Architectural Studies

Color Scheming at Chartres Cathedral

The history of architectural aesthetics is riddled with misperceptions about the use of color in earlier design epochs. For instance, it was long believed that Greco-Roman marble sculptures—both freestanding and architectural—were originally displayed without coloration, when in fact they were polychromed (meaning brightly colored with multiple pigments). The castles built around Wales by Edward I in the 13th century have iconic exteriors that feature weathered stonework, but these were originally painted bright white, making them glisten in the sun. And when the cleaning of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling was completed in the 1990s, many people refused to believe that the vibrant hues revealed accurately reflected the original color scheme. A similar situation exists with Gothic Cathedrals, which are widely familiar today as structures made of exposed stone, but which, as a class of buildings, probably featured bright interior color schemes that strike many cotemporary observers as quite garish.

In recent year the most high profile of such colorful controversies has played out at Chartres Cathedral. After conducting extensive chemical analyses around the cathedral interior, conservators concluded that enough physical evidence existed to determine the original color scheme with confidence. Further, the decision was made to recreate this original paint treatment—crisp white surfaces along with faux stonework and faux mortar lines—throughout the interior.

In 2009 the Monuments Historiques division of the French Ministry of Culture launched a nearly $20 million restoration project at Chartres. But when the first section of wall was unveiled responses to the new color scheme were mixed, to say the least. Most notable in terms of spurring an outcry against the project was 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.

Unpainted walls adjacent to painted walls.

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.


Restoration of The Cathedral of Chartres. (Photo by Hubert Fanthomme/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Another adversary of the repainting project, the young British designer, Adam Nathaniel Furman, writing in the arts magazine Apollo (27 April 2015), nicely summed up the oppositional stance: “a restoration that eliminates the patina of history, and reinstates an illusory ideal moment in the past – while using the rhetoric of scientific and historic accuracy – is an act of destruction dressed up in good intentions.”

One intriguing aspect of this dispute has been the regionally lopsided pattern of opposition voiced to the project; most of the naysayers come from outside France, especially from the United States and the United Kingdom. This pattern reflects longstanding philosophical differences towards the preservation of old buildings. Perhaps the leading nineteenth-century voices for architectural “preservation” were John Ruskin, in England, who preferred to keep the marks of age on a structure even if that meant maintaining a partial ruin, and Violet-le-Duc, in France, who preferred to try to return buildings to their supposed original appearance even if that meant altering the surviving fabric of an ancient landmark.

For the most part criticism of the project has come from outside France, but at the same time there have also been high-profile supporters of the project in the American and British academy. Among the leaders of this group are Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, respectively from Tufts and Harvard, who co-authored a response to Martin Filler’s article, accompanied by a further reply from Miller himself, published as “The New Chartres: An Exchange,” also appearing in The New York Review of Books. In this article, they support the repainting initiative.

Careful archaeological work, beginning with that conducted as early as the 1980’s by the German scholar Jürgen Michler, has demonstrated beyond doubt that the church’s interior originally was painted in a light ochre, with regular false masonry added in white, which often bears little resemblance to the coursing of the underlying ashlar masonry. The current restoration adheres religiously to this scheme.

Hamburger also argued against Furman in the article mentioned above, a debate entitled “Does the restoration of Chartres Cathedral deserve praise?,” appearing in the pages of Apollo magazine.

Please read the press coverage of this debate, via the links included above. In addition, here are two other links from the popular press to short articles, one chiefly for and one chiefly against the project.

Alasdair Palmer, “Restoration Tragedy,” The Spectator (12 May 2012).

John Lichfield, “Chartres Cathedral clean-up row,” The Independent (23 October 2015).

After familiarizing yourself with this debate, please compose a 1,500-word opinion piece expressing your views on the project. Feel free to argue based entirely from a detached philosophical position or entirely from a subjective stance once you visit Chartres yourself. Also feel free to limit your thoughts entirely to the work at Chartres or to roam more widely to other pertinent issues. For instance, how confident about a color scheme would you need to be in order to recreate it? At what point do longstanding extant conditions of a site become more “authentic” than its original appearance? What are the strongest arguments for and against the recreation of the color scheme?

And, for further thoughts on a completely different approach to cathedral coloration, read Dalya Alberge, “Light projections set to recreate vibrant colours on ancient cathedrals,” The Guardian (24 Nov. 2013).

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