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The Barnes vs. Chartres CathedralBY: Dan Rottenberg 06.04.2012
Albert Barnes’s acolytes contend that he did for Modernism what Chartres Cathedral did for Christianity. Which raises an interesting question: Have you been to Chartres lately?
Albert Barnes, Chartres Cathedral
Was the Barnes Foundation’s former home in Merion “the Chartres of Modernism”?
James Panero suggested as much recently in the New Criterion: Like Chartres Cathedral in France, he wrote last month, the original Barnes was “incapable of duplication.”
BSR’s Robert Zaller amplified that battle cry this week, reasoning that Chartres and the Barnes were both expressions of faith, “perfectly adapted to their function and environment.” What Chartres Cathedral did for Christianity, Zaller contends, Albert Barnes did for Modernism. (To read his essay, click here.)
It’s an intriguing analogy up to a point. But like most analogies it fails at some point; and in the case of the Barnes and Chartres the failure is critical.
Like Zaller, I too was dismayed to see the Barnes collection uprooted from its Merion birthplace. But if you want to make the case that it shouldn’t have been moved, I can’t think of a weaker analogy.
Chartres Cathedral was a communal project, conceived and constructed over several centuries by thousands of workers and administrators. Its purpose was to proclaim the Christian faith far and wide to believers and nonbelievers alike. For that purpose its exterior was festooned with eye-catching sculpture, colorful story-telling stained glass windows, and towers that rise as high as 371 feet so as to be visible from miles away.
Since the 12th Century, Chartres has been an important destination for pilgrims, many of whom traveled from distant countries to venerate the famous relic inside: the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ’s birth.
The Barnes Foundation, by contrast, was the vision of a single man obsessed with protecting his vision from nonbelievers, tourists and other dilettantes. To that end he housed his collection in an obscure suburb, behind the stolid and dreary walls of a hostile building that seems deliberately designed to discourage visitors. To this secretive temple he admitted visitors only grudgingly and under court order.
Of course, pilgrims showed up at his door anyway, despite the obstacles he imposed. But so many of them were turned away that most said the hell with it and sought out more welcoming venues.
The term “catholic” was adopted by a church that considered itself far-reaching and universal. Albert Barnes was the opposite of catholic: Reaching out to the benighted masses was the last thing he wanted to do. God forbid that his vision might be exposed to someone who might suggest that his inspired revelation was hardening into orthodoxy.
Chartres was a welcoming place; the old Barnes was a forbidding place. It may have been the model for the fictitious Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial ("just outside Philadelphia") in Citizen Kane, where guards and old biddies stood ready to jump down the throat of any visitor whose attitude was less than reverential.
Like the coke baron Henry Clay Frick (who in his depressed old age liked to stare at his paintings at night when he couldn’t sleep), Barnes derived great satisfaction from his unique vision. Frick’s paintings, it has been said, became the outlet for the emotions that Frick seemed incapable of sharing with other people.
But after Frick’s death his paintings, at least, were shared with other people when his daughter converted his Fifth Avenue mansion into a museum. Barnes’s satisfactions, by contrast, were deliberately restricted to a relatively small circle of his acolytes for decades after his death.
Secular Chartres today
Zaller suggests that the French wouldn’t dream of desecrating a sacred institution like Chartres Cathedral by moving it to a more tourist-accessible location. The cathedral’s ethereal character wouldn’t survive such a trip, he says.
Which raises an interesting question: Robert, have you been to Chartres lately?
Chartres Cathedral today is, above all, a tourist attraction. The pilgrims who flock there now are drawn not by any sacred relic inside but by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s still an awe-inspiring place, and it’s still very much a community center— only it’s a community that no longer takes God very seriously. Even the bishops and priests who own and operate Chartres treat it more as a museum than a church.
The same holds true these days at all the great medieval cathedrals throughout France. They’re no longer sanctuaries so much as repositories of a past belief structure. You go there not so much to worship Christ as to better understand why your medieval ancestors worshiped Christ.
(At Reims Cathedral, where Joan of Arc crowned the Dauphin in 1429, the explanations on the walls— provided by the church itself— tend to refer to Christianity as a bygone precursor to modern secular humanism.)
The Church shrugs
Whether this strikes you as progress or heresy, the evolution of human thought is inevitable— which is why orthodoxy of any sort is doomed in the long run. After many centuries, the Church in Europe seems to have cheerfully recognized that the Pope can’t tell Catholics what to believe (in Europe, at least). And after many decades, the Barnes Foundation’s trustees have come around to the view that Albert Barnes can’t tell art lovers what to believe.
As I said, if I had my druthers I would have left the Barnes Collection in Merion. But if you’re looking for signs of hope that his collection might survive or even benefit from its recent move to a tourist-friendly venue like the Parkway, I can’t think of a better example than Chartres.♦
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