Friday, September 16, 2022

Whitewashing Chapel Art

There is an English chapel being restored, and a mural was discovered underneath the whitewash, determined to be from the puritan era. Unsurprisingly. It raises a question in the restoration. Do they seek to go back and restore or at least display the mural? The whitewashing is also a legitimate part of the chapel's history after all, and in this case, I was told, an important part. Do we insist on restoring to the earliest possible date? Wouldn't that be privileging time-depth over other considerations, perhaps even making a god of it? Do we restore to the best art? Another god, then. Do we restore a building to its maximum size, or when it was most important, or to the era when the things now most important to us happened? What if there are few other examples of a particular era remaining, so we want to use this one for that purpose, or similarly, an important piece of women's history, international history, ethnic history? We find whitewash and reflexively want to take it off and return the building to its "original" state. Yet we have smuggled in other values without noticing. Secular historians might be making a god of the art and the Christians buying in unquestioningly- exactly what the puritans warned about. Always restoring to the oldest makes a god of tradition.

A related topic is in the pipeline.


Douglas2 said...

On Sunday one of our elderly congregants was in a bit of a state, looking around at our (by U.S. standards) historic church building and thinking that the upkeep would soon swamp the ability of the dwindling congregation to cope.

I think in her time in town the sandstone walls have required re-pointing at least twice, the roof has been replaced, and several of the stained-glass windows have been restored twice.

Our numbers haven't recovered to pre-pandemic levels, exacerbated by a) losing our clergy to a more prestigious position elsewhere, and b) several families moving to warmer climes - amongst them several of the wealthiest donors.

In Europe historic church buildings are considered part of the cultural fabric and as worthy of government investment in upkeep and restoration as other monuments, but even there, the limited funds are distributed between many equally worthy needs. When I lived in Canada my church there looked at the potential available resources within the congregations from capital campaigns and tithing and decided that renovating the part of the building used as a drop-in center for the homeless was a more important use of funds than continuing to maintain the pipe-organ.

I can't help thinking of the "Coventry Doom" (, where the 1st removal of the whitewash and "restoration" and "preservation" of the underlying mural was badly done -- and I also think of the 1st restoration of the stained-glass windows in my church which was badly done, probably caused more harm than help, and pretty much necessitated the 2nd restoration to keep them from collapsing.

So my inclination is alway to spend the money on keeping the water out, and follow the hippocratic “primum non nocere". I suspect that if I knew the totality of the circumstances, I'd be voting to apply more whitewash.

james said...

If the building is a tool to aid in sheltering and inspiring the worshipers, then I'd think the question is "what restoration or change will do this best?" Restoration to an earlier form can help with the sense of continuity with earlier generations of the faithful, which isn't nothing, but adding stair-rails and rest rooms isn't nothing either.
Does the stained glass add or distract? The chapel in the Geneva cathedral had gorgeous stained glass, and I was fortunate enough to visit on a sunny day when the light hit it just right. I don't know if I'd be paying attention to the mass there on a day like that.

G. Poulin said...

It's not making a god of tradition, it's making a god of antiquity ---often destroying tradition in the process.