The Grand decors of Notre Dame are stunning at the Gobelins…

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Charles Poerson, The predication of Saint Peter’s in Jerusalem, May of 1642

The new exhibition of Mobilier National at the Gobelins, is a rare occasion to see at eye level, thirteen of the (77) large “Mays” offered to Notre Dame by the Goldsmiths guild of Paris from 1630 to 1708, during Louis XIII and Louis XIV th’ reigns. And also nine more paintings, a very large carpet offered by Charles X in 1826, which were all salvaged from the cathedral, the days after the fire of April 2019. There are also 14 tapestries (1638-1657) of the life of the Virgin, originally conceived for the choir and now preserved at the Strasbourg cathedral which purchased them in 1739. All pieces have been restored thanks to the money generated around the world after the fire. They were first analyzed by the C2RMF, the national laboratory in charge of scientific study, which guides restorers. And it took 78 of them, two years and 20 000 hours to restore the paintings. They were housed in a 1 630 square meter secret shed outside Paris for the last five years.

Guido Reni, “Job’s Triumph”, 1636. This painting was taken from Santa Maria del Mendicanti in Bologna and placed in the Louvre and then in Notre Dame in 1802

There are very large cartels (in French only, what a mistake!) on each work with excerpts from the Bible but no description of the Evangelist in each picture. And the bright blue decor sadly takes some of the visual pleasure away. But the paintings describing the life of the apostles and scenes from the Bible, by Laurent de la Hyre, Guido Reni, Gabriel Blanchard, Aubin Vouet, Antoine Coypel,  Charles Le Brun… were saved  from the Revolution and kept at the Louvre where they were exhibited. An interesting list of all the commissions appears at the end of the show.

The general view of the Galerie des Gobelins with the flashy blue cartels in French only which include excerpts from the Bible

I would have liked more explanations on each apostle, and what prompted the choice of the commissioners and artists. This May (the month of the Virgin) habit, which lasted over two hundred years (from 1449 until 1707), started with a six sided tabernacle decorated with panels depicting biblical episodes on painted silk, with poetic signs dedicated to the Virgin. In 1609, the tabernacle became triangular and featured a painting on wood of the Virgin’s life, known as the “Petit May”. Admired during the whole 18 th century, the Mays were seized during the Revolution. They will hang again in Notre Dame for the inauguration on December 8.

Lubin Baugin, “The Virgin of Pity”, circa 1645-1655, Notre Dame de Paris

It’s very interesting to see that while most of these painters are famous today like Coypel, Le Brun, Laurent de La Hyre or Carle Van Loo, others have not remained in popular culture like Lubin Baugin, Louis Testelin or Louis Chéron. But the great consequence of Notre Dame’s fire is that they all have been rediscovered while they were hanging fairly dirty in somber parts of the cathedral. “This annual present of the Goldsmith’s guild is interesting sociologically” as Art historian Clémentine Gustin Gomez pointed out to me. She worked on Charles Poerson for her masters’s dissertation and published the catalogue raisonné (Faton 2006) of Charles de La Fosse after her PHD dissertation. As she mentioned, “La Fosse’s family was part of the powerful corporation of goldsmiths who had very strong ties with painters. The Mays were very expensive and were proof of the strong attachment these precious artisans had with the Church.”

Chairs by Ionna Vautrin and liturgical accessories by Guillaume Bardet in a model rendering of the future Notre Dame

Since most of the furniture of the cathedral was destroyed during the fire, a new altar, tabernacle, baptistere and chairs were commissioned from Guillaume Bardet and Ionna Vautrin. You can see them from upclose on the first floor among the fourteen superb tapestries of the Virgin designed by Charles Poerson and Philippe de Champaigne an the carpet conceived by Jacques Louis de la Hamayde de Saint Ange for Charles X. It was used for Napoléon III’s wedding and the Imperial christening of 1853 and Czar Nicolas II ‘s visit in 1896 as well as Pope Jean Paul II’s in 1980. The carpet weighs one ton. Moths had partly attacked it and it was torn in places from being moved around. It will not be used in the church any longer.

Jacques-Louis de la Hamayde de Saint-Ange, carpet for the choir of Notre Dame, 1833, Manufacture de la Savonnerie, DRAC Ile de France Notre Dame de Paris

This is an important exhibition and a unique occasion to see these paintings properly. But sadly, the scenography is not refined enough and again, the captions are only in French. I was told by the curator Emmanuel Pénicaut, when I grumbled, that a leaflet in English would be distributed to all foreign visitors who requested it. It was not available at the opening… So DO ask for it. And the catalog (in French only)  is a bargain at 15€.

The exhibition is on until July 21 at Mobilier National, metro Gobelins.

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3 Comments on “The Grand decors of Notre Dame are stunning at the Gobelins…”

  1. Merci pour cette publication je n’avais pas l’information
    Pour ce qui est des cartels nous sommes en France et pour ce type d’exposition je ne crois pas qu’aux USA les curateurs prennent le soin de traduire les cartels en anglais

  2. Exposition particulièrement intéressante car les tableaux étaient tous destinés à être vus en contre-plongée avec une déformation d’optique des architectures qui se fondaient dans celle de la nef de Notre-Dame. Du coup une partie basse riche en détails avec notamment la présence de curieux chiens venant animer la messe. Merci Laure .

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