This week’s Iconic Buildings on Radio National’s Blueprint for Living highlights the wonder of Chartres cathedral (see here). I mention the recent contentious restoration of its internal painted walls which supposedly takes them back to the original colouring of the mid-1200s. I wasn’t sure if I liked that idea but shortly after recording that piece I was on my way to France. I hadn’t planned to visit Chartres but somehow it just became inevitable.
My partner and I left Paris and headed out to Brittany. On the way we stopped at Monet’s garden in Giverny, a place we visited back in the early 1990s. Back then we were left feeling slightly underwhelmed. The garden had a vaguely municipal atmosphere, the way the plantings were managed so that there was always a good show of flowers. There was no sense of the place having evolved as most gardens do, with the plants changing shape and becoming established. It had a curiously lifeless atmosphere. Everything was being kept as it had always been. (Although the famous lily pond with its wisteria-clad bridge is now accessed through a concrete tunnel under the local road which adds that final municipal touch.)
This year the queues were longer and the car-parks were bigger but the garden seemed exactly the same. It was late spring so there were plenty of flowers and it was pleasant to see the Japanese bridge dripping in wisteria blossom. We were struck again by the apparent randomness of the planting and the chaos of colour, like those old ads for fertilizer that show a garden where every plant is smothered in bright flowers. There didn’t seem any respite from flowers.
We left feeling disappointed again and decided that a quick drive to Chartres might cheer us up. On our previous trip we had been captivated by its dark interior and its stunning buttresses and magnificent labyrinth. It seemed a slightly spooky place. I had visited the cathedral when I was 11 as my family drove south to the Basque country for a summer holiday and I never forgot its uneven twin towers.
This time I was anxious to see if the restoration had changed its atmosphere. It looked the same at first, visible for miles around above the rolling fields of wheat. You can’t help marvelling at how massive it must have seemed back in the 13th century because it still takes your breath away. Ely in England is the only other cathedral which does the same thing for me, the magical way it appears over the flat fields of Cambridgeshire. I love the sense of otherness that these cathedrals have.
The town of Chartres had been spruced up since my last visit and a fête of some sort was packing up for the day. I am always surprised by the buildings that slightly block the lofty east front of the cathedral. Normally these have been cleared away so that the cathedral has an open area before it but in Chartres it’s a quirk that I like.
At last I pushed open the door into the cathedral, remembering the last time when the darkness took my eyes a moment to adjust. Immediately I saw the difference although the restoration isn’t finished. The whole interior was bright and the great labyrinth was covered by chairs (the cathedral management likes to underplay the building’s pagan links). The windows still sparkled but without the contrast of the blackened stone surrounds they didn’t stand out quite so much.
It is still a beautiful cathedral with its lofty nave and wonderful lines but it didn’t feel like Chartres to me. It felt much newer, like a Gothic-revival church of the twentieth century, and I couldn’t help feeling sad about that. We strolled around for a while but I didn‘t feel drawn into it as I had before.
As we drove out of the town I noticed the new pieces of urban planning – the wide avenues, the new plantings and lights and benches – and I realised how clean and bright our streets are today. We live in high definition now. The patina of time is often stripped away so that every detail can be picked out and every texture visible. The interior of Chartres cathedral had become somehow sanitised like Monet’s garden, all clean and new, as though the intervening years simply hadn’t happened. I hadn’t realised how much I like to see the murk of history.
A few miles out, I glanced into the rear-view mirror and there it was again, the silhouette of the cathedral rising over the town. Still a character and still so strong. And I wondered if the painted interior is the architectural equivalent of a new haircut and I just need time to get used to it. I’ll tell you when I get back there again.
But don’t worry about Giverny – it will never change.