The cathedral in Chartres was consecrated on this date in 1262. I could ramble on about its architecture, stained glass etc. but I am not going to (well — maybe a little). You can look that up for yourself, or, better yet, visit the cathedral. Instead I want to do two things. First, talk about the personal view of the cathedral by my friend and colleague Eric Carlson who taught with me at Purchase college for many years, and who wrote and lectured on the cathedral. Second, talk about the current restoration efforts which have seriously polarized opinion into haters and lovers.
When I taught Freshman Studies at Purchase college in the 1980s we had weekly plenary lectures for the entire freshman class (around 150 students) on a variety of subjects from ancient Greece to Einstein. Eric gave a slide lecture for many years on Chartres cathedral as part of our segment on Medieval Europe. He began by talking about the cathedral from the perspective of the pilgrim journeying on foot or horseback to Chartres. For miles and miles pilgrims could navigate towards Chartres because the cathedral is visible across the plains from a great distance.
As you get into the outskirts of the town it gets bigger and more magnificent.
But when you get quite close, the buildings obscure it from view.
Then suddenly you are upon it in all of its majesty.
The pride of the cathedral is the stained glass (although, of course, there’s plenty of other features to admire, including the incredibly ornate exterior). The point about the glass is that to fit such large and complex windows, the whole architecture had to be designed to allow for such large piercings in the walls. The use of a three-part elevation with external flying buttresses allowed for far larger windows than earlier designs, particularly at the clerestory level.
Most cathedrals of the period had a mixture of windows containing plain or grisaille glass on the one hand and windows containing dense stained glass panels on the other, with the result that the brightness of the former tended to diminish the impact of the latter. At Chartres, nearly all of the 176 windows were filled with equally dense stained glass, creating a relatively dark but richly colored interior in which the light filtering through the myriad narrative and symbolic windows was the main source of illumination, made possible because they were so large.
The majority of the windows now visible at Chartres were made and installed between 1205 and 1240, but four lancets preserve panels of Romanesque glass from the 12th century which survived a fire in 1195. Three of these are located beneath the rose in the west façade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ in the center and a Tree of Jesse to the north. All three of these windows were originally made around 1145 but were restored in the early 13th century and again in the 19th.
The other 12th-century window, perhaps the most famous at Chartres, is the so-called « Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière », found in the first bay of the choir after the south transept. This window is actually a composite; the upper part, showing the Virgin and child surrounded by adoring angels, dates from around 1180 and was probably positioned at the centre of the apse in the earlier building. The Virgin is depicted wearing a blue robe and sitting in a frontal pose on a throne, with the Christ Child seated on her lap raising his hand in blessing. This composition, known as the Sedes sapientia (‘Throne of Wisdom’), which also appears on the Portail royal, is based on the famous cult figure kept in the crypt. The lower part of the window, showing scenes from the Infancy of Christ, dates from the main glazing campaign around 1225.
Each bay of the aisles and the choir ambulatory contains one large lancet window, most of them roughly 8.1m high by 2.2m wide. The subjects depicted in these windows, made between 1205 and 1235, include stories from the Old and New Testament and the Lives of the Saints as well as typological cycles and symbolic images such as the signs of the zodiac and labors of the months, or the Good Samaritan parable. Most windows are made up of around 25–30 individual panels showing distinct episodes within the narrative; only « Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière » includes a larger image made up of multiple panels.
Several of the windows at Chartres include images of local tradesmen or laborers in the lowest two or three panels, often with details of their equipment and working methods. Traditionally it was claimed that these images represented the guilds of the donors who paid for the windows. In recent years however this view has largely been discounted, not least because each window would have cost around as much as a large mansion house to make – while most of the laborers depicted would have been subsistence workers with little or no disposable income. Furthermore, although they became powerful and wealthy organizations in the later medieval period, none of these trade guilds had actually been founded when the glass was being made in the early 13th century. A more likely explanation is that the Cathedral clergy wanted to emphasize the universal reach of the Church, particularly at a time when their relationship with the local community was often a troubled one.
Because of their greater distance from the viewer, the windows in the clerestory generally adopt simpler, bolder designs. Most feature the standing figure of a saint or Apostle in the upper two-thirds, often with one or two simplified narrative scenes in the lower part, either to help identify the figure or else to remind the viewer of some key event in their life. Whereas the lower windows in the nave arcades and the ambulatory consist of one simple lancet per bay, the clerestory windows are each made up of a pair of lancets with a plate-traceried rose window above. The nave and transept clerestory windows mainly depict saints and Old Testament prophets. Those in the choir depict the kings of France and Castille and members of the local nobility in the straight bays, while the windows in the apse hemicycle show those Old Testament prophets who foresaw the virgin birth, flanking scenes of the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity in the axial window.
The cathedral has three large rose windows. The western rose, made c.1215 and 12 m in diameter shows the Last Judgement – a traditional theme for west façades. A central oculus showing Christ as the Judge is surrounded by an inner ring of 12 paired roundels containing angels and the Elders of the Apocalypse and an outer ring of 12 roundels showing the dead emerging from their tombs and the angels blowing trumpets to summon them to judgment.
Enough about windows. Eric went on about them for a long time. They are magnificent but slides do not do them justice. Before electric lighting, the windows and candles were the sole source of illumination. Now there is electric lighting everywhere. Despite the stained glass, the interior can seem gloomy to the modern eye. The question arose several years ago whether this gloominess was appropriate both architecturally and spiritually. Surely in the 13th century when it was built Chartres was a testament to light?
In 2009 the Monuments Historiques division of the French Ministry of Culture began a 18.5 million dollar program of works at the cathedral, described as a “restoration project.” Part of the project involved painting the interior masonry creamy-white, with trompe l’oeil marbling and gilded detailing. The restoration architect in charge of this painting is Frédéric Didier. The goal of the project, which is due for completion in 2017, is to make the cathedral look as it would have done when finished in the 13th century.
The goal of the project and its results has been widely condemned. Architectural critic Alexander Gorlin described the goal as a “great lie,” writing that the “idea that the 13th century interior of Chartres can be recreated is so totally absurd as to be laughable” and that it is “against every single cultural trend today that values the patina of age and the mark of time rather than the shiny bling of cheap jewelry and faux finishes.” Alasdair Palmer called the project an “ill-conceived makeover.” Architectural historian Martin Filler described the work as a “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”, an “unfolding cultural disaster,” and stated that it violates international conservation protocols, in particular the 1964 Charter of Venice of which France is a signatory.
The restoration has however received almost universal backing from French experts and from the general public. Malcolm Miller, author of a number of books on the cathedral and widely considered one of its greatest expert, dismissed the objections: “They talk about the patina of the centuries. Nonsense. Rubbish. This is not the patina of the centuries. It is the rotting remains of a whitewash from the 18th century. The people who built this cathedral intended that its interior should be light. There was nothing natural about its darkness. It was nothing to do with ageing of the stone. It was caused, first of all, by centuries of candle smoke and then by a stupid decision to install oil-fired central heating in the 1950s. More recently, there was smoke damage from a couple of fires.”
So . . . which side are you on? Do you like art and architecture as it is now after centuries of change, or do you like it restored to its original state? Obviously with Chartres there are some practical considerations. We don’t know exactly what the interior looked like. There are only the most vagrant historical clues as to the original surfacing of the walls to go on. There is no question that in one sense the modern restoration is a “lie.” But is it a “great” lie, or just a little white lie?
In the art world in general, restoration of paintings and frescoes has been both reviled and praised. When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was brightened up some people were exalted, others alarmed. There is always going to be a group of people who likes the “patina of age.” I wonder whether Michelangelo would have liked the patina. It is not his doing. It is the doing of centuries of candle soot. When I was a student at Oxford in the 1960s and ‘70s the buildings were all scarred with a century of black soot from industry and cars. Then the colleges set to work cleaning the exteriors. Reclamation or ruination? When Rembrandt’s paintings were cleaned up they were completely changed. Obscured features emerged and the whole sensibility changed. His “Night Watch” was so called because it seemed to depict a night scene. But this was due to varnish that had darkened over time making it look like night. When it was removed in the 1940s a completely different – brighter – scene emerged, much closer to Rembrandt’s vision. How about you? Are you a “patina of the ages” type or not. I’m not. I’ll ask Eric what he thinks after I have posted this.
Here’s a recipe for souris d’agneau that is popular in the region of Chartres. “Souris” is the French for “mouse” but there are no mice involved. Souris d’agneau means lamb shank in English, one of my favorite cuts of meat (if cooked right). To do this properly you need lots of rock salt and duck fat (when you roast duck or goose ALWAYS save the fat). Traditionally cooks use a cocotte, a style of covered Dutch oven.
4 lamb shanks
8 tbsp duck fat (or olive oil)
6 tbsp honey
4 tbsp fresh herbs, chopped (thyme, rosemary, parsley)
1 head garlic
Cover the shanks completely with rock salt (I mean bury them) and refrigerate overnight if you are squeamish.
Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F.
Pour the oil and honey in your cocotte or Dutch oven. Heat on the stove over low heat, and stir to combine. Add the herbs. It doesn’t hurt to bruise them a little in a mortar and pestle first. If you have to use dried herbs, halve the quantity. Add the shanks and roll them around in the oil/honey mix to coat. Break apart the head of garlic and toss in the cloves skin and all.
Cover the pot and put in the center of your oven. Check after about an hour and a half. That’s usually enough for me. The shanks should be browned and nicely falling apart. Longer usually causes the pot to dry out. Serve on a heated serving dish with the sauce poured over the shanks. Rice or potatoes and a green salad make a good accompaniment.