The Miracle of Chartres Cathedral

by Leanne Ogasawara


Once upon a time, the world was full of miracles.

And oh, that was the miracle of those two spires of Chartres Cathedral! Separated in time by some four hundred years, the spires can still be glimpsed past fields of wheat, rising up over the low town; a town which itself has somehow retained its old medieval quality. Very much like the legendary first view of Mont Saint-Michel one gets from a distance, it is the unexpected vision of those cathedral spires arising out of the clear blue sky that makes arriving at Chartres so emotionally stirring an experience.

We were following in the footsteps of Henry Adams.

The son of Abraham Lincoln's ambassador to London, it wasn't just his father who was a great man; for Henry Adams' grandfather and great-grandfather were US presidents. A historian and man of letters, I had never realized until I stumbled on his book about Chartres that Henry Adams was a Harvard-trained medievalist. And an excellent one at that. His book, Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres is written in the finest 19th century classical essay style. Engaging and filled with all manner of playful and dazzlingly-told medievalisms, the book became the blueprint for our own journey in Northern France this past summer.

So, since Adams begins his travelogue with Mont Saint-Michel–so did we.

I've already written about our stay on the Mont in my July post Benedictine Dreams. Even now, I cannot get the sound of the seagulls and church bells out of my mind: or of walking across the bridge of dreams toward that fairy palace shimmering in the summertime air. It was utterly otherworldly. Its infamous mudflats and quicksand, which pilgrims of old had to cross in order to reach the Mont, were known in the Middle Ages as the "path to paradise." And it's true. The Mont is, as they say, one of the great wonders of the western world. Everyone should try and go see it someday. Henry Adams was also much beguiled by the vision of the great fortress abbey, perched on top of a granite rock in the middle of the strongest tidal currents in Europe. He describes it as a monument to the masculine. And in his book, he sets up Mont Saint-Michel as a kind of "yin" to Chartres' "yang."

He has a point; for if the massively fortified Mont was dedicated to the archangel Michael, commander of the army of God and weigher of human souls; Chartres, by contrast, has always been dedicated to the Virgin Queen.

Indeed, even before there was a cathedral at Chartres, this place had already been known as a holy place in the Druid cult of the divine feminine.

[Joan Sutherland "Casta diva" from "Norma"]

But how did this cathedral survive intact for so long?

Only think of what happened to Notre Dame in Paris during the French Revolution. Or the way the people in Chartres dismantled all those thousands of pieces of original 12th and 13th century glass to hide them away during WWII–only to have to somehow reassemble them again after the War! To this day, the cathedral of Chartres stands as one of the best preserved 13th century Gothic churches in France–if not in all the world. There was, of course, the great fire in 1194, when everything but the Western facade (pictured above) was destroyed. The people were in great dismay since Chartres is home to one of the most important relics in all of Christendom. The Sancta Camisa, believed to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at the time of the Christ's birth, was said to have been brought back from Jerusalem by Charlemagne (never mind that Charlemagne had never actually stepped foot in the Holy Land). It was then later donated to Chartres by his son, Charles the Bald. It was this relic that put Medieval Chartres on the major pilgrimage map.

That so, it was a source of great wealth to the town. Seeing the cathedral burning down in front of their eyes, the people became panicked over the fate of the revered relic. Waiting till the fire died down, people probably didn't dare to hope that a piece of cloth could emerge unscathed. So, imagine how their anguish turned to delight when the priests brought out the cloth unscathed from the smoldering ruins of the cathedral! Not surprisingly, this was thought of a sign from the goddess that she was not done with the people of Chartres quite yet. And so they embarked in great enthusiasm to build her a new temple.

In one of my favorite descriptions of the cathedral, Adams describes Chartres as, "A toy house to please the Queen of Heaven–to please her so much that she would be happy in it,–to charm her till she smiled." I suppose some will find his fanciful description of the Virgin Mary offensive. What? Because she is a woman, he assumes she loves dolls and finery? Well, Henry Adams died a long time ago. So, we will perhaps have to cut him some slack. Also, one might admit that there is something really appealing about seeing this great cathedral, which has always stood as a shrine to the Virgin, as a castle fit for a queen:

The Queen Mother was as majestic as you like; she was also absolute; she could be stern; she was not above being angry; but she was still a woman, who loved grace and beauty, ornament–her toilette, robes, jewels; who considered the arrangements of her palace with attention, and liked both light and color, who kept a keen eye on her Court, and exacted prompt and willing obedience from the King and Archbishops as well as from beggars and drunken priests.

GmanewsA castle indeed. And even castles sometimes need to be cleaned right? Well, I suppose by now everyone has heard of the kerfuffle over the recent renovations of the interior at Chartres?

The "debate" began making international news in 2014 when the painting was just under way. And, the renovations are still in the news today. Yes, that's right. We are not talking about comparatively uncontroversial window cleaning or even of the cleaning of walls and pillars but rather the renovation project is seeking to bring the cathedral back to its glory days by painting the interior a light beige with other accent colors–since, well, that's actually how it used to be.

As you can see in the picture just left, the change is quite dramatic. That is because the cathedral had accumulated on its walls and pillars a very thick coating of soot and grime. And it simply has to be added that Chartres had become in modern times appreciated precisely for the romantic and mysterious quality of its filthy walls– recalling to modern minds an exquisite patina or fine bottle of very old wine.

But despite great public outrage, the scholars in charge of the restoration continued to insist that this was the color that the cathedral used to be. In fact, on the day we were there, we were so lucky to get to participate in one of world-expert Malcolm Miller's tours of the cathedral. Miller is a legend in his own right —and some claim he knows more about the cathedral than anyone in the world. Well, Miller reminded us of the media row and declared the naysayers to be ridiculous as not only is the whitewashing authentic to the 13th century but now, at last –in the new brighter interior– you can see the windows in all their clarity.

And, it is true, for the windows shine very brightly in the lighter interior. As Miller pointed out the stained glass windows were meant to be read and that is something that is now possible thanks to the cleaning. Watching videos of the restoration process, you can see for yourself how the restorers in removing the layers and layers of grime, literally pealed back time to show the whitewashed color that used to be there–as well as the marbled effect that was created on some of the pillars.

But, as American architecture critic Martin Filler lamented in the New York Review of Books blog, what are they going to do next re-attach arms to the Venus de Milo?

Even the cathedral’s iconic Black Madonna had been repainted white. We know that ancient Greek temples and sculpture were all likewise painted in bright colors, so are we to bring back everything to its original polychrome state? Should all the ancient marble statues in the Louvre, for example, be likewise repainted?

Pillar.35472141_stdSpeaking for myself, I felt very much as if seeing the Venus de Milo painted and with arms or Winged Victory painted and with a new head. For me, all I can say is that I was not prepared for the white-washed interior. I found it garish and ugly. But, of course, I can claim ignorance to what things were like back then in the era that was being highlighted (13th century). And that is a point to be considered since the cathedral has looked differently during various periods in its history; so that in prioritizing the 13th century colors, they were neglecting some beautiful Renaissance painting that once also graced the cathedral–not to mention our modern dark but mysterious much-admired patina.They were trying to bring back a certain period of time in a very long stretch of history.

This 2015 Apollo article is excellent. It pits the Chartres restoration project yeasayers against the naysayers in the voices of two scholars, Jeffry F. Hamburger (Yea) and Adam Nathaniel Furman (Nay). It is a wonderfully engaging discussion, and I highly recommend it. I am sure its true, as Hamburgers declares, that people complained when the Sistine Chapel painting was restored and that no matter what, the corrosive particulates simply had to be removed. But there is also a question of limits. I was pleased that one of the scholars (Furman) brought up the work of Svetlana Boym, about whom I wrote in these pages last year. Boym, who sadly passed away in 2015, wrote a brilliant book on the concept of nostalgia–and her unpacking of the notion is quite pertinent to the question of Chartres.

According to Boym there are two kind of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. While restorative "stresses nóstos (home) and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in álgos, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately."

Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas has a great chapter on "philosophy's Nostalgia" in his book, Heidegger and the Thinking Place

Nostalgia is a combination of the Greek nostos, meaning home or the return home, with algos, meaning pain, so that its literal meaning is a pain associated with the return home. Part of this inquiry will involve a rethinking of the mood of nostalgia and what that mood encompasses. Rather than understand the nostalgic as characterized solely by the desire to return to a halcyon past, it is explored through the connotations suggested by its Greek etymology as precisely a longing for the return home—a return that cannot be achieved—a form of homesickness, and so as unsettling rather than comfortable, as bringing with it a sense of the essential questionability of our own being in the world.

Indeed, we know from how the word is used in other cultures that the concept of nostalgia involves not just a longing for home or a longing for something from the past, but rather it is a longing and deep sadness for something that is actually gone forever–and implies a kind of homelessness or groundlessness.

This is without a doubt perfectly embodied in Andrei Tarkovsky's film, Nostalghia.

Anyone who has lived abroad for a significant period of time will probably understand Tarkovsky longing to go home; for like Tarkovsky they too will almost surely discover that the home they are longing for no longer exists. And it is in that moment, I would argue, that the real pain begins. Reconstructed versions of some lost golden age will simply bring more pain. And this is precisely the point Furman tries to make about Chartres. That in the end, the imposing of an idealized version of a particular time in history in the name of restoration is an act of absolutism.

It is also futile–as the past can never be brought back.

Would Henry Adams agree with Furman? He would have to, I think. For Adams, was in exile. Deeply alienated from his own time period, he sought refuge in the medieval riches of his own imagination. The Chartres of his experience (like the Chartres of my experience) existed at that precise intersection between the physical reality and human imagination. His vision of Chartres was no more "real" than his understanding of the 13th century Catholicism as a moment of great unity–in contrast to the chaos of everything he felt was happening in the world of his own time (19th century Boston). While he never converted to Roman Catholicism, he instead found solace in the ambiguity of Chartres; for in its murky and open-ended "patina" he found, as Furman so eloquently suggested, a perfect place to "think about the passing of time and of things." And this was possible precisely because no one particular vision of "the past" was being imposed upon us.

The restoration at Chartres is none of my business. I only wish I had had a chance to see Chartres prior to 2017– for all these reasons I am sure my experience there would have been quite different.


Recent article in the Guardian with "black Madonna" (in my photo above still untouched) now white

My post on Mont Saint-Michel: Benedictine Dreams

Wonderful article on the world of ancient Greek colors here

Henry Adams' Mont Saint Michel and Chartres

Video below of some pictures from the trip. (My brooding teenager is seen crossing the mudflats–if only the quality of the video was better, you could see all the pathos of the teenage "pilgrim" in his dark expression….woe is he who is forced on a family trip to Europe with their parents at 16…)