A major campaign of restoration, ongoing since 2007
The original 13th century decoration of Notre-Dame de Chartres is now open to visitors. By the end of the 1980s several studies by mediaeval architects had revealed the presence of numerous different, superimposed decors that had been installed since the rebuilding of the building after the fire of 1194. The services of the State, owner of the cathedral, have undertaken works that have revealed original, relatively thick, yellow-coloured layers, thought to be intended to mask the irregular appearance of the Bercheres stone. Careful brushing of centuries of dust and soot, and the removal of lower plaster layers, has made it possible to make 70% of the original, highly illuminated decor visible. Combined with the mirroring of the restored windows, the perception of the architecture of the monument is transformed. The transept arms and the aisles are to be rehabilitated next. Work will resume in 2019. In 2017, work has been ongoing in the Saint-Piat chapel and the "presentation of the treasure" (see below).
The Tour de Choeur - the name commonly given to the choir screen
The choir screen is more than 6 metres high, and over a hundred metres long. Begun at the beginning of the 16th century, it took about two centuries to complete. Having become extremely dirty due to dust and smoke from the candles, the walls and ornaments had become very difficult to see. Cleaning of the choir screen started in 2008-2009 and has been ongoing since 2013. There are 40 spans to be restored. The first 14 are completed, and work will start the on next ten in November 2017.
A project for experts
In the image of the grand projects of the cathedral builders themselves, numerous different trades are involved in the restoration work. These are under the control of the State-Ministry of Culture for the Val de Loire, and under the project management of the chief architect for historic monuments, who is responsible for hiring the numerous qualified companies operating on the site. A scientific committee composed of experts (curators, mediaeval historians, scientists, archaeologists, etc.) meets regularly to decide how work on the site should proceed. The meeting of these different disciplines makes it possible to enrich the knowledge of the cathedral's architectural heritage, which we are bequeathing to future generations, making sure the right restoration choices are made.
After the preliminary studies, the different stages of a restoration site are numerous and varied. The first step is devoted to scaffolding, a cluster of tubes that skilled hands fit together slowly but surely. It took almost three months to install the scaffolding in the nave. Then each craftsman or woman gets to work, cleaning a marquee or a polychrome frieze, restoring a keystone or repairing the rendering... Dusting techniques use a brush, a damp sponge, a vacuum cleaner or sometimes a surgical scalpel. To remove the dirt from the statues of the choir, restorers apply a layer of latex which, like a mask, is removed after drying. For the highly worked and sculpted stone, a cotton bud soaked in demineralised water remains the simplest and safest method.
Stained glass windows
The installation of the scaffolding was also used for the restoration of the glass. All the bays were dismantled and numbered, then transported in the workshops of master glassmakers. They were carefully evaluated to judge the best protocols to clean, restore and change the lead. They were then disassembled piece by piece, for a thorough cleaning and meticulous study. The restoration was an opportunity to study the dating of each piece of glass (verifying their authenticity). The painter-glassmaker worked on certain pieces to harmonise the colours. In order to protect them from the weather, they were given a thermoformed glass lining duplicating the reliefs of the stained glass, on the external face.
The Saint-Piat chapel and the "treasure"
The site of the Saint-Piat chapel has been started. Built in the 14th century, this chapel, located in the apse, in the axis of the cathedral, was originally designed as a reliquary to house the relics of Saint Piat. In 1961 the chapel became the cathedral's treasure room, but it was closed to the public in 2000 to improve the conditions for the preservation and presentation of the treasure objects. Prior to this project, the external restoration of the entire chapel roof, framework and exterior elevations have to be completed, which is expected in November 2017.
As for the presentation of the treasury, this is planned to move to the chapter house, which was converted into the bishop's wine cellar in 1905, and already houses some lapidary work, including carved pieces from the 13th century cathedral rood screen, which was disassembled in 1763. Murals preserved at the top of the walls are currently the subject of preventive conservation work. The Saint-Piat chapel is accessible via a straight staircase from the ambulatory of the choir, and will be home to a series of showcases in which old and modern goldsmith work will be presented, as well as liturgical ornaments and ex-votos. The reopening of the treasury is planned for early 2019.
Here we pay tribute to the Patrons of the cathedral, and in particular three associations which are particularly active in partnership with the State to support certain projects financially. These are the Friends of the Cathedral, Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde, and American Friends of Chartres, who are currently supporting the restoration of the Saint-Piat windows and the choir.
While ever beautiful to the eye, the cathedral and its decor have not yet finished revealing many surprises to us as the restoration campaigns proceed.