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Good InfoMasterpieces Saved from Notre Dame Fire Now Restored and Back on View:...

Masterpieces Saved from Notre Dame Fire Now Restored and Back on View: It’s ‘Miraculous’

La Nativité, Jérôme Francken, 1585 © DRAC Île de France –Permission from Cultival Agency Paris, France (cropped)

A collection of great historical artworks, saved from the fires of Notre-Dame, are set to be exhibited as they haven’t been for over 160 years as the famous cathedral nears its reopening this December.

Known as the Mays of Notre-Dame, they are 76 monumental religious works mostly from the 17th century, 13 of which were on display in the cathedral during the fire.

The double irony is that the reason they haven’t been exhibited together in so long is because the Notre-Dame’s famous architectural custodian Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, didn’t like them, and had them removed from their place between the central columns of the transept and placed in the side chapels either side of the nave.

This location was one of the last to suffer from the blaze, meaning that Viollet-le-Duc’s displeasure was their salvation.

To commemorate the Virgin Mary, every May from 1630 to 1707 the Goldsmith’s Guild in Paris would present a monumental religious scene to honor the saint—painted by some of the best artists of the age, giving this collection of paintings the nickname “the Mays of Notre-Dame.”

Painted 10 feet by 8 inches wide and 8 feet by 6 inches tall, they were uniform in size and style, with the paintings borrowing scenes from Greece, the Bible, and Rome to tell religious stories.

Restoration of one of the Mays of Notre Dame © DRAC Île de France11 – permission of Cultival Agency Paris (cropped)

On that fateful April day in 2019, treasures of all kinds were saved, including a wooden chest containing the 27-meter-long chancel rug of the cathedral, used last for the precession of Napoleon the Third’s wedding.

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After the fires had gone out, first responders found the 13 ‘Mays’ still hanging in the side chapels. apart from some water damage, they were unscathed.

“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,” said Emmanuel Pénicaut, director of Mobilier National collections, the association appointed by the French government to restore the works.

The Mays of Notre Dame seen in cathedral transept in 1780 © Société des amis de Notre-Dame de Paris / Cl. Bénédicte Colly

Of the 76 Mays that were painted, 52 are known to the art world. Most are in churches in France, while 7 reside in private collections in the UK.

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Deciding to restore the paintings means that master painters who specialized in touching up damaged or antique works will be allowing visitors to Paris to see how this fierce contest of artistic and religious patronage unfolded over time.

The exhibition features another nine religious paintings saved from the fire, and 14 tapestries that were part of the Notre-Dame’s chancel, but which now reside in Strasbourg. The treasures of Notre Dame will be on display at the Mobilier National from 24 April to 21 July.

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