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Westminster Abbey: Notre Dame de Paris, The Augmented Exhibition. 

  • March 14, 2024
  • 6 min read
Westminster Abbey: Notre Dame de Paris, The Augmented Exhibition. 

At aperitif time in the early evening of Monday, April 15th, 2019, a fire caused by an electrical short or a cigarette broke out in the roof space of France’s national treasure, Notre Dame de Paris. By the time the flames were extinguished, the roof and spire had gone, the upper walls were badly damaged, and there were real fears that history’s Gothic style exemplar would have to be demolished.

The world was transfixed by the television shots of the blaze that almost destroyed one of the best-loved cathedrals in the world, and here thoughts turned to our own Notre Dame counterpart, Westminster Abbey. It could so easily have happened here, perhaps in the equivalent roof space, the triforium, now occupied by a museum.

However, the French were determined that the cathedral would be rescued, and with a budget of around £720 million, President Macron set a five-year target to bring Paris’s lady back to life. At the end of this year, it will reopen, its place in France’s fractured history restored.

Her English cousin, the Abbey, is telling Notre Dame’s story in an exhibition in its Chapter House, Notre Dame de Paris, The Augmented Exhibition, a modern exhibition, one with almost no objects, but a digital revelation of the cathedral’s story up to and including its near destruction, created by the virtual exhibition specialists at Histovery.

Notre Dame was built on the site of the old and inadequate Saint-Etienne Cathedral, whose bishop, Maurice de Sully, envisioned a token of the country’s growing prosperity, supported by the king, Louis VII. Using some of the stones from the old building and with foundations up to 30 feet deep, work began in 1165, and we watch the preparation of the site, meet some of the craftsmen who would spend much of the rest of their lives on the project, and even turn the pages of a master builder’s notebook showing his calculations, his architectural decision-making, sketches of animals, and construction machines.

We watch the stonemasons, the aristocrats of the medieval building site, as they shape and smooth the blocks, and create ornaments such as the gargoyle waterspouts. By the 1220s, the three great rose windows were in place, bringing the light of dusk through the facade of the building, delivering their lessons of morality and spirituality.

We don’t know the name of the master builder, but we see him here giving his orders, and the cathedral he built for De Sully is a work of genius, dwarfing any other church of its time, with its new Gothic flourish, its experimental rib vaulting, and flying buttresses to support its gigantic forms, its sculpture, its stained glass, and its famously huge bells. It took almost a century to complete.

In 1239, Louis IX – St Louis – spent half the country’s annual budget to acquire the most prestigious relic in the world, the Crown of Thorns, for Notre Dame (later moved next door to Ste-Chapelle, the architectural jewel box he built for the purpose). It was at Notre Dame in 1572 that Charles IX caused outrage by marrying his sister to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant and future Henri IV. A few days later, between 5,000 and 25,000 French Protestants were slaughtered in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. And in 1804, Napoleon sought to unite his empire and establish Paris as France’s capital by having himself crowned in Notre Dame as, post-Revolution, different cities were vying for national supremacy.

Unlike Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame was never the customary site for the crowning of monarchs; that was at Reims. The Abbey, on the other hand, has seen the coronation of 40 monarchs and the interment of 18.

There was originally a Benedictine Monastery on the site, rebuilt by Edward the Confessor and then, like St Etienne, replaced by an opulent Gothic statement, this time by Henry III and consecrated in 1269, 25 years after work on it started. The Abbey’s triforium housed an extra floor built above the aisle for chapels for specific worship, but they were never created. For more than 850 years, the space had been used as a kind of attic to store monuments, sculptures, pieces of masonry, and other objects hidden from the public, but in a £22.9m transformation, it became a museum telling the story of the Abbey both as a place of worship and a venue for royal spectaculars. It was opened by Elizabeth II in 2018 as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries.

More than 300 objects, many of them never before on public display, were put on permanent exhibition, including the Liber Regalis, the 14th-century document laying out the rules for a coronation; the Westminster Retable, England’s oldest altarpiece; Henry V’s saddle, shield, sword, and helmet; and a 13th-century monk’s shoe.

However, the highlight is the collection of effigies of monarchs carried at their funerals and laid out here for the first time. These are intriguing, enlightening, fascinating, in many cases, the precise portraits from an age when portraits were not fashionable. Many have disappeared over the centuries, some were damaged in the Second World War, and only parts of some have survived. In the 18th century, the Abbey’s choirmen augmented their income by charging to view the effigies and bought some more to widen the appeal, such as wax effigies of William and Mary, William Pitt the Elder, and Lord Nelson, based on a portrait painted of him just before his death and bought in 1805 to counter the attraction of his actual tomb in St Paul’s.

Here too, is Edward III, without the familiar flowing beard and his drooping mouth showing the stroke that killed him in 1377; Richard II’s wife Anne of Bohemia, also made from a death mask; Henry V’s wife Catherine de Valois in a glorious red dress; a plaster Henry VII; his beautiful wife Elizabeth of York; the surprisingly voluptuous body of Mary I. There’s an 18th-century waxwork of Elizabeth I, but also her actual corset, and a strangely weird wax Charles II with too short legs and Svengali fingers that might be reaching out for a plump orange.

Funeral effigy of Elizabeth of York

Westminster Abbey is telling us the stories of two great churches, both World Heritage Sites, one of which came close to destruction, the other a Royal Peculiar that comes under the jurisdiction of the sovereign and is a showcase for both worship and pageantry. Both are supreme accomplishments of mediaeval art and craftsmanship, giving a fascinating insight into the Middle Ages as they were lived.
Notre Dame de Paris, The Augmented Exhibition runs until 1st June.

Image: Histovery 

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