13th century murals spur controversial restoration of Poitiers Cathedral

Three years after the unexpected discovery of monumental decorative paintings at Poitiers Cathedral, Poitier, France, a preservation effort is underway. The perception of the building will be transformed.

Perched on staggered scaffolding and concealed behind an immaculate canvas, a restoration team is ready to start work on Poitiers Cathedral’s southern transept.

Scalpel in hand, the team is operating meticulously on a true rebirth: that of extraordinary decorative paintings that have fallen into oblivion. Surveys have revealed the presence of a monumental group of mural paintings hidden by a whitewash from the 18th century and covered by work done on the vault to repair water leaks.

Across the vaults and interior elevations, there are 900 square meters (roughly 9,700 square feet) of decorative work: angels, saints, foliage, trompe l’oeil architecture. Everywhere, reds, pinks, purples, oranges and greens. Having been analyzed, the pigments are rare and precious (azurite, cinnabar). The divisions of the vault alternate deep blues and vibrant reds, enameled in a “rain” of stars. Each was created nearly 700 years ago by superimposing leafs of pewter and leafs of gold or silver.

It’s an almost unique example of complete Gothic decorative work in a cathedral,” clarifies Anne Embs, Assistant Regional Historic Monuments Conservator. “These paintings, completed between 1260-1300, are contemporaries of the stained glass alongside which they function. The restoration will dramatically change the perception of the space.

The challenges of detaching these paintings are significant: “It’s an irreversible gesture,” admits Anne Embs. “In the entirely whitewashed cathedral, we could reproach ourselves for breaking the (artificial) homogeneity of the building.

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