During a recent trip to Paris I decided it was time for a return visit, and on an autumn Sunday morning my wife, our friends, and I traveled sixty miles southwest of the French capital to take in this architectural wonder. It was crisp and sunny, perfect weather for viewing the celebrated vitraux, widely considered the finest in the world. As we entered the great church, which was largely constructed between 1194 and 1230, High Mass was in full swing—the scene heightened by the combination of majestic organ music, chanted liturgy, clouds of incense, and banks of votive candles.

Carried away by the splendors of the moment, I did not initially realize that something was very wrong. I had noticed the floor-to-ceiling scrim-covered scaffolding near the crossing of the nave and transepts, but had assumed it was routine maintenance. But my more attentive wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter—who as a Columbia doctoral candidate took courses on Romanesque sculpture with the legendary Meyer Schapiro and Gothic architecture with the great medievalist Robert Branner—immediately noticed that large areas of the sanctuary’s deep gray limestone surface had been painted.

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How could this be happening, and why had we heard nothing about it before?

In 2009, amid a rising wave of other refurbishments of medieval buildings, the French Ministry of Culture’s Monuments Historiques division embarked on a drastic, $18.5 million overhaul of the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral. Though little is specifically known about the church’s original appearance—despite small traces of pigment at many points throughout the interior stonework—the project’s leaders, apparently with the full support of the French state, have set out to do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state. This sweeping program to “reclaim” Chartres from its allegedly anachronistic gloom is supposed to be completed in 2017.

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. The emerging color scheme now allows a direct, and deeply disheartening, before-and-after comparison.

It seems astonishing that such a radical undertaking has attracted so little attention since the project commenced, not least in view of the cathedral’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—a designation it has held since 1979 and that requires careful adherence to best conservation practices. 

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Observant Catholics, whose primary interest in the cathedral is religious rather than aesthetic, have been particularly appalled by one aspect of the program: the repainting of Our Lady of the Pillar, the early-seventeenth-century devotional statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child familiarly known as the Black Madonna. As Jean Markale argues in Cathedral of the Black Madonna: The Druids and the Mysteries of Chartres (1988)—an intriguing study of the links between the Christian sanctuary and the Druidic shrine it superseded—there was a direct precedent for Our Lady of the Pillar in the Celtic black mother goddess Sulevia, another case of early Christianity co-opting indigenous beliefs to attract pagans. Whenever and however Chartres’s Black Madonna acquired its mysterious patina—through oxidation or smoke from candles and incense—it was familiar as such to centuries of the faithful until its recent multicolored makeover, which has transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll.

We know that ancient Greek statues were painted in vivid polychrome and adorned with earrings, spears, and other metal accouterments. But the idea of actually adding such long-lost elements to, say, the Parthenon Marbles would be even more controversial than the longstanding debate over where those sculptures should be housed. Officials in charge at Chartres now are engaged in a pursuit as foolhardy as adding a head to the Winged Victory of Samothrace or arms to the Venus de Milo. One can only pray that by some miracle this scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place can be reversed.