Restoration of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris Nearly Complete

Source: The Wall Street Journal

  • ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
  • Updated September 20, 2013, 2:10 a.m. ET

Restoration of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris Nearly Complete

Forty-Year Project to Restore the Stained-Glass Windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris Is to Be Finished Soon

    By

  • GABRIELE PARUSSINI

Paris

Behind a security net hiding a large section of medieval stained glass inside Sainte-Chapelle, workers and architects are trying to wrap up a monumental birthday present: They are working to complete a 40-year restoration project before the 800th anniversary next year of the birth of St. Louis, the French king who ordered the construction of the chapel.

[image]Charlotte Gonzalez for The Wall Street JournalCOLOR AND LIGHT Restorers have cleaned, restored and reinstalled the 13th-century stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle ahead of next year’s anniversary.

The world-renowned 13th century gothic church has been under scaffolding almost constantly since the 1970s when French officials decided that the church, particularly its stained glass windows, needed protection from the deterioration caused by a rapid increase in car pollution and millions of visitors.

When the project first began, officials had no idea it would take four decades. But a cutting-edge technique that involves molding a new glass wall on to the ancient stained glass was developed while the project was under way. The technique, patented by a French technician in the 1990s and now more widely used, should keep the windows safe for generations to come.

“Despite the traffic outside and the number of people walking in here every day, we’ll leave them alone for a very long time,” said Laurence Cuzange, an expert in stained-glass restoration who has worked on the French cathedral of Chartres. Today, about 700,000 people visit Sainte-Chapelle every year.

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Charlotte Gonzalez for The Wall Street JournalWhen the project first began, officials had no idea it would take four decades.

Sainte-Chapelle was constructed in 1248 as a treasure chest for one of the world’s most valuable collections of sacred relics. In 1229, King Louis IX purchased what is believed to be the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ when he was crucified and parts of the holy cross from the Emperor of Constantinople. The French king spent more than half of his fortune on the collection and had the church built to house it.

For the restoration, the 15 stained-glass windows, each 50-feet high and representing scenes from the Bible—from the infancy of Jesus to the Passion—were dismantled and broken down into 1,113 small panels. Each of them was cleaned with the help of laser lighting, which allowed technicians to differentiate the fading of time from the original drawings in gray tones that define the characters painted on the glass.

Restorers have long agreed that the best option to protect stained glass is to isolate it from pollutants in the outside world. New glass is usually placed on top of the original to keep out the corrosive chemicals that pollute city air. The new glass surface also protects the stained glass from condensation formed when visitors’ breath comes in contact with the colder outside.

“But that’s mostly done with flat, industrial glasses,” said Ms. Cuzange. The flat glass distorts the light coming through to the interior and changes the reflection on the exterior. “When you look at those churches from the outside, they look like supermarkets.”

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Charlotte Gonzalez for The Wall Street JournalSainte-Chapelle was constructed in 1248 as a treasure chest for one of the world’s most valuable collections of sacred relics.

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Charlotte Gonzalez for The Wall Street JournalMost of the funding for the latest round of work came from private donors.

French authorities decided not to use such a technique on Sainte-Chapelle. Rather, new glass walls were molded in the shape of the ancient stained glass so that the opaque, irregular outside appearance was safeguarded. From the inside, the light filtering through the vividly colored glass isn’t deformed.

“This is key in a building like this, where the stone structure is reduced to the minimum, and where color and light are the quintessential elements,” said Christophe Bottineau, the historic monument’s architect in chief, surveying more than 8,000 feet of glass-covered surface.

Most of the funding for the latest round of work came from private donors. The Velux Foundation, a Danish charity, footed half the €10 million bill ($13.5 million), while the balance came from state and national government funds.

The Culture Ministry in Paris also debated to what extent the stained glass should be restored. Only about two thirds of the glass at Sainte-Chapelle is original. The other windows were destroyed during the French Revolution. During the uprising, a silver trunk that protected the relics was melted down and most of the king’s relics were destroyed. (The crown of thorns as well as a piece of the holy cross and a nail, were shipped to nearby Notre Dame cathedral in 1806 where they remain today.)

In the 19th century, a movement of French intellectuals, including Victor Hugo, started campaigning to restore the famous windows. Completed in 1855 under the direction of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the project was considered exemplary by contemporaries. Much of the chapel as it appears today dates from this 19th-century recreation of what restorers at the time thought it might have looked like in the late 13th century.

“It was decided to leave them as we found them, that is to say as they were mounted after last century’s restoration,” said Mr. Bottineau. “That too was a work of art itself.”

Write to Gabriele Parussini at gabriele.parussini@dowjones.com

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