The question regarding the decoration of the walls of Notre-Dame de Paris in the Middle Ages has started up once again, since the very recent discovery of ancient polychromies, inside the emblematic cathedral of the capital.
“We know that the cathedral was painted on the outside like any Gothic cathedral, but Viollet-le-Duc estimated that it was also made to be painted on the inside. Perhaps we have proof of what he was saying,” Jonathan Truillet told La Croix on December 21, 2020.
The chief heritage curator is coming back to the discovery of traces of ancient polychromy, discovered during the cleaning of the stone right before the entrance to the Notre-Dame-de-Guadalupe chapel, located on the north aisle of the building: “there are blues, reds, ochres... some Fleurs de Lys with a little gilding and others whose traces are preserved in negative,” specifies Jonathan Truillet.
Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) had mentioned the presence of numerous traces of medieval polychromy on the exterior facade of Notre-Dame de Paris: in his Dictionnaire raisonné, he presents them as a partial coloring. But the architect never spoke of a possible interior decoration.
However, one should not imagine extremely rich decorations, like those produced by Viollet-le-Duc during the restoration of Notre-Dame in the nineteenth century: “rather, medieval polychromy strove to highlight the masonry by accentuating its regularity, both formal and chromatic. On the other hand, the polychromy represents a protective layer for the stone,” explains Anne Vuillemard-Jenn.
The art historian explained that the colors chosen depended on the choice of stone: “in Chartres, a yellow ocher is placed on a light limestone. In Strasbourg, a red ocher on red sandstone.”
Moreover, if in the large naves the polychromy is more discreet, mostly emphasizing the architectural lines and the effect of verticality, “the highly ornamented decorations are generally limited to small spaces, such as radiating chapels,” specifies Anne Vuillemard-Jenn.
In the end, thanks to the restoration work undertaken after the disastrous fire of April 15, 2019, it should be possible to better understand the interior decoration of religious buildings in the great century of cathedrals: “most of the time, it is during a restoration project that we discover the polychromies,” confirms the historian. For it is true that sometimes the devil carries stone.