Three years after the unexpected discovery of monumental decorative paintings at Poitiers Cathedral, Poitier, France, a preservation effort is underway. The perception of the building will be transformed.
Perched on staggered scaffolding and concealed behind an immaculate canvas, a restoration team is ready to start work on Poitiers Cathedral's southern transept. Scalpel in hand, the team is operating meticulously on a true rebirth: that of extraordinary decorative paintings that have fallen into oblivion. Surveys have revealed the presence of a monumental group of mural paintings hidden by a whitewash from the 18th century and covered by work done on the vault to repair water leaks.
900 Square Meters of Hidden Paintings
Across the vaults and interior elevations, there are 900 square meters (roughly 9,700 square feet) of decorative work: angels, saints, foliage, trompe l'oeil architecture. Everywhere, reds, pinks, purples, oranges and greens. Having been analyzed, the pigments are rare and precious (azurite, cinnabar). The divisions of the vault alternate deep blues and vibrant reds, enameled in a "rain" of stars. Each was created nearly 700 years ago by superimposing leafs of pewter and leafs of gold or silver. "It's an almost unique example of complete Gothic decorative work in a cathedral," clarifies Anne Embs, Assistant Regional Historic Monuments Conservator. "These paintings, completed between 1260-1300, are contemporaries of the stained glass alongside which they function. The restoration will dramatically change the perception of the space."
On the interior elevations, there are two elegant silhouettes that are nearly 3 meters (roughly 9.8 feet) high. Golden coins, foliage and decorative motifs colorfully animate the architectural elements. At 24 meters high (78.7 feet), on vaults planted with stars, emerge a Christ the Judge, a Virgin and Child, and a Crowning of the Virgin.
Open-ended Construction Effort
If the site's launching signal was sounded five months ago, the schedule of this large-scale operation remains uncertain: "We started with 10 months of work in mind, but this period will probably double; it's a very complex site." Indeed, the fragility of the pictorial layer underlying the coating involves a preconsolidation in keeping with the detachment of the works; the narrowness of the scaffolding under the vault demands a limited number of workers. Seven-hundred-thousand euros have been allocated by the government for this operation, which includes masonry repair work and the restoration of the two stained glass windows. The detachment and restoration campaign includes 600 square meters (6,458 square feet) of painted surface: "The decorative work under the balustrade could present a problem of visual cohabitation with the 17th-century framed altarpiece," explains Anne Embs. On the other hand, while the conservation of the high parts seems rather satisfactory, below, the decorative work seems more degraded. At this stage, we are not excluding detaching it."
Green Light by the National Commission for Historic Monuments
Through the quality of its line work, the vigor of the colors, and the extent of the decorative work, this fortuitous and surprising discovery confirms that Poitiers Cathedral has not revealed all its secrets. The challenges of detaching these paintings are significant: "It's an irreversible gesture," admits Anne Embs. "In the entirely whitewashed cathedral, we could reproach ourselves for breaking the (artificial) homogeneity of the building." Hence, a very particular process was set in motion by the Ministry of Culture in order to approve this process. The National Commission for Historic Monuments has ruled on the fate of the paintings. Because of their location in the wings of the transept, their great artistic quality, and the unique character of the discovery, it unanimously gave the green light for their detachment and restoration.
The campaign, with project management by the government, is under the ownership of Francois Jenneau, Chief Architect of Historic Monuments. A scientific committee made up of specialists from CNRS and the University of Poitiers, is closely following the development of the work site. The work is being done by the Arcoa Atelier, based in Paris, and the Brice-Moulinier Atelier, based in Blois, which has also participated in the restoration of Saint-Savin in Poitou, France.
What should the aim of restoration be? How do we determine to what stage a historic building is restored? Are there any sites in your community that are undergoing restoration? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Original article, originally published in French in La Nouvelle Republique, here.
Credits: Data and images linked to sources.