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The Artworks of Notre-Dame

By Melanie Damani, Hottinger Art

Notre-Dame de Paris is in the Archdiocese of Paris and lead by Monseigneur Michel Aupetit. 13 million people flock to Notre-Dame each year, making it the most visited monument in Europe. It is also used as a the starting point (“point zero”) to measure distances to and from Paris.

The cathedral is 856 years old. Construction started in 1160 under Bishop Maurice de Sully and was completed by 1260. Several modifications were made over the ensuing centuries.

Notre-Dame de Paris represents one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. In the 1790s, Notre-Dame suffered desecration during the French Revolution. Much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed. Important events have taken place in the cathedral such as the coronation of Henry VI of England as King of France at the age of 10 in 1431, the coronation of Napoleon I as Emperor of France in 1804, the liberation of Paris in 1944 and a public mass to commemorate the funeral of French President François Mitterrand.

In 1831, Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” as he felt too little attention was being given to the cathedral in its poor state and wanted it to be taken care of. An important movement led to the decision to establish a competition for the rehabilitation of the monument, which architect Viollet-le-Duc won and worked on between 1844 and 1864. The cathedral’s iconic spire was added to the monument at that time. In 1963, 1991 and 2000, the facades were cleaned of centuries of soot and grime.

On Monday 15th April 2019, while restoration works were taking place around the spire, the frame of the roof caught fire. The magnificent structure, made of 1,300 oaks and therefore called the “forest”, suffered significant damage, including the destruction of two-thirds of the roof and the spire.

French president Macron has committed to rebuild Notre-Dame and a restoration appeal has already brought in over a billion Euros. Experts believe it may take more than 10 years to complete the necessary works.

The Artworks of Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame holds a number of invaluable and important artworks. It looks as though the majority of them survived the fire but the full extent of the damage is as yet unknown. Below are some examples of the cathedral’s art.

South-facing rose window

The stained glass windows of Notre-Dame are among the most famous features of the cathedral. The west rose window, over the portals, was the first and smallest of the roses in Notre-Dame (9.6 meters in diameter) and made in about 1225. None of the original glass remains in this window.

The south rose (12.9 meters in diameter) has 94 medallions representing scenes from the life of Christ and his time on earth. These are the oldest glass in the windows.

Above the rose is a window depicting Christ seated triumphantly in the sky, surrounded by his Apostles. Below it are sixteen windows with painted images of prophets. These were not part of the original window; they were painted during the restoration in the 19th century by Alfred Gérenthe, under the direction of architect Viollet-le-Duc, and based upon a similar window at Chartres cathedral.

The south rose was damaged by the settling of the masonry walls in 1543 and not restored until 1725. It was also seriously damaged in the French Revolution of 1830. Rioters burned the residence of the Archbishop, next to the cathedral, and many of the panes were destroyed. The window was entirely rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc in 1861 and today contains both medieval and 19th-century glass.

So far, it appears that the three roses have survived the fire.

Notre-Dame holds in its heart the so-called trésor, the “treasure”, said to be comprised of the remainder of the woven crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus Christ when he was crucified, a piece of wood and a nail of the cross itself, the tunic of St Louis who retrieved the above objects and brought them to Paris. The firefighters, police and others were sent to retrieve these objects during the fire and against the odds they managed to extract them from the monument. They were then safely stored at the Hotel de Ville of the city.

The grand organ at Notre-Dame was built in 1403 by Friedrich Schambantz and replaced between 1730 and 1738 by François Thierry. During the restoration of the cathedral by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll built a new organ using pipe work from the former instrument. The organ has been restored, cleaned and further modified many times since then. The current organ has 115 stops (156 ranks) on five manuals and pedal, and more than 8,000 pipes.The organ also appears to have survived the fire.

The high altar of Notre-Dame is home to the Descent from the Cross by Nicolas Coustou with a relief by François Girardon. This main sculpture is surrounded by the kneeling statues of Louis XIII on the right by Guillaume Coustou, and of Louis XIV on the left by Antoine Coysevox. On 21 May 2013, around 1,500 visitors were evacuated from Notre-Dame Cathedral after Dominique Venner, a historian, placed a letter on the cathedral’s altar and shot himself. The holy neve has been spared in the fire but it will still need substantial restoration works.

Jean Jouvenet’s masterpiece, the Magnificat, is hanging on the west wall of St-William Chapel. Jouvenet was a scholar of Le Brun. This is one of the rare pieces left from the heart of the baroque cathedral. The painting was stored at the Louvre during the 1860s. However, with the efforts of Pierre-Marie Auzas, general inspector of historical monuments, the artwork returned to Notre-Dame in 1947.

Hottinger Art extends its sympathy and thoughts to the people of France at this difficult time.

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