Plaster cast of capital from Notre-Dame
- Place of origin:
12th century (made)
probably between 1855 and 1877 (cast)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
The Victoria and Albert Museum has several plaster casts from the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Sixteen of them are capitals or fragments of capitals. They come from the former collection of the Royal Architectural Museum which purchased them in the middle of the 19th century to illustrate the achievements of naturalistic ornamental sculpture in France during the 13th century. They illustrate one of the aesthetic innovations introduced on the site: the progressive rejection of conventional foliage for the adoption of naturalistic forms. To George Gilbert Scott, the degree of refinement and perfection attained during the 13th century in gothic buildings has never been surpassed. He purchased the casts of the capitals of Notre-Dame recommending strongly their study which would 'give copiousness to the ideas of the student, and aid him in the use of his great guide - Nature herself.' (See the 1877 catalogue of the Royal Architectural Museum, p.13).
Capital carved with foliage. Rectangular abacus.
Place of Origin
12th century (made)
probably between 1855 and 1877 (cast)
Materials and Techniques
Height: 36 cm approximately, Width: 27 cm approximately, Weight: 6.7 kg
Object history note
The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is 'one of the most visible and influential building in twelfth- and thirteenth century France'. (C.Bruzelius, 1987, p.541). The numerous structural advances and aesthetic modifications made to the building during the course of the Middle ages give it a leading role in the history of gothic art. Paris, the political and economic capital of the kings of France, was, at that time, one of the major artistic and intellectual centres of Europe. It explains doubtless why the bishop Maurice de Sully, who commissioned the rebuilding of the cathedral in 1163, paid so many attention to the quality and luxury of the new church. The hypothetical patronage of the royal family has also been suggested. (D.Kimpel & R.Suckale, 1985, p.149). In spite of the scale and complexity of the new cathedral, its construction proceeded with great rapidity suggesting that important funds and numerous masons and sculptors were mobilized around the project. In 1250, the building was complete.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has several plaster casts from the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris 16 of them are capitals or fragments of capitals. They illustrate one of the aesthetic innovations introduced on the site: the progressive rejection of conventional foliage for the adoption of naturalistic forms. To Denise Jalabert, the capitals of Notre-Dame are the most beautiful and important witness to the blooming of the gothic foliage. (D.Jalabert, 1391, p.283)
In the earliest parts of the cathedral, the choir, the memory of Romanesque capitals derived from Corinthian ones is still discernible. The foliage is conventional and consists mainly of a few constantly repeated elements derived form nature but deeply stylized. The leaves are simple and round, their tops curl to form a scroll, but their arrangement around the capitals is infinitely varied. A few decades later, in the nave, the feeling is totally different. There are no longer acanthus leaves or abstract forms, and the foliage becomes more and more naturalistic conveying the impression that carvers now depict what they could see and observe around them.
In the Middle Ages, the cathedral deeply impressed its contemporaries. Robert de Torigni, the abbot of the Mont Saint-Michel, stated in 1177 that the cathedral overcame all others. This judgment was still relevant in the 19th century. To George Gilbert Scott, the degree of refinement and perfection attained during the 13th century in gothic buildings has never been surpassed. He purchased the casts of the capitals of Notre-Dame recommending strongly their study which would 'give copiousness to the ideas of the student, and aid him in the use of his great guide - Nature herself.' (See the catalogue of 1877 of the Royal Architectural Museum, p.13).
Historical context note
The Royal Architectural Museum was established in 1851, and initially known as the Architectural museum. It was founded thanks to the initiative of a group of architectural professionals, including George Godwin (1815-1888) and Charles Barry (1795-1860), later to be joined by such notable figures as John Ruskin (1819-1900), J.B. Beresford-Hope (1820-1870), or William Burges (1827-1881). (E.Bottom, 2007). George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), the main instigator and principal leader of the project until his death in 1878, wanted to create a collection of British antiquities and architectural ornaments, which could form a repertoire of three-dimensional models accessible to architects, students, sculptors, carvers and decorators alike, in order to improve the quality of neo-gothic architecture. In his mind, 'to those among us who are engaged in reviving this our native style of architecture, or rather of founding upon it as a basis of a style of our own, such a collection (was) not only Important but absolutely necessary'. (Letter from Scott, published in The Builder, February, 1851).
The collection, mostly of medieval elements, developed itself rapidly, thanks to, among others, the numerous donations of architects and artists involved in the restoration of medieval monuments. Only a few years after its creation, it already numbered 6.500 items, mainly plaster casts taken from medieval churches and buildings, but also stone sculpture, pavement tiles, impressions of seals, brass rubbings, fragments of stained glass, drawings and photographs. (see the catalogue of 1855 of the Architectural Museum)
In the first catalogue published in 1855, amidst the 3.500 casts, almost 150 were listed as French casts, a number which had increased to 250 in the 1877 catalogue. The foliage capitals, ornaments and sculptures came mainly from the Sainte-Chapelle and the cathedrals of Notre-Dame in Paris, Chartres and Amiens, and were selected to illustrate the apogee of French gothic art and to highlight, by comparison, the proper achievement of British gothic art. Most of them seem to have been taken for the Architectural Museum between 1855 and 1856 by M.Malzieux, a French cast maker, known to have been the cast maker for the museum of medieval art in Paris, the musée de Cluny, under the direction of M. Alfred Gerente, a glass painter and antiquarian, who had been appointed as the French correspondent of the Architectural Museum in France in 1855. (see in the Archives of the Architectural Association in London, the Minute Books of the meetings of the Architectural Museum : May 7th 1855 and May 5th, June 2d, June 23th, August 4th 1856). In addition to these casts, the Architectural Museum also received before 1855 a collection of casts from the glass painter Thomas Willement from the cathedral of Chartres and John Ruskin donated his personal collection of French casts including important casts from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris (see the catalogue of 1855 of the Architectural Museum, p.36 and Cook and Wedderburn, 1903-1912 vol. XXVIII, Fors Clavigera IV-VI, letter 41). At the end of the 1860s, the South Kensington Museum loaned 500 casts from the stalls of Amiens cathedral (see the Register of Reproductions of the South Kensington Museum, Vol.I, 1862 to 1867 and the catalogue of 1877 of the Royal Architectural Museum).
In 1879, in his report on the creation of a museum of casts in Paris (later Musée de Sculpture comparée), the French architect, Viollet-le-Duc mentioned the English campaign of casting in France in 1855. He reported that the authorization had been granted by the Commission des Monuments historiques in exchange for duplicates of the casts. A sum of 4000£ was designated for the project. (E.Viollet-le-Duc, Musée de la Sculpture comparée appartenant aux divers centres d'art et aux diverses époques, Paris, 1879, p.1-2).
Between 1857 and the end of the 1860s, the Architectural Museum moved to the South Kensington Museum, before the re-opening of the collection in a new building 18-20, Bowling Street, Westminster in 1869. The following year, a school of Architectural Art was opened within the museum. (E.Bottoms, 2007) In the early 20th century, the pedagogical focus of the teachers changed from Gothic to classicising and the collections were deemed to be no longer of use for students. The casts were donated to the V&A in 1916.
Capital carved with foliage and a rectangular abacus from the cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris. 19th-century plaster cast after 12th-century gothic original.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Catalogue of the Architectural Museum. London, 1855.
Catalogue of collection, 1877 : with a guide to the Royal Architectural Museum by G. Gilbert Scott. London: J. Masters and Co., 1876-1877, 2v.
Jalabert, D. 'La première flore gothique à Notre-Dame de Paris'. Gazette des Beaux-Arts, May 1931, p.283-304.
Kimpel, D. & Suckale, R. Gotische Architektur In Frankreich, 1130-1270, Munich, 1985.
Bruzelius, C. 'The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris', The Art Bulletin, Vol. 69, No 4, Dec. 1987, p.540-569.
James, J. The Ark of God. Hartley Vale, Australia: West Grinstead Publishing, 2002, 2v.
Bottoms, E. 'The royal architectural Museum in the light of new documentary evidence'. Journal of History of Collection, 19:1, 2007.
Flour, I. ‘On the Formation of a National Museum of Architecture: the Architectural Museum versus the South Kensington Museum’, Architectural History, vol.51, 2008, p.211-38.
19th-century plaster cast after 12th-century original