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April 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1441

Politics versus archaeology in Paris

An air of anticipation has greeted the fourth anniversary of the fire that broke out on 15th April 2019 and destroyed the medieval roof of Notre-Dame, Paris, together with its flèche, designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1859. The main controversies surrounding the restoration having been settled – as reported in this Magazine, in July 2020 the French government announced that the roof and flèche will be rebuilt as they were, using the same materials as the original – attention has turned to the discoveries being made and to the restoration process.[1] This is evident in an exhibition at the Cité Architecture et Patrimoine, Paris (15th February–29th April). On display are sixteen bronze sculptures of the Apostles and Evangelist symbols, cast after models by Adolphe Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume in 1858–61, which crowned the roof ridges surrounding Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche. In a happy coincidence, they were removed from the cathedral a few days before the fire. Their bronze surfaces restored to their pristine chocolate-brown state, they are ready to return to their positions once the roof is completed. Throughout the exhibition, videos present art historians and archaeologists describing the findings that have been made now that every wall and stone can be examined, as well as young artisans reporting their joy in learning traditional techniques and crafts, such as those needed in the making of stained glass and the restoration of the cathedral’s organ. Curiously, however, the most important discovery made during the three years of the cathedral’s restoration is not mentioned. In 2022, during the excavations carried out in the crossing in preparation for the reconstruction of the flèche, around one thousand pieces of the early thirteenth-century jubé, or choir screen, were found, six hundred of which retain original polychromy. This find is particularly significant as only a handful of elements from the screen were previously known (some of them, such as two scenes from the Last Judgment, are now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris) and there are no precise depictions of the jubé before its destruction in the eighteenth century. 

Excitement also reigns at Saint-Denis, where preparations are under way to rebuild the north-western tower and spire, traditionally thought to have been added in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, after Abbot Suger (d.1151) had completed the main block of the façade in c.1135–40.[2] Structurally weak, the tower was taken down by Françoit Debret and Viollet- le-Duc in 1846–47. Since 1971 the mairie of Saint-Denis has campaigned to reconstruct the tower using the approximately three hundred stones from the tower and spire found in excavations. Finally, in 2013, President François Hollande gave the go-ahead with the provision that the project would be self-financed through donations and visits to the construction site, on the model of the replica of a medieval castle currently being built at Guédelon (Yonne). Despite the opposition of the Commission nationale des Monuments historiques and numerous scholars, objecting to what was perceived to be the Disneyfication of Saint-Denis, the first stone was laid by Hollande in March 2017 and excavations have begun in the north- western bay of the narthex.[3] Controversy has ceded to academic elation as a number of unexpected finds have been revealed. Below Suger’s massive pillars and their false bases, dating from the heightening of the floor level in 1812, the original twelfth-century bases and foundations can be seen for the first time since Viollet-le-Duc excavated the narthex in 1847.[4] Moreover, between the pillars, remains of Carolingian and Merovingian structures have been found. A press announcement will be made on 5th April, but the interpretation of these finds remains uncertain for now. 

In the meantime, the state has provided financial support for the long-awaited restoration of the ambulatory, which dates from 1140– 44. Thirty-one stained glass panels that survive from the ‘luminous windows’ commissioned by Suger were taken out in 1997 and replaced with miscoloured plastic copies. Since March 2022 the restoration of the remaining, mostly nineteenth-century, windows has been under way. Because Suger’s panels are too fragile, stained glass copies will be inserted following the refurbishment of the ambulatory and its chapels, which has just been completed. Opinions are likely to be divided about the fact that the outer walls and vaults have been covered in a light, yellow plaster. There are good reasons for this decision. The walls had been scraped clean by Jules Formigé in the 1950s, removing any traces of medieval paint and revealing unattractive red mastic repairs undertaken by Debret. It is likely – although not certain – that in the Middle Ages the walls and capitals were covered with a yellow limewash, remains of which have been found on capitals from the Romanesque cloister of Saint-Denis. Yet, given the significance of the ambulatory, considered the first Gothic building, it is unfortunate that the examination of the fabric will as a result be made more difficult. One cannot help feeling that the use of limewash is motivated by a desire to appeal to the public, who are now used to seeing medieval walls painted yellow, as at Chartres Cathedral, where surviving architectural polychromy has been restored in recent years, not without controversy of its own. 

Archaeological investigation is also not the only imperative that governs Notre-Dame’s building site. In January this year Jean-Louis Georgelin, the president of the Établissement public, the organisation charged with the restoration, confirmed that the reopening of the cathedral is set for 8th December 2024, in accordance with the schedule announced by President Emmanuel Macron after the fire in 2019 but notably too late to be ready for the start of the Olympic Games in July. This means not only that the famous ‘Mays’, large votive paintings offered to Notre-Dame by the goldsmiths’ guild each May between 1630 and 1707, have had to be restored at record speed but also, more frustratingly, that archaeologists cannot expand their excavations beyond the crossing and that elements of the jubé, which can be seen projecting from adjacent bays, have to be left in situ. When the jubé is reconstructed, these elements will be a significant absence. It is inevitable that the concerns of scholars and archaeologists are not always compatible with political interests in the management of heritage, where the main aim is often to increase visitors and ticket sales. However, to adhere to a restoration schedule that does not even take into account the Olympic Games, just because it was a presidential decree, would seem to go directly against the public interest. 


[1] Editorial: ‘Notre-Dame three years on’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 164 (2022), pp.331–32; see also A. Gajewski and M. Hall: ‘The fate of Notre-Dame, Paris’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 161 (2019), pp.648–52. 

[2] Jacques Moulin recently suggested a date of 1144 for the lower storey of the north-western tower, see J. Moulin: ‘Notes sur le massif occidental de Saint-Denis’, Bulletin Monumental 178 (2020), pp.323–86 and 443–44, at p.376. 

[3] M.Lejeune:‘La flèche del’ancienne abbatiale de Saint-Denis: un bilan archéologique’, BUCEMA: Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales, Auxerre 25 (2021), 

[4] See M.Wyss, ed.: Atlas historique de Saint-Denis: Des origines au XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1996, p.68.