depict the Assumption as an event which was primarily witnessed by angels, or by those already in Heaven, rather than by people left on earth.

Among the most richly-decorated depictions of the earlier model is that painted by the Early Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico around 1430-1434 for the Dominicans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It’s now in the Gardner in Boston, and if you get to visit you’ll want to take some time to soak in the magnificent colors of this Late Gothic/Early Renaissance painting:

Angelico

If you’ll remember my post from last week about the origin and value of pigments in art, you’ll realize that this smallish panel – which is only about a foot and a half wide and two feet tall – must have cost a fortune to produce. Just the upper triangle with the figure of Jesus reaching down to receive His Mother alone would have been incredibly expensive to paint, given all of the blue which Fra Angelico used in this section. Yet despite all of the bling in this picture, there’s something wonderfully touching about details such as this tender and eager reunion of a Son with His Mother.

Notice also the individualized angels in Heaven playing their instruments, and the Apostles getting ready to carry the body of Mary to her tomb. I love the detail of how white-haired St. Peter is rushing over to the head of the bier, so that he can grasp one of the poles for carrying the body. In doing so he is catching up to St. John who, as in the Gospel account of the Resurrection, got there first but is waiting in deference to the Prince of the Apostles. I also love the figure of the Apostle whom I assume to be St. Jude, who is shown dressed in red and black and carrying a club, the instrument of torture with which he was martyred. His crazy-curly, unruly hair is something I can greatly sympathize with.

A completely different interpretation of the Assumption, painted two centuries later by the great French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin in about 1630-1632, exemplifies the later model adopted by artists in depicting this event. It’s currently in the collection of the National Gallery here in Washington, and although not prominently hung it is worth seeing out, for it’s a jewel of a picture. At first glance this is a deceptively simple image, since the only concrete elements of the composition are the Virgin Mary, the chubby little angels, and the classical architectural setting – no host of earthly witnesses here:

Poussin

For me what’s particularly engrossing about this painting, apart from its glorious state of preservation and fresh colors, despite being almost 400 years old, is how it draws us in and convinces us that what we’re seeing is taking place in a three-dimensional space. The clouds wrap around the figures and draw them and our eye upward toward Heaven, a place that Mary is seeing for the very first time, with an expression of awe and wonder on her face. I also love it because despite the sense of swirling, upward movement portrayed by Poussin, this is really a quiet picture. We are privileged to see Mary returning to Her Son, but we are merely bystanders, not participants: this is a reunion that does not require an audience.

These two examples of very different interpretations of the same event show us how creativity in Western art was encouraged, rather than stifled, by the imposition of conventions, rules, and ideas. Illustrating something which was believed, but undocumented, was something of a challenge for these artists, since they had no contemporary descriptions of what the Assumption was like. And yet here we have two excellent examples of how each managed to approach the same subject in their own unique, very personal ways, creating works of art that played within the rules and yet brought out different aspects of this miraculous event for us to ponder upon, these many centuries later.