Monday, 29 April 2019

A Hundred Marriages at Notre-Dame

On Monday 8th February 1779 a hundred couples were married simultaneously in a single splendid ceremony at Notre-Dame. I first came across a reference to this event in a copy of the early 20th-century guide book by E.V. Lucas, A Wanderer in Paris.  "Some very ugly events are in store for us;" we are told in the section on Notre-Dame,  "let something pretty intervene". The original source is an even more mawkish French work by a certain Pauline de Grandpré.  She paints a beautiful, romantic vision:  a hundred brides and grooms,  married at the behest of a beneficent royalty, in bright, candle-lit, flower strewn cathedral.

 Somehow this is a past that never quite was.... I decided to investigate.

19th-century visions of the Royal Family.
Imaginary scene by Charles Louis Lucien Muller (1857) 
On 19th December 1778, after nine years of marriage, Queen Marie-Antoinette was safely delivered of a daughter Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte de France, later Duchess of Angoulême.  Relief was universal, since the birth of a dauphin now seemed assured. There were outpourings of official rejoicing. Marie-Antoinette herself decided the moment was right for a populist gesture:

"The Queen was persuaded by the love for her show by the citizens, to reply with an act of benevolence which would particularly extend to the people".

 Marie-Antoinette refused the celebrations offered to her by the municipality of Paris and asked instead that the money be employed to provide dowries for a hundred deserving poor girls, who would be married en masse on the day of the Royal thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame.  Additional allowances were be paid when a first child was born, with a higher rate available for mothers who breastfed.  As a further celebration of family life,  an elderly couple would be chosen to renew their marriage vows in front of their "children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren".

It is hard to gauge what the municipal corporation might have thought about  this charitable effusion of Rousseauist sentiment.   No doubt the requirements were both expensive and troublesome to arrange.  The brunt of the organisation fell on the church. A 1923 article  in the Revue des études historiques, by Gabriel Vauthier, publishes a copy of the rather terse circular, dated 14th January 1779, from Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont to each of the curés of  Paris's forty-three parishes:

It is the Queen's intention to endow with a dowry, one hundred girls to be chosen from the different parishes of Paris.  Each one will be furnished with the sum of five-hundred livres, as well as outfits and robes, to be delivered to her on the occasion of her marriage.  In addition,  Her Majesty wishes to pay ten livres per month for a year during the time that the baby is being nursed.  If the mother feeds her own baby, she will be payed fifteen livres a month and given a layette.

You should, Monsieur,  without delay, find the means to fulfil the charitable wishes of the Queen and bring about their speedy execution.  You must choose from among your parishioners,  individuals who are poor and of good moral character, worthy to be recipients of Her Majesty's kindness.  You must make your choice within eight to ten days.  The marriages will follow the ordinary order of precedence for the parishes of Paris.  Kindly come to the Archbishop's palace next Monday at five in the evening. You can inform me of the results of your research so far, and, if there are any difficulties, we will resolve them.

The Archives National preserves further documents  which relate specificifally to the marriages arranged in the parish of St-Germain-l'Auxerrois: we even have the names and professions of the selected couples:

Paul Briquet, haberdasher, and Rosalie Macnamara, "fille ouvrière pour les tailleurs".
 Pierre Demalet, clerk, and Marie-Françoise, a dressmaker;
Gorgon Berge, servant to a dealer in muslins, and Marie-Marguerite Chocque; 
Jean-Joseph Royot, tailor, and Victoire-Madeleine Lécuyer.

On  Sunday 7th February  the curé Remy-Chapeau assembled his couples together to issue  them with the necessary certificats de catholicité.  The witnesses who were present were senior officials from the Châtelet,  all four avocats of the Parlement and conseillers du roi.  For the ceremony itself the lieutenant civil and the procureur du roi would also be present.

On the eve of the ceremony, the wedding clothes, rings and special commemorative medallions were delivered into the care of the curés.  Next day, at six o'clock in the morning, the prospective brides and grooms were required to assemble in their wedding clothes to be taken to Notre-Dame. At St-Germain-l'Auxerrois, all four couples, together with their parents, were obliged to pile into a single carriage.  From the pont Rouge, they made their way on foot to the Archbishop's palace where everyone gathered in the grande salle.

At eight o'clock the couples were ushered into the Cathedral.  They were placed into two lines, according to the order of parishes laid down in the Almanach royal.  At their head was the elderly married couple who, according to the queen's wishes, were to renew their marriage vows on the the occasion of their golden wedding.

The brides and grooms all held in their hands their rings and commemorative medallions, which were given a general blessing by the Archbishop. He personally pronounced the nuptial blessing for the old couple and also for one of the new marriages.  The curés from the different parishes simultaneously officiated for the rest.  Finally a member of the Chapter said Mass; this was a fairly cursory affair, without offerings and hand-held candles.  Following the custom of the time, a white veil ("le poêle") was passed over the two lines of newly-weds:  swathes of white taffeta were unrolled and held over them by the guards on duty in the cathedral.  After this, the couples were ushered out and taken to a room in the Archbishop's palace to be served a wedding breakfast. The acts of marriage had all been signed the previous day but the four commissioners now also signed for each parish.

Te Deum in Notre-Dame, in the presence of Marie-Antoinette, for the birth of the Dauphin in 1781 (Getty Images)
It should be noted that at this point, contrary to the imaginings of Pauline de Grandpré, the royal party had not yet even arrived.  The newly-weds were therefore led back into the nave with their respective curés to be seen by the King and Queen as they entered and left the church. The high galleries of the cathedral were filled with spectators who had bagged their seats earlier that morning. This done, the couples were loaded into carriages and driven home.

The registers of the Bureau de la Ville give a long account of the Royal visit, some of which is reproduced by Gabriel Vauthier.

Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, accompanied by the whole royal family, had spent Sunday 7th at the Château de la Muette. On the 8th they were received on the quai, at the end of the Tuileries gardens, by the duc de Brissac, governor of Paris, M. de Caumartin, prévôt des marchands and the entire municipal corporation.  A magnificent cortege with twenty-eight carriages took them to Notre-Dame where they arrived at half-past eleven.

The King and Queen greeted by the Archbishop of Paris.  Waddesdon collection.
The occasion depicted in this print is not known.

Their Majesties descended from the carriage and were received at the door of the church by the Archbishop in his pontifical habit and accompanied by the Chapter. After the Archbishop had given them his compliments and presented them with holy water, he led them into the choir where they said prayers, and then heard Mass in the chapel of the Virgin, whilst a motet was sung by the Notre-Dame choir.  The town's canons, situated on the Port au Blé  fired a salute as Their Majesties entered the church;  400 birds were let loose by the official bird handlers - an ancient custom on such occasions, which symbolises the liberation of prisoners
[On 1st February an order had gone out to the birdcatchers of  Paris, the Communauté des Maîtres Oiseleurs, to provide the necessary birds.  There was some debate over whether prisoners should actually be liberated; 130 detainees were eventually released from the  For-l'Évêque, thereby saving the considerable expense of their incarceration.]

After the Mass, their Majesties were led back into the main church by the Archbishop and the Chapter.  Placed in two line in the nave were the 200 newly weds whose marriages had been celebrated that morning in Notre-Dame by each curé. Their Majesties regarded them with benevolence and satisfaction.

From Notre-Dame the sovereigns went on to further devotions at Sainte-Geneviève then returned to La  Muette for dinner. The Journal de Paris effuses over the various formal speeches and the appreciative reception from the people of Paris, who had been allowed to approach.  In reality, for the royal family, the clergy and the various officials, it was all probably a bit of an ordeal.  As to the newly-weds, we have no way of knowing their thoughts -  it would be fascinating to know what became of them in subsequent years.  I am probably just a Revolutionary at heart, but there is something slightly unsavoury about this whole episode - the whims of a Queen, the obsequious officialdom, the manipulation of ordinary people; somehow, turning the cathedral into a wine store at least seems more honest.


Gabriel Vauthier, "Cent mariages célébrés  à Notre-Dame de Paris en 1779  Revue des études historiques, 1923, vol.89, p.349-352


An early 20th-century vision: 
Some very ugly events are in store for us; let something pretty intervene.  On February 9th, 1779 (in the narrative of Louise (sic) de Grandpré, to whom the study of Notre-Dame has been a veritable passion), a large crowd pressed towards the cathedral ; the ground was strewed with fresh grass and flowers and leaves ; the pillars were decorated with many coloured banners. In the choir the vestments of the saints were displayed: the burning tapers lit up the interior with a dazzling brightness : the organ filled the church with joyful harmony, and the bells rang out with all their might. The whole court was present, the King himself assisting at the ceremony, and the galleries were full to overflowing of ladies of distinction in the gayest of dresses.

Then slowly, through the door of St. Anne, entered a hundred young girls dressed in white, covered with long veils and with orange blossom on their heads. These were the hundred poor girls whom Louis XVI had dowered in memory of the birth of Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France, afterwards Duchess of  Angoulême, and it was his wish to assist personally at their wedding and to seal their marriage licences with his sword, which was ornamented on the handle or pommel with the "fleur de lys".

Through the door of the Virgin entered at the same time one hundred young men, having each a sprig of orange blossom in his button-hole. The two rows advanced together with measured steps, preceded by two Swiss, who struck the pavement heavily with their halberds. They advanced as far as the chancel rails, where each young man gave his hand to a young girl, his fiancée, and marched slowly before the King, bowing to him and receiving a bow in return. They were then married by the Archbishop in person.

A very charming incident, don't you think ? Such a royal gift, adds Louise de Grandpré, would be very welcome to-day, when there are so many girls unmarried  for the want of a dot.
Wanderer in Paris 20th ed., 1923, p.30-31.

The Official view - From the Journal de Paris
Our August Queen refused herself all the festivities with which the nation desired to express its joy. Part of the money put aside for these empty displays was employed, at their Majesties' order, to fund a hundred marriages between poor and virtuous young women and honest artisans who, having by their industry avoided indigence, still could not, without incurring debt, afford to set up home.  All the appropriate precautions were taken to avoid abuse and to prepare the future happiness of these new families.  M.the Archbishop instructed the forty-three Curés of Paris.  The number of marriages was set for each parish, with MM.the Curés asked to decide without recourse to recommendations or motives of mere favour.  The Queen had the five hundred livres entrusted to the Curés for the dowry of each of the young women. This money was to be used only to set up in a trade, buy a mastership, or for some other means of subsistence.  Preference was to be given to couples who had known each other for a long time, and perhaps were only waiting for favourable circumstances to get married.The Brides and Grooms are to have complete outfits;  and the Queen will give a payment for the time the first-born child of the marriages is nursed;  the mothers who breastfeed themselves will receive a layette, and a payment which is a third greater[10 livres per month was the flat rate, 15 livres for nursing mothers]

All the couples will receive a Nuptial Blessing from the Archbishop or from their Curés, tomorrow, Monday, the day which their Majesties have chosen for their service of thanksgivingin the Cathedral Church of Notre-Dame.  Each Curé will be at the head of the Marriages from his Parish, and the hundred couples will be reassembled to allow their Majesties to enjoy the spectacle of their beneficience; also so that the newly-weds can join their goodwishes to those of the whole of France. 

The Queen has added to the touching spectacle...that of two old people married for fifty years, who will be given the same benefits as the young couples, and who, following ancient usage, will receive a second nuptial blessing;  their  children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be present at ceremony.  Such flattering attention played to a long life, passed peacefully and honestly, will inspire all sensitive souls and provide the newly weds with a most eloquent lesson.
Journal de Paris, No.38 7th February, p.150-1;

Their Majesties came the day before yesterday, as announced in No.38 of our journal; they were accompanied by Monsieur and Madame, Mgr le Comte and Madame la Comtesse d'Artois, Madame Élisabeth, Madame Adélaïde, Madame Victoire and Madame Sophie. They were received on their arrival by the Governor, the Corporation of Paris and all theofficials who assist at ceremonies of this sort.  The Cortege was composed of twenty-eight carriages, detachments of Gardes-du-Corps, Gendarmes, Light-Cavalry and officers of the Falconry.  They arrived at the Church of Notre-Dame, where they had been preceded by all the Princes and Princesses of the Blood.  The hundred marriages had been celebrated in the morning, and the newly-weds, lined up in the nave, had the privilege of showing by their looks their gratitude towards their Majesties.  Mass was heard by the whole Court in the Chapel of the Virgin, under the eyes of a crowd of onlookers who had positioned themselves since morning in the high galleries.  On leaving Notre-Dame, their Majesties went to Sainte-Geneviève, where they were received in ordinary form.  They were addressed en route by M. Duval, the Rector of the University, with all the members of his Tribunal and their Adjoints, in ceremonial dress, at the gate of the Collège Louis-le-grand...  The sight of these venerable elders to presented their respectful homage to their Sovereigns, and of that immense crowd who cried Vive le Roi, formed a touching spectacle...They left Sainte-Geneviève at two o'clock when they returned to the place Louis XV to board their ordinary coaches to go and dine at La Muette.

Never had the people crowded more to enjoy the presence of their Sovereigns or to have the joy of seeing them.  The precautions that had wisely been put in place, meant there was no incident, despite the fact that the people were allowed to approach and enjoy a good view.

The orange-sellers on the Pont-Neuf...had the honour of presenting Their Majesties with a basket of oranges and one of flowers. We thought it would give pleasures to our Readers to transcribe their compliment[......]
The hundred Brides, their Grooms and their parents had a meal at the Archbishop's palace.
Journal de Paris, No.41, 10th February 1779,  p.162

Bachaumont cynically summaries the Journal de Paris :
Their Majesties were harangued en route by the Governor and municipal corporation, by M. Duval, the Rector of the University, by the Lieutenant Civil, by the abbé de sainte-Genevieve, and finally on the Pont-Neuf by the orange sellers who had the honour of presenting them with baskets of fruit and flowers.
Nothing could be more beautiful than the sight of the immense crowd which lined the thoroughfares, the quais and the roads.  M. le comte d'Artois complained on his arrival at La Muette that he had cricked his neck through looking.
 Mémoires secrets, vol 7, p.297-8):

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Notre-Dame of the imagination

If the Notre-Dame of the 19th and 20th centuries belonged to Victor Hugo, the Notre-Dame of the contemporary imagination belongs to the game Assassin's Creed Unity.  In 2014 the cathedral was reconstructed in loving detail by Ubisoft. Over 10 million gamers are estimated to have visited the virtual Notre-Dame, climbed over its roof and even scaled the now destroyed spire.

The fire of 15th April met with dismayed responses from many fans of Assassin's Creed -  many immediately posted videos of their gameplay, on Twitter, YouTube or the gaming platform Twitch.  On 17th April Ubisoft announced that it was going to donate 500,000 euros to the restoration fund and allow free access to the pc version of Assassin's Creed Unity for a week.   Slightly disingenuously, they also proposed to furnish the architects with the virtual images used in the game.

Of course, as Le Monde soon pointed out, these designs, beautiful as they are, are no real use to the reconstruction, since they lacks precise measurements and are based mainly on plans and photos. Cédric Gachaud, Director of Life3D, who modelled the Cathedral for the renovations taking place at the time of the fire, observed that it was necessary understand not just the interior and exterior appearance but the internal structure of the wooden frame  (the charpente), for which specialist precision techniques - photogrammetry and use of  laser scanners - were necessary.  Fortunately, a fair amount of this work had been carried at Notre-Dame in the course of various academic and restoration projects.

Ah well!  It is still brilliant to have such high-quality 3D images in an appealing and readily accessible format.  Strange paradox too, that, in the world of gaming at least, Notre-Dame has become an emblem of the Revolution?


Brett Makedonski "One dev spent two years making the Notre Dame in Assassin's Creed Unity", Destructoid,16.04.2019 - reposting of interview of 2014 with designer Caroline Miousse.

Matthieu Balu,"Notre-Dame de Paris honorée par les joueurs d'"Assassin's Creed" Huffington Post, 16.04.2019.  A selection of videos and tweets.

William Audureau, "Notre-Dame de Paris : les reconstitutions en 3D peuvent aider à la reconstruction", Le Monde, 16.04.2019
_____, "Non, le jeu vidéo « Assassin’s Creed Unity » ne servira pas à reconstruire Notre-Dame de Paris",  Le Monde, 17.04.2019

Monday, 22 April 2019

Notre-Dame in the 18th century (continued)

Anon, Cardinal Louis-Antoine de Noailles (1651-1729), Archbishop of Paris.  Musée Carnavalet.
The portrait commemorates the Archbishop's embellishment of Notre-Dame.  To the right, stonemasons can be seen at work. The architectural drawings at his feet are identified as: the Noailles chapel, the niche for the reliquary of St Marcel, the altars of the Virgin and St Denis and the vaulting of the transept crossing.  On his knees are the plans for the restoration of the South rose window

Exterior and structural repairs  c. 1700-1750  

It is easy to accuse Notre-Dame's 18th-century custodians of neglect. Despite the immense revenues of the diocese, even structural maintenance relied heavily on benefactors such as Canon La Porte and Archbishop Noailles, whose architectural initiatives are celebrated in the painting above from the Carnavalet.  According to Professor McManners, the early years of transformation, were followed by a period of repair and innovative restoration, and only then by "another of destructive incidents" [Church and society in eighteenth-century France, v.1 (1998) p.444]

1699:   In the year that work started on the new High-Altar, the Cathedral Chapter complained (to no effect) about the poor state of the building:  many of the exterior sculptures were crumbling; the high balustrade over the West entrance between the two towers was in ruins;  the rose window in the South transept was cracked; the stone paving had been compromised by the quantities of masonry and building materials piled on it.  In fact, the weight of monuments and other constructions had not only deformed the floor, but also cracked sculptures and windows and forced paintings to be taken down.

1725-1727:  Restoration of the south Rose Window
Archbishop Noailles finally undertook to have the South rose window entirely restored.  The architect Germain Boffrand oversaw the work which was executed by the mason Pinel, the glazier Guillaume Brice,  and  the painter of glass Benoît Michu who added the Cardinal's arms at the centre.

1726:  The roof was entirely replaced, partly at the Archbishop's own expense. Dangerous gargoyles and statues were taken down.  Extensive lead and cast iron guttering was added to avoid further water damage.

1728:  Noailles had the entire interior of the cathedral "re-whitened"(whitewashed presumably) . Boffrand repaired the vaulting in the roof at the transept crossing which had been in a bad state of repair since the early 16th century.

1730: The  organ at the end of the nave between the towers was refurbished, and part of the West rose window behind it repaired. 

1741:  The windows in the choir were replaced and fitted with clear glass.

Repairs and embellishments, c. 1740-1789.

15th June 1744:  Pierre-Charles de Lespine, accompanied by the architect of the Chapter, Nicolas Parvy, made a tour of inspection. They catalogued the poor state of the Cathedral's structure:  the West rose window buckled towards the exterior; the Virgin and Angels on the galley underneath had fallen down, with the debris swept into a corner.  Outside, three of the flying buttresses supporting the apse needed entirely replacing. The spire leaned. The statues, grotesques, gargoyles, and ornaments on the towers were crumbling dangerously.  Since the stonework could not be replaced, the architect proposed to remove it, as was in part carried out.
See Aubert, p.37: "We have insisted on this report to show that it was not only the Revolution which was to blame for the disappearance of the statuary and sculpture of Notre-Dame;  the 18th century, in its neglect, and in its contempt for the Middle Ages, also contributed greatly."
See also McManner, p.444: After the replacement of the windows by Le Vieux, "changes were episodic and destructive, getting rid of excesses of an unfashionable past".

1748: The baptistery of St. Jean-le-Rond, which adjoined Notre-Dame on the North side - the church after which d'Alembert was named -  was demolished.

1756: Soufflot's sacristy

Soufflot, visionary architect of Sainte-Geneviève, was responsible for work at Notre-Dame for over twenty years.

Between 1756 and 1758 he erected a sacristy and treasury on the  south side of the Cathedral, a large square building of three storeys, now entirely disappeared.  The plans were displayed as part of a major exhibition of Soufflot's work in 2013 as was this portrait, by Duplessis, of Canon François-Guillot de Montjoye,  intendant de la Fabrique of  Notre-Dame in the mid-century.
The Canon is shown holding Soufflot's plans in his hands.
See  the Notre-Dame website:

1765-67: A crypt was dug beneath the nave to contain bodies of the canons and church officials.  Following this work the King had the whole floor of the Cathedral repaved in black and white Bourbonnais marble tiles. The old slabs and tombstones were moved into the petit cloître.  The crypt itself survived the Revolution intact to be rediscovered in 1863.

1771:   Soufflot's elevation of the central West door

 In 1771, the great Soufflot was guilty of a regrettable piece of mutilation when he elevated the central portal of the church, ostensibly to allow canopies carried in procession to enter more easily. At Soufflot's own insistence, the central supporting pillar (trumeau) was destroyed and the medieval stonework on the central tympanum cut through. As Aubert comments, the work "did him little honour".   In reality, despite the trumeau,  the door had been sufficiently wide to provide an adequate opening.  According to the archive , since a piece of masonry had fallen and repair was needed,  the Chapter simply agreed to make the entrance "more convenient". For the first time it was possible to adorn the"grand dais",  repaired in 1768 at the expense of Canon de Montjoye, with splendid decorative feathers.

All the details:
Jean Taralon et al. "Observations sur le portail central et sur la façade occidentale de Notre-Dame de Paris, Bulletin Monumental, 1991, vol.149(4): p. 341-432

1778:  The architect Boulland refaced the walls and arches of the chapels on the south side of the nave.  The whole Cathedral was again whitewashed, at the expense of the abbé de La Fage.  

1781: The North rose was repaired.

1787:  Sculptures and ornaments were dismantled on the South elevation, the apse and the upper part of the West facade.  The contractor also inadvertently destroyed decorative columns on the towers and the mouldings which surrounded the West window.

J.F. Depelchin, View of the interior of Notre-Dame in 1789.  Musée Carnavalet
The Spire
The 13th-century spire was dismantled in the early 19th century.  It was not the direct victim of Revolutionary depredations, but had long been in a poor state of repair; in 1744 it was already reported to be leaning two and a half feet to the south-east.

Here are the available details:  from:  Lynn T. Courtenay, "Viollet-le-Duc and the flèche of Notre-Dame de Paris", in  The Engineering of Medieval Cathedrals (Routledge 2016; preview on GoogleBooks)

The Revolutionary period 

Despoliation of the Cathedral's treasures

On 2nd November 1789, the Cathedral became national property. The municipality of Paris was thereby placed under an obligation to raise money through the sale and reuse of materials from churches.  At Notre-Dame the Treasury was the first to suffer.  Caskets, reliquaries, sacred vessels, were sent to the Mint to be melted down. On 18th November 1790 an inventory of the paintings and sculptures in the cathedral was decreed. (It was on the 22nd November, at the end of the High Mass, that the Canons were commanded to leave the cathedral.)

In August 1792, in response to the  wartime emergency,  the Commune ordered that all bronze items; chandeliers, lamps, statues, even crucifixes, be taken, melted down and made into cannon.  The altar rails were to be used to make pikes.   The remaining bells were melted down, reserving only two per parish.  (In Notre-Dame, only the enormous Emmanuel bell, which weighs 13 tons, was spared)  Lead from the roof, and even from ancient coffins, was taken to be made into shot. On 8th October, the reliquary of Saint Marcel, which had hitherto been protected by popular veneration, was taken to the Monnaie  Citizens were ordered to go to the churches of the capital to help prepare supplies for the war effort.

Revolutionary iconoclasm

The Cathedral was still in use for services at the beginning of 1792, but there was a growing movement of popular iconoclasm against the churches and the symbols of royal power they contained.  The Revolutionary government tried at various points to moderate the destruction ; on 6th June 1792 the National Convention decreed two-years imprisonment for vandalising monuments belonging to national properties.  A Commission of Monuments was set up in order to preserve religious art with aesthetic and historical value.  On 14 August 1792, however, the National Assembly finally consented in principle to the destruction of "monuments of kings and feudalism".

The Commission was still not sure what to do about the royal statues and inscriptions of Notre-Dame.  The sculptors Mouchy and Boizot, with representatives  from the Section de la Cité  drew up up inventories, but  emphasised the need for "the conservation of precious monuments which could serve as proper models in favour of the progress of the arts".  In particular they wanted the safe removal of the statues of Louis XIII and Louis XIV from the Sanctuary as among best works of Coustou and Coysevoix.  The marbrier Scellier was instructed to proceed.  In December 1792, when work not yet begun, electors smashed a marble plaque with name of Louis XV on it.

The Gallery of Kings

The medieval sculptures of the "Gallery of Kings" on the West Front of the Cathedral - popularly supposed to represent the monarchs of France - remained in place throughout the popular iconoclasm of the summer of 1793.  Their presence aggravated radicals such as Chaumette who, in the Révolutions de Paris for July 1793, drew attention to "Signs of Royalty to efface".  Finally, the Ministry of the Interior bowed to popular pressure and gave orders to destroy "all signs of superstition and feudalism".  Documents in the National Archives describe the operation.  From September to October, under orders from the Commune, a contractor called Bazin, erected a 50-foot scaffold and set to work, but contented himself with merely chipping off the fleurons from the Kings' crowns.  On October 23rd, the Commune then decreed that the Gothic likeness of the kings of France on the facade of Notre-Dame (now the Temple of Reason) must be toppled and totally destroyed.  Another contractor Varin received the commission.  He found that the statues were made of hard stone and attached to the wall with iron clamps, so he first systematically broke off the heads.  The headless statues then were then chipped  free from the wall,  levered away from the facade and sent crashing down onto the parvis. Workmen presently cleared the debris to an area on the north side of the cathedral, in the cloister and along what is now the rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame.  There it remained for three years.  Mercier described the broken statues as forming a mountain covered with filth.    "Patriot" Palloy took three of the better preserved heads and offered them as trophies to the districts of l'Egalité (Bourg-la-Reine) Franciade (Saint-Denis) and Sceaux (l'Unité). David planned to use the rest as a base for a monument to the "everlasting glory of the French people", which was never built.  Finally in March 1796 a contractor called Bertrand was employed for their disposal.

Heads in the Musée de Cluny
 For almost two centuries only fragments of the statues had ever been found.  Then, remarkably, in 1977,  21 of the 28 heads were rediscovered in the basement of a house in the rue Causée d'Antin., along with 343 other fragments, all carefully encased in plaster for protection.  The house had originally been built in 1796 by the lawyer  Jean-Baptiste Lakanal-Dupuget who presumably acquired the relics - perhaps by chance as building material - and decided to preserve them.  Since Lakanal died in 1801, shortly before the Napoleonic Concordat, he would never have had the chance to return the statues to the Cathedral.

In addition Bazin removed the emblems from the front of the Archbishop's Palace  where the Section de la Cité  met. Varin  suppressed over 400 fleurs-de-lys inside the church, many requiring scaffolding over 15 feet high.  Those on the windows of the nave were simply painted out.  Following the Dechristianising decrees a further hundred or so other sculptures were removed from the exterior of the Cathedral.

Beautiful but bare - the Choir of Notre-Dame depicted by Charles Percier at the time of Napoleon's coronation

After the closure of the churches of the capital the former Cathedral served as a warehouse for furniture and theatrical props, as well as a state-owned wine store.  The abbé Grégoire, who formed a  "Société catholique de Notre-Dame", had the edifice returned by the Convention on 11th August 1795.  He found stacked up in the nave and aisles over 1500 bottles of wine, which had been loaded up daily to be sent to the Revolutionary armies.

Notre-Dame was reopened as a church despite "the broken glass, the damaged flagstones, the ground encumbered with rubble". The side doors of the Choir were unusable due to the piles of debris which had accumulated in front of them.  The altars were destroyed, the woodwork and the grills gone. Outsides were empty niches, mutilitated sculptures, windows plastered over or boarded up.  The parish was so poor that it had to rely on donations;  no restoration could be undertaken despite the fact that the Constitutional Church held two of its councils in the Cathedral, in 1797 and 1801.
After the Concordat, the church was favoured by Napoleon who held his coronation there and celebrated Te Deums for his victories. For the coronation, to  hide the worst, the walls were whitewashed and covered with Gobelin tapestries from the Garde-Meuble.  

Additional references for the Revolutionary era:

Richard Clay, "Signs of power: iconoclasm in Paris, 1789-95"  DPhil. thesis, University of London, Sept.1999.

Carmen Gómez-Moreno,Sculpture from Notre Dame. Paris (Metropolitan Museum,1979)

 Paris Unplugged, "1840 - Notre Dame avant restauration" (photos of the cathedral prior to the restoration by Viollet-le-Duc)

Saturday, 20 April 2019

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in the 18th century

All of us, were dismayed by the terrible fire at Notre-Dame, though happily more of the Cathedral and its treasures seem to have survived than could at first have been thought possible. It is perhaps encouraging to remember that the building has been through many vicissitudes in its long history.....

Contemplation of the future, inevitably raises uncomfortable debates about reconstruction, restoration and reinterpretation. The Age of Enlightenment has not received a good press in this respect. Despite a grudging admiration for individual works of religious art, it has long been fashionable to follow Viollet-le-Duc and his contemporaries in condemning the 18th-century's disregard for the medieval past.  According to my 1977 Blue Guide, for instance, "Until the end of the 17C Notre-Dame had preserved intact its appearance of the 14C, but the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV brought deplorable alterations, particularly in the destruction of tombs and stained glass". 

It is worth noting the wise words of Professor McManners, who counsels against accepting the naive coupling of French Classicism with a wholesale rejection of the Gothic legacy. The repair of churches was undertaken  with a sense of historical continuity and the need to avoid  incongruities. The cathedrals of Blois, Toulouse and the abbey church of Saint-Etienne in Caen were all restored in the late 17th century in their original Gothic style. So too, the abbey of Poissy which was restored under the supervision of the king's architect Robert Cotte.  At Orléans where the cathedral had been destroyed by the Huguenots, the Bishop and local citizens successfully lobbied to retain the original medieval design. Hostility was confined mainly to Gothic "ornament" which countered prevailing ideas of simplicity, unity and good taste  (hence, says Professor McManners, the  inevitable "archaeological tragedies").   Many churches, Notre-Dame  outstanding among them,  underwent interior refurbishment, which often took place gradually, typically beginning with a splendid new altar.  Rood-screens were removed to give an unencumbered view of the Mysteries;  clear glass provided illumination.  Professor McManners sees the earlier part of the period as generally one of innovation and creativity, though the architectural imagination tended to become sterile in the second half of the century. [Church and society in eighteenth-century France, v.1 (1998) p.436-445]

Here is a brief "virtual tour" of Notre-Dame as it appeared in the 18th century: 

The Sanctuary and High Altar -  Voeu de Louis XIII

The Cathedral's most ambitious embellishment project of the era was the extensive remodelling of the sanctuary and choir in fulfilment of the "vow of Louis XIII" of 1638 (to rebuild the main altar and erect a statue of the Virgin). Work was begun in 1699 on the designs of Hardouin-Mansart, but substantially completed under direction of Robert de Cotte  in the years 1708 to 1715. The elaborate production included many statues, reliefs and decorative elements, among them the celebrated pietà by Nicolas Coustou (1712-28) set in a niche behind the high altar and flanked by the kneeling figures of Louis XIII by Guillaume Coustou and Louis XIV by Coysevoix.  Although many of the individual elements have survived the years (and hopefully still do),  the altar on which the design centred, and the over all architectural setting, are now lost, victims of the depredations of Revolution and the medieval "restorations" of Viollet-le-Duc.

The enterprise was made possible only by  private donation:  one of the Canons of the Cathedral,  Antoine de La Porte (1627-1710), personally provided Louis XIV with 10,000 livres (?10,000 livres annually)  and financed many of the individual embellishments.  A painting by Jean Jouvenet, which imagines the Canon celebrating mass at Robert Cotte's  high altar - at the time not yet built - shows clearly the harmonious sweep of the space as originally conceived:

Jean Jouvenet, La Messe du chanoine de la Porte,ou le maître autel de Notre-Dame, (1708-10) Louvre

The work of dismantling the existing structures began on 29th April 1699. The bronze columns of the altar were removed, together with the suspended vessel containing the Blessed Sacrament ; also the retable and the five stones of the altar. Caskets of relics, statues and tombstones from the floor of the altar area were displaced. On 5th May  the foundations were commenced, entailing the removal of those buried in the choir  (who included Philippe of France, son of Louis VI). Most of the remains were relocated to the chapel St-Léonard.  A new crypt to receive the archbishops was created in 1711.

The first stone of the high-altar was laid by Archbishop Noailles on 7th December 1699.  The initial design, by Hardouin-Mansart,  was modified  by Robert de Cotte, who replaced the Roman Baroque altar, with its baldachin with twisted columns, by  a more characteristically French Romanesque design.

From Robert de Cotte's architectural drawings:

Cabinet Robert de Cotte, Bibl. Nat: Design by  François Antoine Vassé for the high altar, 1712

The high-altar occupied a prominent position in the middle of the sanctuary, highly visible despite the rood screen and rail which separated the choir from the nave;  the  large "six-sided" altar tomb, made of Egyptian marble flanked with decorative stone arches, was designed to be seen from all angles. It was set on a "grandin" of three steps made of white Languedoc marble - made even more splendid on Holy Days by the addition of a Savonnerie carpet.  The altar front was embellished with a gilded bronze relief of the Entombment by Antoine François Vassé.  On either side, set on white marble pedestals, stood two angels in adoration in gilded bronze modelled after Claude-Augustin Cayot.  The gradin was adorned with a crucifix and chandeliers by Baslin, replaced in 1760 with six gilt chandeliers by Philippe Caffieri.

Behind the high-altar, under the rear archway of the choir, a second altar, the autel des féries, was built for regular services outside Holy Days. This was of green veined marble.  In the niche above, between the two pillars was Nicolas Coustou's pietà: the body of Christ lay in the lap of the Virgin, who was positioned with her back against the cross, three sorrowing cherubin in attendance.  Above a gloire dorée, on which an angel was depicted dangling  the "suspension" containing the Blessed Sacrament.  On each side of the altar, on richly decorated pedestals, were the two royal statues - on the right Louis XIII by Guillaume Coustou (1712-15) and on the left Louis XIV by Antoine Coysevox (1713-15)

The completed High Altar.  Engraving of c.1725
The prerogatives of Rome to have the greatest Masters of Sculpture, Architecture, and Painting, cannot be disputed;  but Europe has produced worthy pupils;  it is to them we owe the Chefs-d'oeuvres which have embellished the City of Paris.  To be convinced, one has only to cast eyes on the rare and curious Pieces with which the Choir of our Metropolitan Church has been enriched... by the most famous Craftsmen of our century, who  endowed it with the éclat and lustre that one sees today.  Everything there is so finely arranged and delicately worked that they have proved themselves Masters of their art...
Montjoye,  Description historique des curiosités de l’Eglise de Paris (1763) p.60

The sanctuary was elevated by four steps above the choir and bounded by a circular marble and gilt balustrade. The eight pillars at the rounded end of the sanctuary were faced with marble to create classical columns and circular arches replaced the Gothic ones; the space above was adorned with representations of the twelve virtues.  Next to the pillars, were six bronze angels by Antoine Vassé, each holding  an instrument of the passion.

The Viollet-le-Duc's remodelled sanctuary and altar  with Vassé's Entombment and Coustou's pietà. The "Glory" by Robert de Cotte was banished by Viollet-le-Duc; the beautiful cross, which has shined through the gloom of the ravaged cathedral after the fire, was  designed by Marc Couturier and added in 1994. 

The Choir

The remodelling included not only the sanctuary but the whole choir.  The floor was relaid  with marble mosaic tiles. The medieval roodscreen (jubé) was demolished and magnificent new choir-stalls in ornate woodwork (paid for by Canon La Poste) substituted for the old; there were fifty-two high stalls and twenty-six low ones, their backs decorated with bas-reliefs and the pillars between the seats carved with foliated scrolls and the instruments of the Passion. (74 of the original 114 stalls remained before the fire and look to be intact).

 Above the stalls hung eight paintings, again given by Canon La Porte, representing scenes from the life of the Virgin. The paintings were restored to the Cathedral after the Revolution but banished to the Louvre in the 1860s.  The sole survivor is the famous Visitation by Jouvenet (1716) which was returned to the Cathedral in 1947 and rehung in the Chapel St-Guillaume.

The artist, afflicted with paralysis on his right side, was obliged to paint with his left hand.  He depicts himself, at the side of the Canon La Porte, on the far left of the picture.

For a detailed description, see the  Notre-Dame website::

Also in the middle of the choir, before 1760, was a huge six branch candelabra, the gift of Anne of Austria in thanks to the Virgin for the birth of her son, the future Louis XIV. 

On either side, back to back and facing the nave, were two altars, to the Virgin and St Denis, which were refurbished at the expense of Archbishop Noailles in 1726. The former contained his tomb.

The replacement of the windows

Commencing in 1741, the great windows at the back of the choir and in the nave were replaced with clear ones, by the brothers Pierre and Jean Le Vieil.  The glass was painted with a simple border of fleurs-de-lys on an azure background. In his famous  treatise L'Art de la peinture sur verre et de la vitrerie  Pierre Le Vieil relates how he demolished the last two 12th-century windows in the choir in 1741 (p.24b-25)    Plate VI depicts his design for the window over the sanctuary which featured a triangular cartouche with the Hebrew JEHOVAH in red letters on a gold background enclosed in a circle of blue.  

The windows are clearly depicted in the view of the nave left, one of collection of twelve engravings published in 1807 by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine and Charles Percier, the official architects in charge of preparing the cathedral for Napoleon's coronation.
 Françoise Perrot, "Nouveaux documents sur les vitraux de Notre-Dame de Paris", Bulletin de la Société nationale des Antiquaires de France,  2015,  p.289-296

The chapels, much more numerous in the 18th century,  were more or less richly decorated according to the fortunes of the confrerie or family to which they belonged.  Archbishop Noailles, for instance,  had the decrepit chapels of St Martin and St Anne  knocked into one to form the Chapel St. Louis, the Noailles family chapel, with resplendent marble altar and furnishings  by Germain Boffrand.  It was here that the reliquary of St Marcel, found behind the altar in 1699, was relocated.

The Nave 

View of the Interior of Notre-Dame, Engraving of 1760;4
The nave was decorated much more simply. It  is to be noted that the interior walls and vaults were all plastered and whitewashed at this time.  The "Mays", large canvases given annually by the Parisian Guild of Goldsmiths from 1630-1707  hung in the arcades. (Thirteen of the seventy-six were still on display in the chapels of the nave at the time of the fire but hopefully survive.)  Against the great pillar on the right (left in the engraving) was a massive 15th-century status of St. Christopher - the famous colosse de Notre Dame -  which was 28 feet in height.  Sadly, this monster did not conform to 18th-century standards of taste and was destroyed in 1786 when a joist being used to repair the casing of the organ conveniently fell on its head and damaged it.  The nave also featured a large equestrian statue of Philippe le Bel - this one also destined to fall victim to Revolutionary iconoclasm, smashed by a band of sabre-wielding Marseillais.

[To be continued]


Maurice Aubert, La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris : notice historique et archéologique (1919), p.29-48.

LEXILOGOS: Notre-Dame de Paris: Histoire et documents [list of web resources]

FranceArchives: "Notre-Dame de Paris à travers les archives"

Notre-Dame de Paris website - Construction history

PARISTORIC Notre-Dame de Paris - Interior
Notre-Dame on Tombes et sépultures website

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