Notre Dame in Color: Unveiling Cathedral’s History in Hues

A woman and a man, both University of Alabama researchers, look at a sculpture of a head from Notre Dame in Paris inside a workroom.
From left, Dr. Jennifer Feltman, associate professor of medieval art and architecture, and Dr. Alexandre Tokovinine, associate professor of anthropology, documenting sculptures from Notre Dame at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University. Photo by J. Caldwell, Nasher Museum.

A project led by The University of Alabama to tell the stories of the changing colors in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris through its history received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The nearly $250,000 NEH Collaborative Research grant will support new collaborations with American and French colleagues on the changing aesthetics and meanings of color at the cathedral. The work draws upon scholars and researchers from different disciplines at UA and in France.

The project is playing a role in the preservation of the Gothic cathedral after suffering a devastating fire in April 2019.

“The project to analyze, document and interpret the changing colors of the sculpture of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris over the centuries is massive – as massive as a Gothic cathedral,” said Dr. Jennifer Feltman, associate professor of medieval art and architecture, who leads effort. “It takes expertise from multiple disciplines to solve complex problems.”

The funding boosts the Notre Dame in Color project initiated by FACE Foundation Transatlantic Research Partnership between UA and Sorbonne Université and supported through the UA Collaborative Arts Research Initiative. The NEH grant scales up the team’s work by funding digital artistry, additional fieldwork, archival research, digital modeling and writing about cultural heritage for public audiences.

A team of researchers uses cameras and other imaging equipment to investigate sculptures in a museum.
From left, Feltman, Jeremiah Stager, Tokovinine and Dr. Gregory Chaumet of Sorbonne Université documenting sculptures from Notre Dame at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Photo by Gabby Chitwood, University of Oregon.

The Notre Dame in Color project sprang from Feltman’s involvement with the cathedral’s restoration. As an art historian, she had studied Notre Dame and other culturally significant cathedrals, and her expertise was called upon to ensure restoration maintained the historical integrity of Notre Dame. She was invited to join the Chantier scientifique de Notre Dame, or the Notre-Dame of Paris Science Project, as part of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, for hands-on research in the cathedral that contributes to the restoration efforts.

The focus of the work is on sculptures in the cathedral once painted in vibrant colors. Traces of remaining colors reveal paints were applied in layers, perhaps over centuries. Since the chemical composition of paints were consistent from antiquity until the 18th century, it has been difficult for researchers to determine the dates of the layers and establish the original or subsequent colors of the sculptures. Some upper layers suggest repainting, while others seem related to methods for preparing the stone surface and modeling the sculptures using areas of highlight and shadow.

Using 3-D digital technologies to document and analyze the layers of paint on the sculptures of the Last Judgment portal of the cathedral, the research team is developing 3-D models of the sculptures to document and preserve existing evidence while also making new analyses.

“Digital modeling helps us complete an architectural jigsaw puzzle by virtually positioning the fragments in relation to a digital twin of the monument,” Feltman said.

UA researchers on the project include Dr. Alexandre Tokovinine, associate professor of anthropology and Jeremiah Stager, senior cultural resources assistant in the UA Office of Archaeological Research, and Dr. Jennifer Roth-Burnette musicologist and on staff with the Capstone Center for Student Success.

The story of the changing colors in Notre Dame and what they reveal about the culture, economy and religious life will be made publicly available through websites, publications and presentations.