Catholics and history buffs alike may have heard of the $18.5 million restoration of the Cathedral of Chartres in Chartres, France. Before taking a side to the debate concerning the restoration, allow me to lay out some facts.

After restoration (left) versus before (right). Photo: The New York Times

For those of you that may not know about Black Madonnas, let’s discuss them. Black Madonnas (or Black Virgins) are icons of the Catholic Virgin Mary, and sometimes Jesus, pictured with darker skin dating back to the medieval period (commonly defined as the 12th – 15th centuries). They are usually found in Catholic and Orthodox countries. They usually are not large: standing or sitting statues around three feet tall, or paintings. They are everywhere, with a documented four-to-five hundred of them in Europe alone. According to Leonard Moss during a 1952 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Black Madonnas could be broken into three categories: first, dark brown or black Madonnas with physiognomy and skin pigmentation matching that of the indigenous population; second, various art forms that have turned black as a result of certain physical factors (i.e. lead-based pigments, candle smoke, dust/grime); and three, residual category with no ready explanation.

The second category is exactly what has occurred in the Black Madonna of Chartres. In 2009, the French Ministry of Culture’s Monuments Historiques division decided to overhaul the eight-hundred year-old cathedral. Using data they’ve collected from historians and architects, their plan is to clean the grime of the ages from the innards of the cathedral and her artwork before repainting the vaulted ceilings and buttresses in what they believe to be the original color scheme of ochre and white. This restoration will also clean and preserve the almost two-hundred stained glass windows of the cathedral.

This has even included cleaning the famous Black Madonna of Chartres, Notre Dame de Pilar. This process of removing the patina of accumulated soot from her and the infant Jesus in her arms has rendered the Black Madonna white.


The Black Madonna before restoration in 2013 (left) and after in 2017 (right). Photo: The New York Review of Books

The formerly Black Madonna, Notre Dame de Pilar, was a 1508 walnut replica of a 13th century silvered Madonna, though this version was commissioned as a copy of an earlier Madonna, Notre Dame la Blanche. Despite the restoration, the catehdra still features a Black Madonna: Notre Dame de Sous-Terre, a replica of a statue that was burned during the French Revolution that marks the oldest shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is dated as “pre-Christian.”

The renovation was slated to be completed in 2017, but as the work is three years behind due to budgeting issues, work on the transepts will not begin until 2019.

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