Scientists uncover secrets of 12 Christian relics in Paris

Scientists in Paris are cracking the mystery of the 12 apostle statues that sat atop the Gothic marvel of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris for five centuries.

Scientists uncover secrets of 12 Christian relics in Paris
Alexandre Gérard examines one of the apostle statues. Photo: AFP
Having lost their heads, been pulled from their plinths, smashed and even buried, things are at last looking up for some of the unluckiest statues in Christendom.
For five centuries the 12 apostles looked down on the adoring hordes who marvelled at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, arguably the greatest Gothic edifice ever build.
Standing between its spectacular stained glass windows — one of the wonders of the medieval world — they could have been forgiven for feeling smug having survived the Reformation without a scratch.
But the statues were caught in the whirlwind of not just one French revolution but two, and since then history has been less than kind.
Until now that is.
A team of French scientists are at last revealing their original colours and forms from 1248 when they first stood guard over one of the most revered of Christian relics, the crown of thorns that Christ reputedly wore on the cross.
French king Louis IX built the staggeringly beautiful private chapel to house the relics after buying them from the cash-strapped Latins who sacked Constantinople in 1204 and began stripping the Byzantine capital of its treasures.
The crusader king, who was later made a saint, also acquired parts of the True Cross and the Holy Lance for the chapel, which backed onto his royal palace.
Six of the most heavily damaged of the apostle statues are now being analysed by the French museums' restoration and research centre, known as C2RMF, at its laboratories underneath the Louvre.
Off with their heads
Its director of sculptures Alexandra Gerard told AFP that as well taking tiny samples from “the sandwich layers” of paint to find the first coat under a microscope, experts were also trying to crack the puzzle about how the much-damaged, repaired and repainted statues were first made.
Using X-rays and ultraviolet scans they have been able to cast new light on statues whose nicknames are vaguely reminiscent of the Seven Dwarves, from “The Melancholic” and “The Philosopher” to the “Headless One”.
But the most exciting potential discovery for the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris, where the six badly damaged apostles are held, is how different the original colours were.
“The statues in the Sainte-Chapelle now are very highly coloured like its stained glass,” said curator Damien Berne.
“However, it seems that in the 13th century they had a very different chromatic range” which may have been designed so “the apostles stood out” from the windows.
Although tests are still going on to confirm the findings, he said the statue known as “The Melancholic” may also not have been quite so down in the dumps as he now seems.
His head may simply not have been put back on his shoulders correctly after he was roughed up by French revolutionaries.
The statues' vicissitudes began in the tumultuous decade after the fall of the Bastille in 1789.
Torn down and buried
Torn down from their plinths they were unceremoniously cast aside; two ended up broken and buried under a pavement and the others were dispersed to various storehouses and museums.
They fared even worse in the revolution of 1830, when four lost their heads to rioters. But for a pious old woman who managed to pick up and hide the heads they would have been lost forever.
While restoring the chapel in 1840 the architect Felix Duban tried to put all the statues back in their place.
But the four decapitated saints and the two buried ones were judged to be beyond repair and handed on to the Cluny Museum. Yet somewhere along the line another head had gone astray.
In the meantime the surviving apostles and six plaster replacements got a striking Gothic Revival paint job which endures to this day.
After the tests are completed, the Cluny Museum — which houses France's main collection of medieval treasures — hopes to have the statues cleaned so that they can be installed in their own gallery in 2020.
By then “maybe we will have found which apostle is the true owner of the 'charming' little foot” which languishes legless in the museum's storage, said Berne.


‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.