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ainting a building is tricky. The smallest differences in hue, saturation, and sheen can alter the effect of a space entirely. This fact explains the horrified reaction of so many to the news that the Cathedral of Chartres is undergoing a complete interior repainting. It is nearly impossible to judge from the few photographs available whether this repainting will be an aesthetic disaster, but the initial impressions are not good. In the worst case, it is possible that in a few years time enthusiasts will ask each other if they managed to see Chartres before it was destroyed.

Those in charge claim that they are following the most scientific standards possible in restoring the paint to its original character, and I don’t doubt that this is true. Nonetheless, the precision afforded by the most scientific standards possible is not high enough to ensure a restoration that captures the spirit of the original through scientific methods alone. Judgment is needed. And this is what is worrisome.

In science fiction movies, planets never seem to have more than a single climate. One planet is an ice planet, another a desert planet, and another a swamp planet. Desiring to increase the scope of their plots without doing any really difficult world-building, the authors of these works simply project the internal diversity of our planet onto a larger screen.

Our culture stands in relation to that of the European Middle Ages as the many single-climate planets do to the real Earth. We have externalized a diversity that was once internal. A friend described Chartres as a “somber, ancient thing,” and he was quite right. But it was also an exuberant thing, even a silly thing. This is the particular strangeness of the Middle Ages, that the highest and lowest and most frivolous and most serious things were not separate domains of life but all part of the Great Chain of Being, each in its place, each receiving its due in the greatest architectural expressions of public life. The philosophy of that age, though obscured, may be understood with sufficient intelligence and effort. The atmosphere, however, cannot be recreated. Such is the difficulty presented to the would-be restorers of the Cathedral of Chartres.

The project is challenging; it is also unnecessary. Even if by some miracle the restorers managed to reproduce the atmosphere of the cathedral on the day of its consecration, with Louis IX in attendance, would this atmosphere destroy what visitors have found so moving about the church in ages since? The interior gloom, punctuated by brilliant stained glass, is part of what has attracted to many to Chartres, and part of what has made it the cathedral par excellence of the conversion narrative. On purely architectural merit it is surpassed by Amiens and perhaps Reims, but in the culture of the 19th and 20th centuries it has no rival. If Chartres belongs more to later centuries—to Henry Adams and Huysmans and the innumerable converts it has made—than to its own time, why repaint it?

David Schaengold writes from Cincinnati. 

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