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One of Notre-Dame de Paris’ last kept secrets discovered during renovation

The medieval rood screen separating the nave from the choir was badly damaged, but there were significant remains that will allow archaeologists and art historians to understand its true design concept.

The public establishment in charge of the reconstruction consented to the continuation of the excavations after the discovery of precious sculpted elements.


Archaeological excavations in the nave of Notre-Dame de Paris have led to some surprising discoveries. The public establishment in charge of the restoration has presented to the press a mysterious lead sarcophagus from the end of the 14th century housing a body whose identity is still unknown. The discovery must now be examined in the laboratory and the site of the archaeologists, after a month and a half, was supposed to stop until further notice.


The National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) brought to light whole fragments of the lost rood screen of the cathedral under the pavement of the nave. This openwork and richly decorated architectural partition once separated the clergy, gathered in the choir, from the faithful, confined to the nave during services. For the layman, it is difficult to guess in the piles of stones from the excavation site, the remains of this structure which measured about ten meters wide.  To the delight of experts and lovers of Notre-Dame, on closer inspection sculpted details, faces, hands, fragments of bodies and draperies, architectural or plant decorations, appeared in the middle of the blocks.


When the archaeologists should have thought of packing up and closing the site, the frustration was palpable. Faced with this discovery soon to be buried. The Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, has shown her support and to demand a “fair balance” between the excavation time and the presidential promise to rebuild Notre-Dame for 2024. The indignation was so big that everyone ended up coming to their senses, including General Georgelin, who runs the public establishment. While the excavations of the cathedral were to stop on March 25, they have continued and will continue until next Friday.

The medieval rood screen of Notre-Dame de Paris, a partition which separated the choir from the nave over its entire width, was richly decorated as evidenced by the elements discovered under the nave by Inrap.


This is only a small extension, but it is symbolic of a compromise between archaeologists, anxious to continue their work, and the public establishment, which must meet its deadlines for restoration. Especially since these excavations are the exact place the huge scaffolding must be erected to raise the future spire of the cathedral.

The preventive excavations, in the nave, will continue after the identification of whole elements of the rood screen, which are hidden under the pavement.


Since precious sculpted elements of the rood screen have been found, a few more weeks were needed for the excavation. The divider was erected and sculpted in the radiant Gothic style of the last years of the first phase of building the cathedral. Pierced with a door in its center, it offered a rich iconographic program recounting the life of Christ and that of his ancestors. Three centuries later, in 1548 and 1550, the Huguenots sacked the sculptures. The medieval rood screen was then  covered and replaced by two other structures erected in the 17th century, before the rood screens permanently disappeared from the cathedral. Until now, there were few memories and even fewer traces of this central element of the medieval cathedral. Fragments had been discovered by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, four of which are kept in the Louvre, the most spectacular being a detail of hell where we see Adam and Eve cooking in a cauldron. 165 years later, new found pieces of this puzzle are reconstructing a part of the long history of the cathedral.



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