Historic Artworks Rescued From Notre-Dame Fire Are Now On Display

There was a moment on 15 April 2019 as the flames consuming Notre Dame cathedral roared into the evening sky when it seemed all would be lost.

Firefighters prevented the blaze from reaching the bell towers – whose collapse would have almost certainly brought down the facade – and from destroying the bells, the Grand Organ and the Parisian monument’s stained-glass rosette windows.

The bee hives on the roof also survived, along with dozens of treasures, including artworks, ancient books and relics saved in extremis as a chain of firefighters, police and city council workers formed to extract them.

In the weeks after, as the fire, smoke and water damage was assessed, a unique collection of 17th-century religious paintings was removed from the cathedral, damp but mostly undamaged. The 13 “Mays” – part of a series of 76 large oil works painted by the best artists in France between 1630 and 1707 – had hung in the cathedral’s dimly lit side chapels, often overlooked by visitors.

Now they will go on public display, having been restored by experts from Mobilier National, the cultural body charged with conserving France’s historical objects, before being returned to Notre Dame in advance of its planned reopening in December.

Emmanuel Pénicaut, director of Mobilier National collections, said: “We were lucky to get them out quite quickly with just a little water damage and dust. It was rather miraculous.

Restoration of the ‘Mays’ of Notre Dame. Photograph: davidbordes.com/©DRAC Ile-de-France / photographie David Bordes

“We began removing them the day after the fire and decided they would all be restored. The exhibition is a chance to see them all in one place, in the order they were painted, which is how they would have been originally displayed. What you see now is how they would have looked the day they were completed.”

The Mays earned their name from the decision of the Confrérie des Orfèvres (Goldsmith’s Guild) in Paris to hold an annual competition for paintings to be completed by May, when they would be offered to the virgin, whose statue stood at the entrance of the cathedral.

It was intended to symbolise the supremacy of the Catholic faith after the French Wars of Religion, the series of eight civil conflicts between Catholics and Protestant Hugenots from 1562 and 1598, which cost the lives of up to four million people.

The theme would be from the acts of the apostles, and the paintings were supposed to be a uniform 10ft 6in high and 8ft 6in wide, though some made them larger. The artists, including Charles Le Brun and Jacques Blanchard, looked to antiquity and Greek and Roman themes for their inspiration. Each year, after the May was presented, it was exhibited and hung on one of the stone pillars flanking the nave of Notre Dame.

During the French Revolution the paintings, like many religious works, were dispersed. Several were returned to the cathedral in 1802 and remained there until 1862, when the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who added the spire to Notre Dame, saw them as incompatible with his new architectural plans, and they were placed in the Louvre.

“The paintings suffered two major catastrophes, the Revolution and the arrival of Viollet-le-Duc, who got rid of much of the medieval decorations in Notre Dame,” Pénicaut said. “In 1905, they were put back but not along the nave pillars as before but in the side chapels, which meant we lost the unity of the collection.”

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Pénicaut said the new exhibition is the first time they have been displayed in the same place for more than 160 years. “They are truly great classical paintings and were painted by the best artists of the age. They not only have a great religious significance but an artistic value too. Of the 76 painted, we know the whereabouts of 52 of them, seven of which are in private collections in the UK, others in churches in France.”

The exhibition features another nine religious paintings saved from the fire, and part of Notre Dame’s rarely seen 27m-long chancel rug, ordered by King Charles X of France, that was stored in a box at the time of the blaze and suffered only minor water damage. The rug has been used only a handful of times for major events, including the marriage of Napoleon III, the first president of France and its last emperor, who died in exile in England in 1873.

La Fuite en Egypte, 1654-1655. Photograph: Atelier Pierre Damour, Charles Poerson

Visitors will also be able to view 14 large tapestries woven in the 17th century for the Notre Dame chancel, which are now owned by the Strasbourg cathedral, depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and contemporary works and furniture – including 1,500 oak congregation chairs – that will be installed in the cathedral.

In the hours after the fire in 2019, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, pledged to rebuild the cathedral within five years. A Te Deum, a service of thanksgiving, is to be held on Monday, the fifth anniversary of the fire, with Notre Dame reopening on 8 December. The treasures of Notre Dame will be on display at the Mobilier National from 24 April to 21 July.

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