How to Preserve the Chartres Cathedral?

Chartres Cathedral

Even great pieces of historical significance are always changing, which can make it complicated when it is time to restore them.

Take the Chartres Cathedral. This World Heritage Site is considered one of the most beautiful pieces of art in the beautiful country of France. It has undergone a restoration process since 2009. Now, it is finally completed... and many people think that it looks worse than before.

Emblematic of this is the famed Black Madonna, a wooden icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, visible in the church's crypt. Like the rest of the Chartres Cathedral, it is now brighter, and as a result, no longer black at all. But in the restorers' defense, it is not as if they painted over an ebony statue—it was supposed to look like this, and did, back when it was first carved. The question is, if it has been black for hundreds of years, which is more important: its original artist's intentions or the cultural symbol that it has become since?

Built between 1194 and 1220, Chartres Cathedral is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Gothic architecture. Like all medieval churches, everything about the building was meant to be a work of art—a sort of echo of God's perfection on Earth. Over the years, however, the constant burning of candles and lamps has produced smoke, which dimmed much of its original brightness.

At no point did people stop considering it beautiful, however—but it became a different kind of beauty, and now that it has turned back, many feel that something has been lost. Was the Black Madonna more special with its unintentionally darker skin tone? Now that the stained glass windows are cleaned, does the light enhance the interior or merely diminish the impact of the colors?

Some have argued that the restoration also violates the Charter of Venice, a 1964 law stating that historical sites can be renovated for structural concerns (such as keeping them from collapsing) but not for merely cosmetic purposes.

Fortunately for fans, portions of Chartres are so far unaltered; for example, a few of its 176 stained glass windows were not cleaned, nor were the walls of the transept. At least for a while, visitors can compare the two and get a taste of the old status quo, along with the new (and original) version of this ancient, artistic site.

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