Vzelay

La Madeleine of Vézelay, south-east of Paris, was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 as one of the premier French sites, and it holds a significant place in the history of French architecture. Its nave is an admirable specimen of Romanesque tradition, while the choir with its light, pointed arches and ribbed vaults already marks the transition towards the

Vezelay Madeleine Elevation Nave

Figure 6.6 Principal elevation of La Madeleine, Vezelay, before restoration; drawing by Viollet-le-Duc. (Arch. Phot. Paris - CNMHS)

When Germany undertakes immense works in order to complete Cologne Cathedral; when England pours out wealth to restore its old churches . . . doubtless France will not remain less generous in repairing the monument cited above, as the most perfect example of the architecture of the Middle Ages. The Commission flatters itself, Monsieur le Ministre, that you will not hesitate to ask the Chambers for the means to execute this great work, that is so much in the interest of our national glory.12

Figure 6.6 Principal elevation of La Madeleine, Vezelay, before restoration; drawing by Viollet-le-Duc. (Arch. Phot. Paris - CNMHS)

Gothic in the twelfth century. It had a profound influence on early Gothic buildings in Burgundy and northern France. It became important during the Crusades; Bernard of Clairvaux preached there for the Second Crusade in 1146, Philippe-August of France and Richard the Lionheart of England set out from there for Jerusalem in 1190 on the Third Crusade.

In the first list of monuments requiring government assistance, published in 1840 as an appendix to Mérimée's report, one of the few buildings to receive a fairly large fund was the church of the Madeleine. Paul Léon has given this restoration work prime importance as 'the act of baptism' of the Office of Historic Monuments; it also laid the foundation for the reputation of Viollet-le-Duc and gave direction to his career (Léon, 1951). Two years later, when the first phase of the restoration was completed, Mérimée wrote to the minister, emphasizing its importance:

When Germany undertakes immense works in order to complete Cologne Cathedral; when England pours out wealth to restore its old churches . . . doubtless France will not remain less generous in repairing the monument cited above, as the most perfect example of the architecture of the Middle Ages. The Commission flatters itself, Monsieur le Ministre, that you will not hesitate to ask the Chambers for the means to execute this great work, that is so much in the interest of our national glory.12

The church, however, had suffered over the centuries, and the attached monastery had been demolished. When Mérimée arrived there in 1834, he wrote: 'the whole building is in a pitiful state; water pours in when it rains, and trees as thick as an arm grow between the stones'.13 Sitting in the interior, he could hear small stones falling down from the vaults. The trouble is increasing every day, he warned, 'if assistance to the Madeleine is delayed much longer, it will soon be necessary to take the decision to demolish it in order to avoid acci-dents.'14 Final approval for the restoration was given on 30 May 1840 after Viollet-le-Duc had already prepared a report and drafted the project. He subsequently provided measured drawings in the scale of one to one hundred, with plans, sections and elevations of the whole building. Progress reports were given regularly, and all policy decisions were taken by the Commission in Paris.

The work first concentrated on the nave, the transverse arches, the flying buttresses and the roof structures of the side aisles. By the end of 1841, thirteen buttresses, twelve flying buttresses, three nave vaults and corresponding transverse arches had been rebuilt. Viollet-le-Duc proposed zinc for the roofs, but the commission preferred to maintain the same type of tiles (tuiles creuses) as there had been previously. The existing seventeenth-century flying buttresses did not fulfil their required function, and were rebuilt in a structurally more correct form and in good ashlar. The transverse arches of the nave were reconstructed in the original semicircular form, except for the first three from the west which were only repaired and left in their deformed condition. The new vaults were conceived lighter in weight than the original ones. Subsequently, the works were extended to the choir chapels, repair of all roofs, crowning of the west tower, cleaning the interior of whitewash, and repair of sculptures and ornaments.

According to Viollet-le-Duc, the four Gothic vaults at the east end of the nave had been rebuilt after the collapse of the Romanesque vaults, but hastily and without 'care or art', and they were not properly connected to the old walls. The vault between the transept towers was structurally safe, while the others needed rebuilding; the question arose about the manner in which this should be approached. He proposed reconstruction in the earlier, Romanesque, form like the rest of the nave, thus giving the nave aesthetic coherence; all necessary evidence existed, and this would guarantee solidity to the building, as well as costing less than restoration in the present form. The vault between the transept towers could be left in its Gothic form, and would thus provide a link between the choir and the transept.15 Mérimée himself pointed out the importance of recreating the unity of character in the nave, 'disturbed' by the Gothic interference, and recommended that, in either case, the vaults would have to be rebuilt.16 The Commission agreed, but considered the reconstruction an exception to established conservative principles, and emphasized that the reason was mainly structural.

In January 1842, M. Lenormant, member of the commission, having visited Vézelay insisted on giving priority to consolidation before any 'restoration'. He noted that the principal merit of the church lay in the beauty of its immense nave, and that the external ornaments should not be made more elaborate than they had been previously. In the same year, Mérimée reported that the structurally delicate first phase had been successfully terminated, and concluded: 'Undoubtedly, important works are still needed as well as considerable expenditure; but for those who are aware of the situation of this church, the achievement is tremendous, and its complete restoration will now be a question only of time and money.'17 Already, more work had been done than originally foreseen; instead of just repairing or doing partial rebuilding, in many instances it was considered necessary to proceed to a full reconstruction: the choir gallery had been restored to its original form, the roofs of the nave and choir had been completely rebuilt instead of just being repaired, and restoration of sculpture had also started.

In the next phase, increasing attention was paid to aesthetic aspects. The works included the west front, still covered with vegetation, the central door, mutilated during the revolution, repair of sculptural decoration, damaged capitals in the nave and the stained-glass windows in the narthex. A new choir altar was proposed for the newly restored choir, considering that the late-Renaissance altar was 'just a confused pile of mouldings'.18 The panelling and stalls covering the pillars of the nave and transept were removed and the chapels provided with altars. The sacristy was restored and a part of the cloisters rebuilt. The west front of the church had been modified in the thirteenth century, receiving a majestic gable with five large windows and several life-size statues, but never completed. Partly for structural reasons, Viollet-le-Duc made certain

Figure 6.8 (a) Viollet-le-Duc's project for the new sculptural relief of the central door of the west entrance of La Madeleine. (Arch. Phot. Paris — CNMHS). (b)A capital of the north door at the west entrance of La Madeleine recarved to Viollet-le-Duc's design as a replica from the original (currently in museum)

Figure 6.8 (a) Viollet-le-Duc's project for the new sculptural relief of the central door of the west entrance of La Madeleine. (Arch. Phot. Paris — CNMHS). (b)A capital of the north door at the west entrance of La Madeleine recarved to Viollet-le-Duc's design as a replica from the original (currently in museum)

changes to the existing situation, giving it a more symmetrical form. He added three buttresses to support the upper part of the front; two of these were built on either side of the central windows. In the process some thirteenth-century work was removed, and only one of the quatrefoils of the north side was left. New round-arched windows were designed symmetrically on both sides of the gable following the model of the south side, in the belief that there had been two matching towers originally. The bas-reliefs on the main tympanum of the west entrance had represented Christ in Glory surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists; these had been destroyed in 1793. Viollet-le-Duc designed a new relief, changing the subject to the Last Judgement (Salet, 1965:33ff). Some figures on the gable were replaced with copies, but the headless Christ figure in the centre was left as it was. The southern tower was topped by a balustrade and gargoyles around a new pitched roof. The northern tower was provided with a roof as well.

The narthex had suffered in a fire, and required much rebuilding. In the nave, the capitals were in a better condition, and relatively few had to be repaired or replaced. In the restoration of sculptural elements, Viollet-le-Duc recorded everything systematically, and studied all elements, even if there was no intention to touch them, in order to better understand the original artistic purpose. Damaged capitals were measured and drawn carefully, or cast in plaster before the work started, as during removal they could suffer further damage due to their often fragile state. Before the final execution of a new element, the sculptor had to present a model for approval by Viollet-le-Duc. The reason for the replacement of damaged capitals was mainly structural; if the work could be limited to the repair of the original, this was done.19 Even though there were some criticisms, e.g. by a member of parliament, who made accusations about corruption, poorly planned works, unskilled technology, and waste of public funds, the restoration of La Madeleine was considered a great achievement for the Service des monuments historiques, and the works had proceeded better than many had thought possible at the outset.

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