Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I

n recent years, reports have appeared in the media of art restorations so appalling they produce howls of laughter. That these stories have focused on the mutilation of works of religious art is no accident: Ineptitude combines with sacrilege. The most recent atrocity was inflicted on a copy of a famous painting of the Immaculate Conception by the Spanish Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban ­Murillo (1617–1682). According to the antiphon for Second Vespers of the feast, “You are all beautiful, Mary, and the original stain is not in you.” No longer! The “restored” ­Virgin might as well have been touched up by a kindergartener with finger paint. The ­infamous “Monkey Christ” of Borja, Spain, now a tourist attraction with a dedicated museum installation, provoked similar hilarity in 2012, as did the slipshod restoration in 2018 of a late medieval statue of St. George on horseback, also in Spain, that left it looking like a carousel figure. Each of these ­infamies brings to mind the episode of Mr. Bean in which, while ­visiting a library, our hero sneezes on the Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry—one of the most famous manuscripts of the Middle Ages—then completes the destruction while attempting haplessly to undo the ­damage.

None of the Spanish works was a masterpiece. In fact, the Ecce Homo of Borja was a work of no consequence, an utterly ­conventional twentieth-century copy from a ­Baroque model derived from Guido Reni (1575–1642). There is no need to mourn their loss as one might the Buddhas of Bamyan, destroyed by the Taliban in a deliberate act of iconoclasm in 2001. In each instance, the blame lies at least as much with those who commissioned restorations from unqualified amateurs as with the so-called restorers themselves.

Still, one must ask what constitutes a responsible restoration. Each of these controversies serves as an index, not only of the value of the work in question, but also of the extent to which we as a society vest value in relics of the past. Works of art have become the cult objects of our day, just as museums have become our temples. At a time when monuments that memorialize the Confederacy, slavery, and the ­oppression of minorities are being defaced, destroyed, and dismantled—in some cases to be hauled off to ­museums, in others to be consigned to the junkheap of history, often with good reason—the question of responsible restoration is all the more pertinent. Should ­spray-painted protest graffiti be removed? Or has it become part of these images’ historical fabric, a record of response more compelling than, and an important corrective to, the motives of those who commissioned the monuments?

During the Renaissance, Roman citizens honored a Hellenistic statue rescued from the Tiber River in 1501—five years before the recovery of the famous Laocoön Group—by plastering it with political lampoons that lent the figure its name, ­Pasquino, and made of it a “talking statue” that broadcast popular discontent, with the papacy in particular. Only in our day, now that the statue is considered either a Hellenistic original of the third century b.c. or a Roman copy, is the affixing of pasquinades to its base no longer permitted. ­Pasquinades must now be placed decorously on an adjoining board erected for the purpose, not unlike a book for comments in a museum. The statue has become a monument, an untouchable testament to a moment in the ­classical past.

W

hen a work becomes a “monument” in this sense, the meaning of “restoration” changes. In a landmark essay, “The Modern Cult of Monuments” (1903), the Viennese art historian ­Alois Riegl (1858–1905) defined terms that remain relevant today. A “monument,” for Riegl, is any artifact that comes to us from the past and speaks to us of the past. But he distinguishes between “intentional” and “unintentional” monuments. Intentional monuments are works whose original purpose and significance was commemorative. Memorial statuary and portraiture are intentional monuments, but so may be all manner of other works meant to commend certain persons, deeds, or events to future generations. By contrast, unintentional monuments are relics judged to be informative or illustrative concerning the time of their creation, though the intentions of their makers may have been merely practical (think of the tools and other humble objects that fill our museums). Riegl writes, “It is not their original purpose and significance that turn these works into monuments, but rather our modern perception of them.” Unintentional monuments bear unwitting witness to the age in which they were made. ­Intentional monuments bear witness on purpose—though, it must be added, in ways that may be problematic, as when they celebrate what a later age condemns.

Riegl then turns to the question of restoration: “Both intentional and unintentional monuments are characterized by commemorative value, and in both instances we are interested in their original, uncorrupted appearance as they emerged from the hands of their maker and to which we seek by whatever means to restore them.” We wish to keep intentional monuments pristine, not least since evidence of decay would suggest that their meaning is no longer revered. In the case of unintentional monuments, we fight the aging process because the artifact’s original condition is the most informative concerning the time of its creation.

To intentional and unintentional monuments, Riegl adds a third category, that of objects prized for their “age-value.” Restoring such works to their original condition would be ruinous. In the case of the Murillo, the restoration was botched not simply because the restorers were unskilled; it was misconceived from the very first. Had the restorers made the painting look good as new—just like the original Murillo, which itself has accrued age-value over the years—their work would have been deemed no better than that of the hapless restorer who gaudied up St. George. Never mind that the work on which they lavished their care was a copy; their sin is to have erased the painting’s patina and the passage of time. In this tension lies the paradox of the “original”: It can only be valued if it bears traces that testify to its authenticity, including its origin in a valorized past. Its power lies in its imperfection.

As that irony suggests, these three forms of value—commemorative, historical, and that based on age alone—often interact with each other and lead to controversy. An individual work, whether a painting after Murillo, or the Emancipation Memorial in Boston (a copy of that in Washington, D.C.), may participate in all three forms of value at once. Erected in 1879, the Emancipation Memorial depicts Abraham Lincoln with a freed Black man kneeling at his feet. Though the original was funded by former slaves, it was designed by the white sculptor Thomas Ball, and the pose has been controversial for years. On June 30, the Boston Art Commission decided to remove the memorial from Park Square, perhaps to a museum. As an intentional monument, the memorial celebrates a particular event in American history: the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, however, despite its makers’ desire to celebrate emancipation, it has come to be seen as unintentionally embodying a set of paternalistic attitudes no longer deemed acceptable. Its age value is limited, due to its having been kept in good condition. (Ironically, only if the memorial were damaged by protestors would such value accrue.)

Debates over restoration inevitably involve such issues, if not always in such explosive ways. At stake in any such debate is not just the fate of a given work of art, but an entire set of attitudes toward the past: What should be preserved, how, and why? The mother of all such debates was that over the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling that commenced in 1979. This modern effort was hardly the first; restorations are known to have taken place as early as the seventeenth century. In the early 1700s, Annibale Mazzuoli and his son used sponges soaked in Greek wine to remove accretions of dirt and soot. In the case of the most recent campaign, a crucial bone of contention was the extent to which cleaning removed secco surface touches, that is, paint layers added over the original wet fresco. The result, critics claimed, was to replace Michelangelo’s sculptural effects with gaudy, bright colors. Critics remain, but perhaps the most persuasive argument in favor of the restoration is that in light of ­Michelangelo’s newly revealed palette of often acidic colors, the ­palette of the next generation of Italian painters, in particular those conventionally called Mannerists, some of whom studied with Michelangelo, suddenly makes sense. To accept this argument, however, requires considering Michelangelo less an isolated, one-of-a-kind genius than part of a ­continuous historical fabric.

Early this year, a similar controversy enveloped the cleaning of what is perhaps the single greatest painting in the Western tradition, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Treatment of the Lamb of God at the center of the altarpiece’s interior revealed it to have had eyes that looked less like a lamb’s than like a human’s. Some viewers find the results startling. Van Eyck’s original conception, however, makes sense. Besides being in keeping with the artist’s hieratic style, a humanoid Agnus Dei is consonant with the motif’s symbolic meaning. Standing directly above the altar, the painted lamb would have looked the priest celebrating Mass directly in the eye.

The other great controversy of recent years concerns ­Chartres Cathedral. The ongoing restoration project, begun in 2009, has stripped away centuries of grime from the cathedral’s interior to reveal the original false masonry, a standard feature of medieval buildings, in which two sets of ochre lines, one dating to the thirteenth century, the other a fourteenth-century touch-up, trace mortar joints on whitewashed walls. The brightened cathedral shocks those devoted to the gloomy interior that so impressed the Romantics; they condemn it as “fake” and “kitsch.” But the traditional darkness of Chartres was the result of centuries of candle smoke. Anyone who examined the walls from the scaffolding could have discerned the original painting under thick layers of soot and dust. The restorers simply vacuumed these accretions away, then cleaned the underlying painting, filling in the areas where it had decayed. Among the discoveries that confirmed the value of the cleaning was the discovery of a fully painted false stained-glass lancet window with the figure of King David at its center.

What dismayed the critics was that, to their eyes, the cleaning erased the age-value of the monument. With its “shiny coat” of paint, the cathedral appeared “new.” In fact, it appears much as it did upon its completion in 1220, revealing the attachment to “gloomy” Gothic as ahistorical. Not that the cleaning is without contradictions: Some elements that postdate the original interior have not been removed, on account of their historical value, or have even been enhanced. These include the painted vault bosses of the fourteenth century. The restorers also removed all candles, replacing them with flickering electric bulbs. The substitution is, perhaps, regrettable, but these very candles were the source of much of the soot that had disfigured the building in the first place. Over the years, they had also caused several fires. In the wake of the catastrophic conflagration that, much like the famous fire of 1194 that at Chartres provided the opportunity to build the cathedral so beloved today, almost consumed Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019, the decision to remove candles from Chartres seems unimpeachable.

Not everything, however, is so clear. At Chartres, the conservators also removed the dark surface that, in their view, marred the appearance of a wooden Madonna known as Our Lady of the Pillar, commissioned in 1508, which belonged to a group of highly venerated Black Madonnas. In most cases, the duskiness of these Madonnas, sometimes enhanced by subsequent treatment, results from their age. They provide vivid examples not just of age-value but also of unintentional historical value, in that for centuries they have been revered precisely on account of their blackness. This tradition of reverence has become part of their substance. It is, perhaps, an ex post facto explanation, but the Virgin’s dark complexion may reflect her identification with the Bride of the Song of Songs 1:5: “I am black but beautiful.” At Chartres, as with the Murillo, the work in question was not the original; the Madonna of the Pillar at Chartres copies a thirteenth-century gilt silver original that, ironically, was known as “Notre-Dame la Blanche.” Depending on how one regarded her, the Black Madonna of the Pillar testified either to a venerable original, in part because she falsified her appearance, or to the transformation of a beloved cult image over time.

Critics of the overall cleaning project argue from aesthetic rather than devotional alienation. One ­architecture critic has decried the “desecration of a cultural holy place.” But many pilgrims to Chartres are devotees not of the religion of art, but of a more traditional religion. Those who come seeking the ­Madonna of the Pillar will find that, in a real sense, there is no Black Madonna to be prayed to anymore. One might argue that it would have been better to leave the Madonna, with all her complex and contradictory history, as she was, because she had accrued ­historical value and age-value, to which perhaps we might add a fourth category, devotional value. Decisions about cleanings, restorations, and removals are inherently controversial, because they always involve judgments about which version of the past is worth preserving. As the Madonna of the Pillar illustrates most clearly, one person’s restoration may be another’s ­desecration. 

Jeffrey F. Hamburger is a professor of art history at Harvard University.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.