One of the best rooms in the Musée de Cluny (Paris's museum of the Middle Ages) is the Salle Notre-Dame de Paris. And the most intriguing part? The series of floating kings' heads from the façade of Notre-Dame.
The story behind how these 13th century sculptures got into this room is fascinating.
Off with their heads!
It was the French Revolution, and the peuple were disgusted by the monarchy. It was not enough to take the king and queen to the guillotine: even symbols of royalty had to be destroyed, a phenomenon known as vandalisme révolutionnaire.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame's main façade featured a gallery of 28 kings, known as the Kings of Judah. These biblical figures, however, were dressed in the garb of the French Capetian kings. What was the appropriate response for any self-respecting revolutionary?
Qu'on leur coupe la tête !
Royalists to the Rescue
One of my École du Louvre professors told me the following story at a soirée, and I haven't been able to verify it's veracity. But it's a good story, so here goes:
After the heads were chopped off the façade of Notre-Dame in a symbolic bloodshed, a loyal royalist gathered the heads and hid them in the cave of a home in Paris. He lovingly placed the heads so that they were all facing in the direction of Notre-Dame.
Use Your Imagination
After things had (relatively) calmed down a bit in the 19th century, it was time to decide what to do with the damaged Notre-Dame.
Enter Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
People tend to either love or hate Viollet-le-Duc. This 19th century French architect was responsible for many interpretive "restorations" of medieval buildings. Instead of meticulously making sure that his work restored sites to what they had been, he used his imagination to restore them to what he thought they should have been.
It was Viollet-le-Duc who was responsible for the heads in the gallery of kings that we see on the façade of Notre-Dame today.
An Exciting Discovery
Apparently, whoever hid the heads of Notre-Dame did a bad job of passing along the information of their hiding place. The heads were lost to the world until 1977! While doing restorations to the headquarters of a bank in the 9th arrondissement, the heads (and many other fragments of Notre-Dame) were discovered. These precious objects were donated to the Musée de Cluny.
It is fascinating to see these heads up close, especially since they were designed to be seen from so far away. And some of the faces still show traces of the original polychromy that covered them.
The heads are not alone in their exile from the Cathedral. Fragments from different parts of Notre-Dame fill this sunny 1st century stone room, including the façade's bashful Adam.
Musée de Cluny (room 8)
Address: 6 place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris ∣ Métro: Odéon (lines 4 and 10) or Saint-Michel (line 4) ∣ Opening hours: Wednesday to Monday from 9:15am to 5:45pm