Time Travel through the French Monuments Museum in Paris

I love when a museum makes learning fun. The French Monuments Museum (FMM, for brevity here) in Paris gives a presentation that is visually stunning, and presents enormous amounts of information to those who look deeply. The museum houses plaster casts taken from the sculpture and architectural details of selected buildings and monuments in France, ranging from small Romanesque churches to major public monuments. To enter the FMM is like walking through a chapter of a beautiful, modern, art-history encyclopedia: the life-sized casts (called "moulages" in French) are presented chronologically, so that you can witness the evolution of style, but you can also move back and forth among them to notice the recurrence of certain themes and compare their treatment by region. The style of the museum itself is striking: the moulages are mostly a rich cream color; the walls are white or deep red; light pours through ceiling-to-floor windows. The display is thoroughly modern; quite different from its subject matter.

In more ways than one, the gallery gives the viewer an opportunity to time travel. The plaster casts were taken over a period of 140 years beginning in the mid-19th century to conserve a record of sculptures recognized as endangered by wars, vandalism, and pollution. So, not only do the moulages give the viewer a chance to walk through time by going from the Romanesque facades at the exhibition's entrance to the 19th century examples at the other end of the building, they also allow one to see these monuments as they were in a time of earlier preservation.

My 2018 photos of Moissac Abbey's portal show sculptures terribly melted by acid rain. The moulages in the museum allowed me to see them in a better state, and thus I was able to decipher themes and images I couldn't make out on the current-day real thing. To visit the museum is to experience the art and architecture in circumstances quite at odds with the state of the pieces in situ. The casts are pristine, evenly-lit, and they dwell among many examples of their kind. If you were to see the originals in person (if they still exist), you would find them isolated in an urban or touristic setting, in deep shadow or glaring light, and generally deteriorated.

Here are two images of the entry to modern-day Moissac Abbey: As one enters the church, on either side one finds near-life-sized figures in bas-relief. They are badly-stained and eroded, but research had prepared me to decipher them. On one's left are representations of vice, and on one's right, representations of virtue.

Compare the left sides:

Moissac Abbey Portal, Avarice and Lust, 2018 (left side)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson
Monuments Museum, Moulage of Avarice and Lust Portal, circa 1880 (left side)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson

The deterioration in 2018 is such that the tableaux on the upper- and lower-left of the wall are very difficult to discern. Referring back to the 1880 moulage, it is easier to see that the upper-left image is of demons torturing the departed, greedy/wealthy soul on the right-side of the wall, and the below-left image is the same two sinners as on the right, being punished for their greed and lust.

Let’s look at the right sides of the Moissac Portal:

Moissac Abbey Portal, Generosity and Chastity, 2018 (right side)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson
Monuments Museum, Moulage of Generosity and Chastity Portal, circa 1880 (right side)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson

The staining is less of a problem for the right side in 2018, and given the very similar states of erosion, we can conclude that the damage to the faces on the lower figures (representing the Annunciation on the left, and the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary on the right) may be mostly a result of vandalism, or frequent touching, perhaps for good luck. The upper figures are a depiction of the three kings bearing gifts to infant Jesus and Mary, with the faces and animals in the manger holding much more detail in the moulage.

The faces and the small symbolic objects are much clearer in the 19th century cast. On the building today, a scholar could get a general idea of what was happening on each side (by knowing about Romanesque style and typical Christian art motifs), but the comparatively pristine cast shows without ambiguity that on the left is a depiction of Avarice (the demonic soul with a money-bag around his neck) and Lust (an emaciated woman with snakes biting her breasts and covering her genitals--a common image known as La Femme aux Serpents). On the right-side wall, there are contrasting tableaux depicting virtues --one of the Gifts of the Magi (an act of generosity and modesty in obeisance to the new king), and the two lower tableaux show women submitting their sexuality to a chaste, noble purpose.

In the museum, one can pass through this plaster portal, and have an experience closer to that of medieval Christians, because the narrative is more clear: every parishioner must choose between evil and good, and entering into the church provides a chance to avoid one and hew more closely to the other. Because of the dirt and erosion in today's state of the actual abbey, it is easy to pass by the portal figures and shrug, because it's so difficult to decipher them.

One can learn and enjoy looking at similar depictions from different regions of France. The representation of Original Sin in L'Eglise Sainte Madeleine is over 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the one in Notre Dame du Port; and it is from different workshops, with different approaches to depicting nudity, and different levels of detail in carving both the snake and the fruit of the tree.

Eglise Sainte Madeleine, Neuilly-en-Donjon, early 12th century, copy made 1955
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson
Notre Dame Le Port, Clermont Ferrand, late 12th century, copy made 1881
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson

By moving only a few meters in the museum a viewer can begin to think about regional (or temporal) styles, workshops, politics, or other local enthusiasms that might be on display.

Consider these two very different versions of the Temptation of Christ, from Autun and Plaimpied-Givaudins.

Capital with Temptation of Christ, late 11th century, Plaimpied-Givaudins.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson
Same Capital Side View, Plaimpied-Givaudins, rough demon
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson
Same Capital Side View, Plaimpied-Givaudins, smooth demon
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson
Capital with Temptation of Christ, early 12th century, Autun
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson

These capitals are in churches a bit more than 100 miles (168 km) apart, perhaps 30-50 years apart in creation, and both are labeled as Romanesque. They are vastly different in style and execution, however. Each is robust in the emotional character of its demons, but the demon in the Autun capital gives a primal scream, while the demons in the Plaimpied-Givaudins capital, though earlier, seem more seductive and slick. This comparison suggests that while workshops may have had to concentrate on a set of stock themes, there was considerable leeway in technique and approach.

That said, I'm glad to be able to see the "original" pieces on display removed from their former context on the building. They benefit from a setting where they can be regarded as individual works, in a context where comparisons are easy to make.

The moulages shown below depict several mourning figures (pleurants) who formed a symbolic procession on the tomb of Philip the Bold. However, each figure is individual and distinctive when viewed standing alone.

Pleurants from the Tomb of Philip the Bold, early 15th century
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson
Individual pleurants
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carolyn Whitson

I have made my pilgrimages to many of the buildings represented in the museum, both to take photos for my courses, and to get the kind of feel for the objects that one can't get from a book. It's been a joy, but it's also been expensive and time-consuming. Most people, even if they're avid about the topic, can't do this. The FMM is a great opportunity for those who have a passion for architecture, but only one trip in which to see some of the sites. In one building, one can see plaster replicas of dozens of France's most impressive church facades, to scale, but also with the ability to get closer to them, and to see them in better, cleaner forms than the originals are when seen in situ.

The French Monuments Museum is in a larger structure, named La Cite de L'Architecture et Patrimoine, which houses replicas of medieval frescoes and stained glass. It also includes a Museum of Modern and Contemporary Architecture, and a research library.

*    *    *

Carolyn Whitson

Carolyn Whitson is Professor Emerita at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She writes a blog called, " www.pilgrimtothepast.com ", using her own photography. She is currently working on a book about medieval apocalyptic art.