Official poster for Le Trésor de Notre-Dame de Paris des Origines à Viollet-le-Duc Louvre Museum
History,  Museum exhibitions,  Notre-Dame de Paris

Remarkable Notre-Dame Treasures at the Louvre

How does one modernize thirteenth century designs? Hold a competition. Little did Eugène Viollet-le-Duc know when he sketched the sacking of the archbishop’s residence in 1831 that he and a partner, Jean-Baptiste Lassus would win a competition in 1843 to restore Notre-Dame de Paris and its treasury.

For a very short time, while twenty-first century restoration work continues on the cathedral of Paris, historical treasures are being stored at the Louvre Museum. The current exhibition at the Louvre ‘The Treasury of Notre-Dame Cathedral: from its Origins to Viollet-le-Duc’  showcases at least 120 of those treasures, and runs until January 29, 2024. It puts into context the treasury’s history from its origins in the Middle Ages through the Second Empire in the mid 1800s. In a few small rooms of the Louvre Museum, my eyes marveled at the intricate jewels of craftsmanship that were saved from the 2019 fire.

What I loved was the detail of the work. I had to go through the exhibit twice, look at the catalog, see what I had missed and go back and look at the objects again. The treasury history is fascinating because I initially only thought about Viollet-le-Duc. The exhibit puts the timeline of the cathedral’s history into perspective.

The exhibition ticket is free, but must be reserved for time-stamped entry. The ticket is separate from the regular Louvre Museum entrance ticket.

Stories Behind the Treasury Story

Magazines connaissance des arts Dossiers de l'Art magazines for Le Trésor de Notre-Dame de Paris, Louvre Museum exhibition

Two of the exhibition’s magazines, “Connaissance des Arts” and “Dossiers de l’Art” are full of background, history and close up photos. They are a must-have souvenir. The publications are in French, but you can use a translation app on your phone to read the stories. The two Press Releases in English contain many facts and history that help tie together this retrospective. This is an exhibition worth the visit when you go the Louvre Museum.

Viollet-le-Duc's sketch of the 1831 sacking and looting of the archbishops residence and offices. Louvre Museum exhibition

An 1831 drawing in the exhibition by Viollet-le-Duc shows that he was already attentive to Notre-Dame de Paris and its perils before he became the cathedral’s neo-Gothic restorer. He and Lassus won the 1843 competition to restore the cathedral. They would not only restore the cathedral, but reconstruct the treasury sacristy and reinterpret the treasures updating the 13th century medieval style.

He updated liturgical furniture and reliquaries in the new “revival gothic” style. The sculptor Jean Alexandre Chertier and the goldsmith Placide Poussielgue-Rusand interpreted Viollet-le-Duc’s designs. Some of the most beautiful objects are: the reliquary for the crown of thorns, the reliquary for the cross, the bust of Saint Louis and the dove for the holy oils.

In the Tracks of its History

The exhibition is a retrospective of the treasury prior to the French Revolution and through the restoration from 1843 to 1864. It includes a chronological history of inventories, historic accounts, books, paintings, sketches, vestments, illuminated manuscripts, prints and illustrated documents.

The long history starts in the Merovingian era. The first evidence of a treasury dates back to the 6th century. The treasury grew over time with donations from kings, queens, princes, bishops, canons and the “mysterious” Marquise de Neuchèze.

This philanthropy continued through the Bourbon Restoration during the reign of Louis XVIII (1814-1830). Louis XVIII replaced Napoleon, another large contributor to the Notre-Dame treasury for his coronation. Some items originally in the Notre-Dame inventory and shown in the exhibit were dispersed to other countries, museums or churches over the centuries.

Testament of Erminethrudis or Ementrude, about 575, copy from the 7th century, Merovingian aristocracy, inventory of donations to the cathedral of Paris, ink on papyrus, Archives nationales de France, Louvre Museum exhibition

The Treasury as a Source of Discontent

The 2019 fire was not the first time, the cathedral suffered. The cathedral’s treasury went through devastation during the French Wars of Religion in the late 1500s and three attacks in the course of sixty years during the Revolutions of 1791, 1830 and 1831. Anything not held down seemed open game for the malcontent, anti-Catholic revolutionaries. In contrast, the revolution of 1848 and the Commune 1871 did not touch any church treasury nor the cathedral. The building, to the French, represented an anti-papist history and remains a French national symbol.

Over the centuries, the treasures have been dispersed to private collections, other museums and archives. They have been taken apart, melted down and then replenished. In November 1789, Church property was nationalized. In March 1791, objects ‘useless for worship’ were confiscated and melted down. The remaining objects were taken by tumbril to the Hôtel de Ville in August 1792 and melted down in October at the Hôtel de la Monnaie (Paris Mint).

New treasures were purchased for Napoleon’s coronation. Then came the 1830 July revolution with looting and destruction of the archbishop’s residence and the treasury sacristy, and repeated with the insurrection of February 1831. The destruction was so bad of these structures, they had to be torn down.

Reliquary for the Holy Crown of thorns, 1862 Detail of the Placide Poussielgue-Rusand silver and bronze plated with gold, Louvre Museum exhibition

This may be the only time for a long while to view these treasures in one exhibition. The next time will be when the restoration is completed. At that time, about one thousand treasures will return to the Notre-Dame sacristy. Donations for the restoration work on the cathedral can be made on the Notre-Dame de Paris website. Follow the progress of the restoration on the Rebuild Notre Dame website and frequently on Instagram @rebatirnotredamedeparis (The coq/rooster on top of the fleche/spire is now in place).

Twitter/X Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo's tweet thanking policiers pompiers agents municipaux for saving treasures Notre Dame de Paris

To view the gallery, choose an image. This opens the gallery, which you can scroll through.