I was asked in December 2019 if I would restore three sculptures as well as the ceiling in the former chapel of the Bishop of Langres. The Château de l’Eveque de Langres was begun around 1770, and construction was stopped some time in 1789 when the French Revolution gained enough momentum for the citizens to seize the building. After the revolution, the building was altered to a considerable extent. It is my opinion that two of the sculptures discussed here were damaged during a rampage against the Church. They remained damaged until now. The chapel itself had a ceiling decorated with clouds done by an unknown artist. The sculptures may have originally been intended to be polychromed, but they never were. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century, the entire floor of the chapel was removed, and the function of that section of the building changed to that of a passageway between the ground and first floors. One result of that alteration was that the sculptures and the ceiling were forgotten and ignored. In fact, the passageway was closed for decades. Recently, the French government allocated sufficient funds for the village of Mussy-sur-Seine to renovate the building, which has been the mairie, or city hall, for many years. An overall restoration, renovation and redesign was awarded to the architect Daniel Juvenelle, and work began in earnest in 2018.
When I first saw the room and the state it was in, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. My first thought was to try and restore the ceiling, preserving the original clouds. Unfortunately, the plaster in the vaults of the ceiling was in terrible shape and would have been out of the question to repair without significant damage to the paint, which was already suffering as well. In addition, I was told that the correct and modern long-term method of restoring plaster walls involves re-papering the surfaces with a thin synthetic material that seals and strengthens the plaster and prevents further cracks over the lifetime of the building. So I realised I had to redo the ceiling myself. Besides the weather-related damage to the ceiling (caused by a leaky roof), there was vandalism committed against two of the three sculptures. The sculptures were fabricated in a studio and were poured from molds. They were then attached to the walls with large iron pins covered by finished plaster. The sculpture on the south wall was a depiction of five cherubs in a wreath of clouds surrounding a triangle inscribed with the Tetragrammaton, four letters in Hebrew. YOD, HE, VAU, and HE. A large chunk of the triangle was damaged, and the entire letter YOD and part of the next letter HE was missing. The sculpture on the north wall, a sort of long medallion, an arrangement of objects associated with the Mass and the role of the Church in the affairs of the world, had been slightly damaged as well. Part of a festoon, a decorative ribbon, was missing. The worst damage on this sculpture was done to the chalice. I knew I had to repair them, not with plaster, but with more durable material. Because they were structurally damaged, I began to consider whether or not it would be permissible or respectful to polychrome them after they were rebuilt. The sculpture over the gothic window on the east wall had not been damaged but had been the site of a bird’s nest, that of a swallow, an hirondelle. A pair of birds had raised some babies over the head of one of the angels.
Here are a few photos of the ceiling and the sculptures in the state in which I first saw them.
Since the sculptures had never been painted, I knew I should investigate whether or not other contemporary examples had been. It was immediately apparent that it was a common practice. Here are two fragments from chapels and châteaux of the period.
The first sculpture I started work on was the Tetragrammaton. It was also the most accessible from the scaffold, which had been installed by the painting crew prior to my part in the project. They had restored and replaced structural plaster elements and had patched cracks in the walls and ceiling, finally covering all flat surfaces with synthetic paper prior to the application of paint. I cleaned, primed, and painted the angels and the clouds before I started repair on the Hebrew letters. Here is the first stage. of repair.
After the Tetragrammaton was done, I worked on the other two sculptures at once, going back and forth. Before I could have complete access to the sculpture over the window I had to wait for the leaded glass to be replaced. I was very impressed with the crew who did this work.
After the glass was installed I cleaned and primed the east wall sculpture.
These are the stages of its renovation.
The north wall sculpture is an allegory of the church containing references to the mass and scripture. I painted elements as naturalistically as I thought they should be, including the festoon, which seems to refer to the kingly aspect of Christ. Therefore, I painted it a deep purple as befits a king. The chalice had to be rebuilt over several stages because acrylic modeling paste does not have as much structural firmness as, say, clay has. However, it dries very strong and can be shaped with abrasives. So the last thing I finished was the chalice.
The last part of my job was the ceiling. Although I admired the skill of the original painter, I realised that there would be some incongruities if I slavishly copied his style. The incongruities are based upon the fact that there are actually three architectural styles used in the room. The first is gothic; the ceiling is in four vaulted sections, and the window is typically gothic. The second style is baroque; all three sculptures are baroque. The third is neoclassical. After the floor of the original chapel was removed, a cornice was installed, and it is done in that style. The original clouds, although skilfully rendered, were oddly out of place in the overall context of the room. After some deliberation, I realised that since the room had been decommissioned many years ago, and since its function was still to be decided, I felt free to change the entire feel of the place. We chose a pure warm white for the color of the walls, and we chose a robin’s egg blue for the ceiling. These colors made the whole place seem larger and brighter. They also set the context for the polychrome sculptures as well as the clouds. The color scheme was also similar in feel to northern baroque churches such as those in Bavaria or Austria, although of course the room is much more austere. However, the sculptures became the most significant objects in the space, so I tried to allow them to dominate. I also changed the forms of the clouds on the ceiling in order to make them more harmonious with the clouds already present in the sculptures.
I think it is important to explain my choices by presenting some history and a bit of theology as well. Two of the sculptures contain faces of what have been called cherubs, but these little figures are not Cherubim at all, at least not in the biblical sense. In the Book of Ezekiel, they are described as having characteristics which are nothing like those of the babies in the sculptures. These little faces with wings are much more closely related to putti, which were originally intended to depict profane passions, not unlike the figure of Cupid in Roman mythology. During the Baroque Period, somehow these little figures came to be associated with the omnipresence of God.
The sculpture on the south wall is the most interesting to me because its iconography is so diverse. Not only does it contain the faces and wings of five angels, but it also contains a triangle holding the Tetragrammaton, a Christianised version of a Jewish device originally intended to refer to the name of God, which was not to be spoken at all. Over time, and because of efforts made by some theologians and philosophers in christendom, the four Hebrew letters came to be known as Yahweh, later as Jehovah. The letters, read right to left, spell yod he vau he. So the sculpture contains an eighteenth-century effort attempt at a syncretic reference to the God of the Jews as being the God of the Christians as well. The letter yod and part of the first he were damaged, and about a third of the triangle was gone. I repaired this before I painted it.
Here are a few images of the room after the work was completed.
Finally, I thought it would be informative to end with a final walk-through of the room after the scaffold came down.
Thanks for visiting.
Fantastic work, Andy, to be enjoyed a few more centuries into the future.
Alexandria, VA, USA
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Thank you for sharing your story, Andy. Precious!
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Beautiful Andy! Were you able to leave your name in posterity as the creator of the restoration?
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Hi Carolyn. I added an image in reply to your question. Thanks!