Architectural Studies

Color Scheming in France

The history of aesthetics is riddled with misperceptions and misunderstandings about the use of color by earlier epochs of designers. It was long believed that Greco-Roman marble sculptures—both freestanding and architectural—were originally displayed without color, when in fact they were brightly polychromed. would have been painted in bright colors to the revelation that the Sistine ceiling was painted in bright rather than muted colors, … architecture and public sculpture is filled with is a long history of aesthetic assumptions…. Most of the castles built by Edward I in Wales were originally painted with bright white paint, making them glisten in the sun, though today their stone, often with lichen… The same is true of Gothic Cathedrals.

At Chartres Cathedral, after conducting extensive chemical analyses around the interior, it was decided that enough physical evidence existed to determine the original color scheme with sufficient confidence. Further, the decision was made to recreate this painting in the interior.

In 2015? The first section of wall was unveiled with… Responses to the painting were mixed, to say the least. Most notably, the violently antagonistic reaction of the American architectural critic, Martin Filler, who denounced the restoration in his essay “A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres” in The New York Review of Books in December 2014.


The belief that a heavy-duty reworking can allow us see the cathedral as its makers did is not only magical thinking but also a foolhardy concept that makes authentic artifacts look fake. To cite only one obvious solecism, the artificial lighting inside the present-day cathedral—which no one has suggested removing—already makes the interiors far brighter than they were during the Middle Ages, and thus we can be sure that the painted walls look nothing like they would have before the advent of electricity.

Furthermore, the exact chemical components of the medieval pigments remain unknown. The original paint is thought to have flaked off within a few generations and not been replaced, so for most of the building’s eight-century history it has not been experienced with painted surfaces.


led to an international outcry against the painting.

If you were a member of the … and could vote for or against the painted recreation, how would you vote and why? How confident of the paint job would you need to be in order to recreate it? At what point do the extant conditions of a site outweigh the original appearance? How and why should the original color scheme be created?



“The New Chartres: An Exchange” by Madeline H. Caviness & Jeffrey Hamburger, reply by Martin Filler.

The New Chartres: An Exchange


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