A new show reveals an avant-garde Paris in the 13th century creating “total art” that spread from architecture to all art forms and went on to conquer much of Europe.
The new style was called rayonnant (radiant).
“It became the point of reference for all architecture, at least in France, for the next 200 years,” explains co-curator Meredith Cohen, a visiting scholar from Oxford.
Sadly, the show reminds us how little is left of medieval Paris.
Most of the original sculpture from cathedrals like Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle chapel has disappeared. Two hundred pieces from these and other 13th-century Paris buildings are on display at the Cluny museum, the keeper of Paris's medieval past – some of them are coming out of storage for the first time.
Some of the sculpture was lost for centuries before being discovered by accident. For example, the stone heads of the kings of Judah from Notre Dame were chopped off by zealous revolutionaries.
They thought they were French royals.
“They were beheaded during the French revolution, thrown away, and as we now know, used as construction material,” says Xavier Dectot, curator at the Cluny and of the exhibition.
He compares them to the statues of Saddam Hussein knocked off their pedestals in Baghdad in 2003.
"The revolutionaries wanted to get rid of political symbols and so they did."
The heads lay hidden in the foundations of a Paris bank for two centuries before work on a new computer system led to their discovery.
The revolutionaries also decapitated the statues of saints from Notre Dame and those were found in the late 1930s, buried under an old Paris marketplace.
Likewise, explains Meredith Cohen, all of the figurative sculptures in the Gothic chapel of Sainte Chapelle were damaged or destroyed during the revolution. A third of its celebrated stained-glass windows were lost when it was converted to a library.
Paris in the 13th century was a big city by medieval standards with 50,000 people, many of them immigrants. King Philip Augustus launched an artistic building boom that included a complete makeover of Notre-Dame.
An extraordinary 60 cathedrals and churches were built or restored in the new rayonnant style during that period. Improved building techniques allowed for thinner walls and ever bigger stained-glass windows.
"This is when Paris earned its reputation as a place of avant-garde," says Cohen.
Paris in the late Middle Ages was more colourful than it is today. “All the fronts of every monument would have been brightly painted,” adds Cohen.
“In 13th century Paris, blue and red were predominant but green and black and yellow were also used fairly liberally and, in some cases, gold.”
Xavier Dectot is particularly fascinated by a cracked statue of the Virgin Mary that was found in 1999 during work on a new Left Bank parking lot.
It had been intended for the Lady Chapel of Saint Germain des Prés. The chapel was levelled in 1802, but the portico with its naturally sculpted leaves has been preserved at the Cluny.
“It’s a history in one piece of stone of the art of sculpting at the time. Because it’s unfinished, different parts are in different stages of completion. Some features have just been started, others are all but perfect.”
The search for lost masterpieces of the rayonnant era continues.