Oil Paintings Rescued From Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire Go on Display

Known as the “Mays,” the artworks were created for an annual competition in the 17th century

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The cathedral's collection of Mays paintings includes Aubin Vouet's Le Centurion Corneille aux pieds de Saint Pierre, completed in 1639. DRAC Île de France

When a fire nearly destroyed Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2019, a collection of 17th-century masterpieces was hanging in its dim side chapels. Those paintings, known as the Mays, were recovered after the blaze—damp, but largely undamaged. Now, they’re going on display.

A new exhibition at the Mobilier National in Paris will examine the efforts to “restore and rethink” Notre-Dame in the five years since the fire, according to a statement from France’s culture ministry. The show will include contemporary artworks, cathedral furniture and 13 newly restored paintings from the Mays collection.

Original display
The Mays were originally displayed in Notre-Dame's cavernous nave, as seen here. Mobilier National

“We began removing them the day after the fire and decided they would all be restored,” Emmanuel Pénicaut, director of Mobilier National collections, tells the Observer’s Kim Willsher. “The exhibition is a chance to see them all in one place, in the order they were painted, which is how they would have been originally displayed. What you see now is how they would have looked the day they were completed.”

The Mays collection includes 76 oil paintings created between 1630 and 1707. They are the work of “the best artists in France,” including Charles Le Brun and Jacques Blanchard, per the Observer.

A team of experts carefully restored the Mays paintings after they were damaged by water during the fire at Notre-Dame. DRAC Île de France

The paintings were made for a competition organized by Paris’ Confrérie des Orfèvres (the Goldsmiths’ Guild). Each May, the guild chose one work to be displayed before the statue of the Virgin Mary outside Notre-Dame. These pieces were then donated to the cathedral, where they were displayed in the nave alongside an explanation and a poem.

The Mays are religious paintings depicting “themes of the Counter-Reformation,” a period of Catholic resistance to Protestant reform, as well as scenes from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospels in the New Testament, per the Fondation Notre-Dame. The annual competition was an attempt to elevate Catholicism after France’s Wars of Religion, a series of violent conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants that killed millions in the late 16th century.

During the French Revolution in the late 1700s, many of the paintings were taken from the cathedral and split up, as the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris writes. In the 19th century, some of the works were returned to Notre-Dame until the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (who added the cathedral’s spire) had them moved to the Louvre.

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The restoration efforts included cleaning, re-lining and varnishing. DRAC Île de France

“The paintings suffered two major catastrophes: the Revolution and the arrival of Viollet-le-Duc, who got rid of much of the medieval decorations in Notre-Dame,” Pénicaut tells the Observer. “In 1905, they were put back ... not along the nave pillars as before but in the side chapels, which meant we lost the unity of the collection.”

Today, only 52 of the 76 Mays paintings are accounted for. Some are privately owned by collectors in the United Kingdom, while others are housed in French churches; Notre-Dame possesses 13. The upcoming exhibition marks the first time those 13 works will be displayed in the same place in over 160 years, Pénicaut tells the Observer.

“They are truly great classical paintings, and were painted by the best artists of the age,” he adds. “They not only have a great religious significance but an artistic value, too.”

After the exhibition at the Mobilier National, the artworks will return home to Notre-Dame. The cathedral is set to reopen in December, more than five and a half years after the fire that nearly destroyed it.

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