Simon Jenkins: Europe’s cathedrals are the true wonders of the world, and were once smeared with color – it’s time they were again

Our cathedrals were once colorful, says Simon Jenkins, and today’s monochrome restorations are a travesty of history.

Imagine a visit to the National Gallery in which every image you see is in black and white. The faces, the landscapes, even the dramas are all clear. They are simply devoid of color. Fine, you might say, but something is missing. This is how I react to a medieval cathedral.

Most of the time, they are colorless. The dynamism in which their creators bathed them has been stripped by time and fashion. Gone are the visual textures intended to lift the eyes of the faithful and pilgrims from their dull environment, dazzling them with a polychrome sky. In their place, all we get is a dull, mostly chalky buff.

As a demonstration of the culture of Europe in the Middle Ages, nothing compares to the great cathedrals. They are true wonders of the world. They dominate the continent, from mighty Durham to serene Chartres, from the foothills of Cologne to the exquisite vault of Seville, the last ordered to be so vast “that men will think us crazy”. Nowhere matched the reckless engineering of Beauvais. Lincoln in his heyday was taller than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Yet few of these buildings appear as to those who built them because all have lost their color.

The color of the pillars, ribs and murals naturally faded with the decline of Catholic supremacy from the 16th century onwards. For the faithful, the churches were no longer the exclusive illustrators of biblical history.

It’s hard for us to imagine what the colorful facades and interiors of the west must have looked like for those who have never seen painted images elsewhere in their lives. As it stands, iconoclasm, neglect and whitewash have done their worst.

The statues collapsed and were not re-engraved. It is only in Italy that the decoration has largely survived, in large part thanks to the marble and the robustness of the mosaic, as in St. Mark’s, Venice and Monreale in Palermo. Even the color embedded in the stained glass has been thrown away. Salisbury’s was found in a ditch. The daylight should be pretty heavenly, the color was vulgar and certainly non-Protestant.

The west facade of Exeter Cathedral in 1480, as reconstructed by Stephen Conlin from traces of paint analyzed by curator Eddie Sinclair

When the 19th century turned to restoration, color returned to murals and statues, but rarely to architecture. The polychrome masonry of William Butterfield and JL Pearson was not widely imitated, although George Gilbert Scott painted much of its woodwork. Pugin’s Gothic Revival Catholic churches were much closer to their medieval precursors. The 20th century England closest to a serious revival of color was the work of historian Ernest Tristram between the wars. He studied the chemistry of medieval paintings and found sponsors in the cathedrals of Exeter and Bristol, but had an unfortunate habit of waxing paintings. Conservation purists have ended such a license.

The postwar doctrine of “keep as found” has taken over the archeology of cathedrals. No risk can be taken, no sign of ancient revival allowed. With a few exceptions – oddly, including the roof bosses – a church’s paint can be “stabilized”, but not reapplied. Where murals survive, they do so as insignificant blurs on whitewashed walls. The medieval statues on the western facades of Wells and Exeter – which in France would have been replaced – are left in eroded insignificance.

Likewise, the large Neville screen in Durham is presented as a panel of niches devoid of statues. Everywhere, church screens resemble an art gallery from which the paintings have been extracted, leaving only their frames. A committee once said that classical tombs could be restored and painted, but Gothic tombs could not, so Gothic always appears dark and ascetic, compared to Colored Renaissance. It is a historical parody. British conservation remains trapped in an ideology of sterility.

Amiens Cathedral

Evocation of a polychrome past: the west facade of the cathedral of Amiens, France, colored by lasers

Certainly we cannot say how extensive or vivid the colors were to adorn a medieval cathedral. You can only dig in stone. Yet when video lighting recreates these colors, the shock of disgust can be considerable. It’s reminiscent of the dismay that greeted the revelation that Robert Adam’s fashionable 18th-century pastel hues were originally garishly luminous.

The Middle Ages, likewise, were nothing if not garish. The recent retouching of the 12th-century Gloria portico in Santiago de Compostela in Spain only hints at the explosion of color that must have welcomed the pilgrims in this medieval masterpiece. The replica of the portico of the V&A Museum did not dare to reproduce the painting.

The great cathedrals of Europe have almost all been restored. The work has been magnificent. As places of worship, they are remarkably frequented, in contrast to the decline of parish worship. They emerge not only as majestic works of art, but as prominent civic and cultural institutions. Yet many still look little like what their medieval admirers might recognize. Essentially, they express the ascetic taste of the 18th and 19th centuries, the age of architectural monochrome.

There are some glimpses of what a new era of restoration of authentic cathedrals could offer, a new veracity of their past. Besides the Bristol and Exeter Chapels in Tristram and the Gothic Revival Cheadle of Pugin in Staffordshire, the east end of the Norman Cathedral of Coutances, whose ribs and pillars provide a funfair of colorful delicacies, is a more example important. The statuary screens of Ripon and St Albans Cathedrals are limited but vivid insertions.

The Prophet Nathan.  Canterbury Cathedral Panel

The Prophet Nathan. Late 12th century stained glass panel at Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

A little-known effort in the same direction is the relocation of St Teilo’s Church from Swansea to a St Fagans Museum site in Wales. Here, with scrupulous erudition, the museum has restored the church as it would have been at the start of the 16th century, down to the smallest detail in the murals, the painted roof, the rood screen and the sculptures. It clearly shows the “fair” atmosphere of pre-Reformation Christianity. Medieval doesn’t necessarily mean gloomy, gloomy, and run down.

St Teilo should form a model for restored medieval churches throughout. Redundancy now threatens literally hundreds of them across Britain and Europe. Giving them back some sense of their old vitality and sense of fun must be the key to reintegrating them into the secular life of their communities – just as they were in the Middle Ages.

An indirect glimpse of what cathedrals might have looked like is offered in their nighttime illumination by lighting technology. In 2016 and 2018, the French artist Patrice Warrener “painted” with colored lasers the statuary on the west facade of Westminster Abbey. It was phenomenal, choosing the skin tones of the faces and the undertones of the individual costumes. Few people even noticed that there were statues on the facade. It was a little less than a ‘new’ Westminster.

Vault and stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral

Controversial cleaning program for Chartres Cathedral in France revealed an overall decorative scheme of white on ocher

the sound and light Chroma Specialists organize a similar annual light show on the west facade of Amiens in France, the most sensational architectural illumination exhibit I have ever seen. The show ends with every detail of the 14th century facade lit up in all its original splendor. Then someone flips a switch and turns it all black. A similar impact is created, this time using refracted daylight and stained glass, in what is arguably the most breathtaking Gothic interior in Europe, Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona.

These artists and architects stage the medieval cathedral as their creators wanted. They are coloring hymns. We should rise to the challenge and hear the medieval masons applaud.

Simon Jenkins’ 100 Best Cathedrals in Europe published by Penguin for £ 30


Simon Jenkins is giving himself a tough job with his latest book, Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals (Viking, £ 30), which does

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