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The Choir Carpet of Notre Dame of Paris: An Unknown Masterpiece

Published on , by Sophie Humann

Spared from the flames, this unique carpet by La Savonnerie is being restored by expert hands of the Mobilier National workshops.

The choir carpet of Notre Dame Cathedral (detail).© Justine Rossignol The Choir Carpet of Notre Dame of Paris: An Unknown Masterpiece

The choir carpet of Notre Dame Cathedral (detail).
© Justine Rossignol

Opposite an immense, glass-walled room nicknamed “the fish tank”, two restorers bend over a large, upside-down carpet straddling a table. With brisk movements, one rubs her linen thread on a piece of wax and pushes a curved needle into the thick weave to strengthen the horizontal weft. The other is busy restoring a vertical cotton warp on a lilac background. The already-restored part lies rolled up at their feet. Since July, the Mobilier National’s restorers have been working on the choir carpet of Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris. Unknown to the general public, the 19th-century masterpiece is unique in the history of La Savonnerie on several counts: its size (23.8 x 7.38 meters/78.08 x 24.21 feet, or 186 square meters/2002.09 square feet), destination, neo-Gothic decoration, liturgical attributes and historic stigmata. “This is the top part,” says Julienne Tsang, the restoration workshop’s assistant manager (editor's note: the carpet had been woven in four pieces, then attached together two by two and then into one piece). “We’ve finished about 4.60 meters/15.09 feet with two or three people working at the same time depending on the need. Except for some moth damage, the carpet is in good shape. The hardest part is the handling: this section weighs 500 kilos/1,102.31 pounds. Every time we finish a stretch of about 30 centimeters/11.81 inches, we have to ask the storage department to send us around 10 people to gently pick it up and roll out a new section.”

Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange (1780-1860), project for the carpet of Notre Dame of Paris, Mobilier National archives.© Isabell

Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange (1780-1860), project for the carpet of Notre Dame of Paris, Mobilier National archives.
© Isabelle Bideau

Saving a Miraculous Survivor

The choir carpet’s two halves were rolled up and protected in wooden crates stored against the cathedral’s walls. It was nearly unscathed by the fire and water on April 16, 2019. “It had not been in our inventory for a long time,” said Antonin Macé de Lépinay, who is in charge of the Mobilier National’s ancient carpet collection. “After the fire, Hervé Lemoine (editor’s note: head of the same institution as well as of the Les Gobelins, Beauvais and La Savonnerie workshops) asked the DRAC (Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs) to store it, first in our outside reserves, then here at Les Gobelins. Although the carpet was only damp, we were afraid mold might grow on it. The restoration is funded by donations managed by the public establishment in charge of the cathedral’s conservation and restoration, and the DRAC in Ile-de-France remains the client. The only carpet designed for Notre Dame, it was not made to be used often. Its freshness and shading of colors are amazing. With its very tight stitches and the use of four differently colored threads in each stitch for some motifs, the La Savonnerie carpet technique allows extraordinary shading without any pixelated effect. The motifs’ preciousness makes the hand of Saint-Ange instantly recognizable.” Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange, the French Crown’s furniture designer, was asked to draw up the plans of the choir carpet, commissioned in March 1825 for the days Charles X attended mass at Notre Dame with great pomp and ceremony. For the upper part, he proposed a large cross on a white background surmounted by fleurs-de-lis bordered with jewels, gold and dazzlingly colored arabesques. The intersection of the cross featured the coat of arms of France with the royal monogram above and interlacing vine leaves and horns of plenty overflowing with fruit and ears of wheat below. In the lower part, Saint-Ange placed a reliquary in the neo-Gothic style that was so popular at the time. Between a miter, a papal tiara and different liturgical attributes a tetramorph, the depiction of the four Evangelists’ allegorical symbols so common in cathedrals, appears. from top to bottom, the ox of Saint Luke, the lion of Saint Mark, the angel of Saint Matthew and the eagle of Saint John, its wings outstretched, can be recognized. On September 15, 1825, the weavers began making the velvet carpet on the largest loom of the La Savonnerie manufactory, which had been housed in the buildings of a former soap-making plant on Chaillot Hill for 200 years. On January 15, 1826, the La Savonnerie was combined with the other royal manufactories at Les Gobelins on the banks of the Bièvre. The loom was taken apart and, at the end of spring, weaving resumed on two, then three and, in January 1828, even four looms.


The Savonnerie technique—very tight stitches mixing four threads of different colors—makes extraordinary shading possible.© Estelle Bourla

The Savonnerie technique—very tight stitches mixing four threads of different colors—makes extraordinary shading possible.
© Estelle Bourlaud

Rulers and Their Symbols

When the 1830 Revolution toppled Charles X, he was succeeded by his cousin Louis-Philippe. The tricolor flag was reestablished and the symbols of the Bourbons abolished by the decree of February 16, 1831. Les Gobelins weavers had to redo all the carpet’s decoration: needle-woven, stylized petals replaced the fleurs-de-lis and the necklaces of the orders of Saint Michael and the Holy Spirit. Charles X’s monogram and the circle in the middle of the cross were cut out. “At first, it was supposed to be replaced by Louis-Philippe’s initials, but a simpler motif was chosen,” says Mr. Macé de Lépinay. “The trace of the cut-out circle is plainly visible on the back. The warps are tucked into each other to assemble the carpet’s different parts. The colors of the wool used to fill in the fleurs-de-lis are the same as the previous ones, but the baths were several years apart. Over time, the new wool turned darker, and the ghosts of the fleurs-de-lis appeared.” In May 1838, the carpet went on display in the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon before Louis-Philippe gave it to Notre Dame Cathedral for the baptism of his grandson the count of Paris on May 2, 1841. Being hard to handle, it was used on few occasions: the baptism of the imperial prince on June 14, 1856, the visit of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna in October 1896, and some major liturgical feast days. A small square under the reliquary is missing, damage probably caused during Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of the cathedral. The last occasions for which the carpet was taken out were the first televised mass on Christmas 1948, John Paul II’s visit on May 30, 1980, and a Paris Match photo session in spring 1986. It was exhibited in the nave in 2014 and 2017 and then kept in storage in the cathedral, meaning it could be quickly bundled out of the cathedral after the fire. However, its size and thickness made it difficult to dry. The carpet had to be raised in places and large fans were placed around it. After scientific studies by the Laboratoire de Recherche des Monuments Historiques and an independent restorer, Marie-Hélène Didier, who looks after Notre Dame’s furniture at the Ile-de-France DRAC, said it could be cleaned and protected from moths by anoxia, the deprivation of oxygen. Ten to 15 people took turns to vacuum the carpet for five days. No restoration is possible of the bottom part, which was affixed to canvas with fish or rabbit skin glue in the 19th or early 20th century. The glue penetrated the structure and hardened, making it impossible to use even the biggest and sharpest needle. The restorers will have to settle for working on the border, where the moth holes are more numerous and there is less glue. Then they will replace the black braid, made to measure by the Declercq trimming company, around the edge. If all goes well, the carpet will be back home in time for the cathedral’s reopening in December 2024.

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