Notre Dame’s restored ‘Queen of May’ masterpieces

Half a decade ago Michel Honoré was a broken man as he watched Notre Dame engulfed in flames, stricken by what seemed the certain loss of “this historic French religious symbol”.

“The sight of the cathedral on fire will remain as traumatic as seeing the towers collapsing on 9/11,” Mr Honoré told The National.

Before long, the insurance assessor specialising in fine art received a call. Could he go to the smouldering church the following day?

The summons was not wholly unexpected – Mr Honoré had already compiled a list of experts, restorers and craftspeople in case he needed to assemble a team.

In fact, safety concerns meant it was several more agonising days before he could enter the cathedral to begin assessing the damage – the initial step in the five-year journey towards Notre Dame’s reopening this year.

What he found amid the ruins forms the basis of the first stage in showing the restoration to the public over much of the rest of 2024.

A set of masterpieces saved from Notre Dame, dating back to a 17th-century tradition of honouring the Virgin Mary (also known as the Queen of May) with a painting every May, will go on display in Paris this week.

The exhibition comes just in time for the Olympic Games spotlight on the city and ahead of the long-awaited reopening of the cathedral doors in December.

It has given Mr Honoré a moment to reflect on the gratification he takes from his role in restoring the church from the wreckage of April 2019.

Notre Dame’s restored artworks – in pictures

“I will never forget the sight: three holes piercing the heart of Notre Dame, a strange and intense light illuminating the transept,” Mr Honoré said of entering after the fire.

“You had the impression of divine, luminous beams penetrating the building.”

Although Notre Dame’s spire had collapsed, he soon realised the damage was not as bad as France and the rest of the watching world feared it might have been.

The church was still standing. A sculpture of the Virgin and Child was intact, as were many of the pews in the nave. The fire crew’s hoses had bleached the walls clean.

When Mr Honoré took on the vital task of assessing Notre Dame’s treasures, he found that the majority had been saved.

His job was to assess the condition of items such as religious paintings, priestly clothes and decorations. He also dealt with the experts who repaired the damage.

Five years on, he describes “a small feeling of pride” to have “participated very modestly in the restoration of Notre Dame, to have participated in this adventure in an anonymous but real way”.

Fire at Notre Dame cathedral – in pictures

The restoration has worked to a deadline set by French President Emmanuel Macron, who vowed the cathedral would be “more beautiful than ever”.

December 8 is the date set for Notre Dame’s reopening but some of its restored treasures will be on display at Galerie des Gobelins in Paris from April 24 to July 21.

May tradition

The centrepiece is a collection of 13 paintings called the “Mays” that is steeped in French history, from the ancien régime through the Revolution of 1789 to the blaze of 2019.

Although undamaged in the fire, it was decided to take the opportunity to restore them after their removal from the church.

They get their name because they were donated to Notre Dame at the height of spring each year – in the month of worship traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary or “Queen of May” – by 17th-century Paris goldsmiths.

The tradition goes back to 1449, when the goldsmiths started offering gifts such as decorated trees, poems and small wooden tabernacles decorated with painted biblical scenes, sometimes left at Notre Dame’s door.

The series of large paintings began in 1630, each made with priestly advice, matched with a poem and an explanation, and hung on the pillars of Notre Dame’s nave or in side chapels.

A painting was donated every May except for two until 1707, when the guild of goldsmiths went bankrupt, leaving behind a line of 76 paintings of which 52 are still in existence.

Regarded as symbols of an artistic revival after bitter religious wars in 16th-century France, they typically showed scenes from the Gospels or drew on the Catholic counter-reformation of the time.

The secular mood ushered in by the French Revolution led to artworks being scattered from Notre Dame, often sent to provincial churches or museums such as the Louvre.

A later revival of interest in the Mays saw some returned to Notre Dame and those that were hanging there during the fire will be reinstalled in the coming months.

After the fire broke out on April 15, 2019, many of Notre Dame’s treasures were taken to Paris city hall and later to the Louvre.

As art restorers pored over the paintings, they found a “wealth of information” on the history of the works, their artistic techniques and the materials used, exhibitors say.

Fifty restorers have spent two years “bringing the pieces back to life” before the artworks are shown to the public in a side-by-side display true to their history.

The exhibition will show off designs for the altar, tabernacle and other religious furniture that will be part of Notre Dame’s new decor.

There is also a restored choir carpet that was commissioned by Charles X, a 19th-century sovereign in the period when France reverted to a monarchy.

The five-year art restoration project has been a “fantastic collective adventure”, said cultural affairs chief Laurent Roturier of the capital’s Ile-de-France region.

“The paintings have benefited from a meticulous and exemplary restoration that will enable them to be rediscovered as they were in the early days of their installation,” he said.

The treasures are being put on display by France’s Mobilier National, which once served as a furniture storage house for King Louis XIV and now looks after historic items.

Its president Herve Lemoine described Notre Dame as “ever contemporary”.

The cathedral had been a haven for creativity since its creation, he said, “a place where history and artistic innovation come together”.

Updated: April 19, 2024, 6:56 PM

Related Posts