[5] MODERN ERA – Gothic Cathedrals: Restoration Campaigns and the Drive for Authenticity

Two forms of visual documentation were made before the damage of Reims Cathedral in the First World War. In 1914, Max Sainsaulieu created autochrome photographs of the building and there were also drawings made for the Simon-Marq stained glass workshop in Reims. These were the best available models for the state of the building before the bombardment and have been essential in the study of the building since. During and after the war, Henri Deneux was put in charge of the reconstruction work, which continued until 1938. In 1927, the nave was reopened for services and new bells rang on November 1, 1935. New windows followed in the 1950s and 1970s as the sculpture was slowly replaced with copies. Restoration of the north façade of Reims and tower lasted for a decade and a half from, 1973 to 1988, and work on the west portal began in 1990. More accurate copies of the sculpture became possible with the use of reconstituted stone even as more critical analyses began on the role of the mason-restorer.

Reconstruction work at Reims and many other Gothic sites means that a greater untangling of many campaigns of building and restoration has become necessary. Scholarship has focused on the building chronology, parsing the remains, and excavating the environs. The focus has been on the question of how much we now see is authentic medieval fabric—and from when?—and what decisions have led to the current state of the building. For Reims, we can associate these questions with the most prominent publications of each decade. 

During the 1970s, many French cathedral portals were reexamined in view of their sculptural programs. Theories abounded about reuse of statues from one place to another, and Reims was no exception. In the later nineteenth century, the Porte romane on the cathedral’s north façade had been disengaged from the post-cloister, walled-in west arch opening of the north transept. This began a long discussion about the chronology of the north transept in the construction history of the building as well as some inquiry into the painting of the sculpture and the façade’s incoherent sculptural program. A crucial aspect in Barbara Abou-El-Haj’s arguments about the meanings of the sculpture at Reims North is consideration of whether or not parts were originally designed for placement here or reused from the west portal. Key contributors to this conundrum begin with Viollet-le-Duc and as early as 1912, after restoration but before the confusion of the war destruction, Hans Kunze, in 1912, suggested an alternative original arrangement. Robert Branner followed in the 1960s with a pair of articles that interrogated the relationship between construction and city history. 

During the 1990s, scientific analyses were added to available information. Archeological work 1993-1998 was undertaken for the city with the help of the national government. Dendrochronological study commenced in 1999. Earlier restoration work came under scrutiny as new materials and methods updated techniques. While work progressed, it became ever clearer that age, pollution, restorations, and the various modern comforts added to the building were taking a huge toll on the integrity of the stone. The poor condition pushed further interest in documentation at the most detailed level, leading to more data with which to posit theories about the original construction, and, it seemed, less interest in archival resources regarding contextual history. New technology has continued to concentrate interest in the physical remains. For instance, Sylvie Balcon-Berry and Dany Sandron began a three-dimensional scan of the western rose in 2015.

At Amiens Cathedral, recently energy has gone toward recovering the original polychromy on the cathedral’s west façade. And summer light shows offer dazzling displays suggesting the original coloration of the sculpture, though one might argue with the saturated, opaque and unmodulated results.


  1. How do increasingly advanced technological means to analyze the fabric of a building contribute to, or potentially deflect attention from, politically- and socially-focused inquiries of the type that interested Barbara Abou-El-Haj? Can you come up with strategies to integrate evidence of the physical make-up and beauty of a building with the sometimes vexed conditions under which it was created and originally experienced?
  2. Looking beyond Reims and Amiens, restorers at Chartres, working on the interior of the cathedral, recently have removed grimed and repainted portions of the stone (see: http://www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts/2014/12/restoration-scandal-at-chartres-cathedral.html). This has inspired debate among scholars and enthusiasts (see: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2014/12/14/scandalous-makeover-chartres/?insrc=hpbl AND http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2014/12/17/new-chartres-exchange/ ). Beyond issues of aesthetics or the ethics of modern restorations, can such work contribute to examinations of the original conditions of production – questions of coercion or the exploitation of resources of the kind that interested Barbara Abou-El-Haj?

Bibliography Gothic Cathedrals: Restoration Campaigns and the Drive for Authenticity

Berry, Walter. “The Thirteenth Century Foundations of Notre–Dame de Reims: New Evidence for the Construction History of the Cathedral,” in Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache, eds. Kathleen Nolan and Dany Sandron (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2015), 8–25.

Berry, Walter, “Evidence Below Ground, ” in The North Transept of Reims Cathedral: Design, Construction, Visual Programs, Jennifer Feltman, ed. (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016).

Branner, Robert, “The North Transept and the First West Facades of Reims Cathedral,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 24 (1961): 220–41.

Branner, Robert. “Historical Aspects of the Reconstruction of Reims Cathedral, 1210–1241,” Speculum 36 (1961): 23–37.

Egger, Anne, Amiens. La cathédrale peinte (Paris, 2000).

Feltman, Jennifer, “Introduction,” in The North Transept of Reims Cathedral: Design, Construction, Visual Programs, Jennifer Feltman, ed., (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016).

Hinkle, William, “Kunze’s Theory of an Earlier Project for the West Portals of the Cathedral of Reims,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 34 (1975): 208–14.

Kunze, Hans, Das Fassadenproblem der französischen Früh– und Hochgotik (Leipzig: Brandstetter, 1912).

Plagnieux, Phillippe, La cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, Editions du patrimoine, Paris, 2003.

Prache, Anne. “Le début de la construction de la cathédrale de Reims au XIIIe siècle,” Bulletin de la Société nationale des antiquaries de France (2002): 334–46.

Prache, Anne, “New Dendrochronological and Archaeological Evidence for the Building Chronology of Reims,” in Archaeology in Architecture: Studies in Honor of Cecil L. Striker, Emerick, Judson and Deborah Delyannis, eds. (Mainz: von Zabern, 2005), 167–172.

Prache, Anne, “Le début de la construction de la cathédrale de Reims au XIIIe siècle: l’apport de l’archéologie et de la dendrochronology,” in Nouveaux regards sur la Cathédrale de Reims: actes du colloque international des 1er et 2 octobre 2004, Bruno Decrock and Patrick Demouy, eds. (Langres: Editions Dominique Guéniot, 2008), 41–52.

Villes, Alan, La cathédrale Notre–Dame de Reims: chronologie et campagnes de travaux: bilan des recherches antérieures à 2000 et propositions nouvelles (Joué–lès–Tour: La Simarre Editions, 2009).

Wu, Nancy, “Retracing the Original North Transept of Reims Cathedral,” in The North Transept of Reims Cathedral: Design, Construction, Visual Programs, ed. Jennifer Feltman (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016).