UA Researchers to Digitally Restore Sculptures of Notre Dame

People taking photographs of stone sculptures in a museum.
Documenting sculptures at the Musée de Cluny. L-R: Jennifer Feltman, Alexandre Tokovinine, Jeremiah Stager, Grégory Chaumet (Photo: G. Chitwood)

Centuries before the massive fire of April 15, 2019, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris suffered damages that drastically changed the appearance of the front of the building, its west façade. In 1771, sculptures were cut away from the central doorway so that a baldacchino, or canopy, covering the French king could be carried over him in a procession. Then, following the French Revolution, sculptures of apostles and kings were torn down, beheaded and discarded. Some were thrown into the river Seine and others were carefully buried not far away. Most of these sculptures were thought to be lost forever until an accidental discovery in 1977 when workers who were digging to repair a leak to the Hôtel Moreau discovered large stone heads covered in plaster, buried in the ground. Today, fragments of sculpture belonging to the Cathedral of Notre Dame reside in museums in Paris, New York, Chicago, and Durham, NC. Strikingly, these sculptures, and many of those remaining on the cathedral, were originally painted with several layers of colors, or polychromy, made from natural minerals.

Thanks to the Transatlantic Research Partnership, a program of FACE Foundation and the French Embassy, UA researchers are collaborating with the Sorbonne Université to document and study these sculptures for the research project “Notre Dame in Color: Visualizing the Layered Polychromy of the Cathedral of Paris.” UA associate professor of Medieval art and architecture, Jennifer Feltman, is co-directing the project with her French colleague, Grégory Chaumet, architect and engineer of the Plemo 3D lab at the Centre Chastel, Sorbonne Université in Paris. The project has also received support from the UA Collaborative Arts Research Initiative, the UA Office of Research and Economic Development, and the French governmental organization in charge of the reconstruction, the Établissement public chargé pour la restauration de la Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris.

Three people in a lab documenting through photography traces of paint on old sculpture.
Studying polychromy at the LRMH. L-R: Jeremiah Stager, Alexandre Tokovinine, S. Duchêne (Photo: J. Feltman)

In early December, Feltman took UA collaborators, associate professor of anthropology, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Jeremiah Stager, Office of Archaeological Research, to Paris to begin this project. Along with Chaumet, they documented sculptures at the Musée de Cluny using a variety of techniques, including structured light imaging, photogrammetry and macro-photography. Collaborative meetings took place at the Centre Chastel, Plemo 3D lab and the lab dedicated to studying the materials used in the historic monuments of France, the Laboratoire de recherche des monuments historique (LRMH). At the LRMH, they were able to view high resolution digital images of paint layers that have been documented by the chemists of the LRMH. UA researchers will be digitally recreating the effects of layered paints on stone as perceived in natural lighting. At the LRMH, they studied and documented the effects of painting in layers and how these paints appear differently depending on the ambient light. Researchers will also be digitally repatriating the sculptures to a digital model of the cathedral that will serve as an “ark” of knowledge, preserving the history of the cathedral for future generations.

As a member of the Chantier scientifique de Notre Dame, Feltman was also able to visit the worksite of the cathedral to further document the central portal of the west façade and a specific sculpture of a prophet that will be the first object the team uses to test their method for painting in digital layers. This project will continue through 2024, as the restoration is underway.

To find out more about The University of Alabama’s programs in studio art and art history, visit our Degree Programs page.