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  • Reconstructing Medieval Pictorial Narrative: Louis Joubert's Tapestry Restoration ProjectAuthor(s): Laura WeigertSource: Art Journal, Vol. 54, No. 2, Conservation and Art History (Summer, 1995), pp. 67-72Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 13:33

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  • Re constructing Medieval Pictorial Narrative Louis Joubert's Tapestry Restoration Project

    Laura fleigrert

    I did not know what the tapestries which ornamented the

    chapel of Our Lady meant and asked in vain for an

    explanation.-Louis Joubert'

    estoring tapestries was part of a broad movement from the mid to the end of the nineteenth century that was intended to retrieve and to renew the heri-

    tage of the French medieval past. Large-scale restorations of

    churches, of which those led by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc are the most well known, codified medieval architecture and isolated these monuments from their surrounding commu- nities.2 Authoritative editions of medieval texts were pub- lished that effaced variations between individual manu-

    scripts.3 In many cases projects reconstructed their objects of study by denying the diversity that existed in the time of their making and that occurred over the history of their use, and by imposing an organization and meaning that was often inconsistent with their significance and function in the Mid- dle Ages.

    A central figure in the nineteenth-century restoration of medieval tapestries was Louis Joubert, canon of the cathe- dral of Angers and custodian of the objects in its treasury.4 Most famous for his work on the Angers Apocalypse, Joubert was responsible for numerous restorations of medieval reli-

    gious tapestries during the second half of the nineteenth

    century.5 In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries these large- scale narrative cycles spanned the choirs and naves of churches during the celebration of feast days. By the time

    Joubert received the tapestries, what had been continuous scrolls of fabric were separated into individual fragments. A

    major part of his project, therefore, consisted of arranging and then joining these pieces together.

    This article focuses on one example of Joubert's work, that is, his direction of the restoration in 1857-60 of the Life of Gervasius and Protasius from the cathedral of Le Mans.

    Existing literature on the tapestry fails to mention this crucial event in its history.6 Drawing on two kinds of evidence-

    Joubert's notes and the tapestry itself-I demonstrate that he

    interpreted this work by imposing his particular preconcep- tions about pictorial narrative on the reordering of the panels of the tapestry. In this process Joubert excluded the possi- bility of alternate narratives, producing his own version of the woven vita. It is this version of the Life of Gervasius and Protasius that is currently displayed in the choir of Le Mans cathedral. In Joubert's time, however, his reconstruction of the Life of Gervasius and Protasius and his method of restora- tion were contested.

    Without any formal training in textile production or conservation or a background in the history of medieval

    tapestry, Joubert's technique of restoration was defined

    through his working process. In 1849 he began a campaign to repair and clean the Angers Apocalypse, for which he received funds from the cathedral chapter and the Monu- ments Historiques. He set up a workshop in Angers; hired

    Josephine Bazantay and Addle Logerais, both from Angers; and supplied them with scissors, needles, and thread.7 He noted in his records, "February 1, 1849, date of the day on which the restoration began."8

    In 1856 Louis Albin, canon of Le Mans and custodian of its cathedral, contacted Joubert about another project concerning the Life of Gervasius and Protasius.9 Donated to the cathedral in 1509, the tapestry depicts major events from the lives of the twin saints: their baptism, a miracle they perform, their confrontation with Nero, their martyrdom, and the veneration of their relics, as well as the martyrdom of their

    parents, Vital and Valery. This woven vita (measuring ap- proximately 5 feet high and 104 feet wide) was displayed in the choir on certain high feast days until the eighteenth century when the canons of Le Mans placed it in an apse chapel, dedicated to the Virgin.Io At an undocumented point in its history, the tapestry was divided into five large sec-

    tions, each of which contained, in some cases, several

    fragments. Joubert was already familiar with the tapestry from his

    childhood in Le Mans. As the quotation with which I began



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  • PI


  • FIG. 3 Life of Gervasius and Protasius (detail corresponding to nos. 12 and 13 in Appendix), 1509, tapestry. Saint-Julien, Le Mans.

    A second narrative assumption that guided Joubert's initial examination of the Life of Gervasius and Protasius was

    that the story must unfold in a chronological order, beginning at the first square and ending at the last. The numerical

    ordering of the individual squares imposed a strict chrono-

    logical development on the events depicted in the tapestry. This reading rejects an order based on symbolic or typologi- cal relationships between episodes not directly next to each other and precludes the possibility of a reversal of chronology in the visual presentation of events.'13

    The next stage in the restoration project was to rear-

    range the numbered squares that he had abstracted from the

    tapestry (see Appendix). He decided to cut in two places. First, he proposed separating the first square, which de-

    picted the torture of a saint and whose incomplete titulus made more precise identification impossible, from the sec- ond square and then reattaching it to square fifteen (fig. 2). 14

    Second, he proposed moving square nine, the saints' meeting with the provost of Milan, which was placed after Gervasius and Protasius's first confrontation with Nero, to just before the

    torture of the saint (fig. 3).

    Although Joubert did not explain his rationale for reor-

    dering the tapestry, a letter updating the bishop of Angers on the progress of the restoration of the Apocalypse tapestry might explain his approach to reworking the Life ofGervasius and Protasius:

    I numbered each panel before touching them in order to [be able to] replace the sacred subjects in the same order, as long as that order does not injure at any point the rules of the art or of

    chronology . . . as it is obvious that the true order has been

    inverted, I wish to adopt another. I am authorized to do so by the text of the Apocalypse itself.5is

    The guiding model for retrieving the "true," or original, order of his tapestries was a chronology that in turn corresponded with the organization of one specific text. Although Joubert was able to cite a text that justified his ordering of the

    segments of the Apocalypse tapestry, this was not the case for the Life ofGervasius and Protasius. All the events depicted in the tapestry are not included in any single text source. The

    tapestry combines numerous manuscript vitae of the twin saints to produce a unique version of their lives.16 He could have relied on the account in Jacques de Voragine's Golden

    Legend to identify and order some of the events, but not all. The saints' interaction with Nero and imprisonment, which is not included in The Golden Legend, spans six of the eighteen episodes in the woven version. It was therefore impossible for

    Joubert to compare the tapestry with this one written version of the saints' lives.

    How then did Joubert recover the "true" version of the

    Life of Gervasius and Protasius? According to the notes, his

    reordering of the tapestry was designed to organize individ- ual episodes in accordance with The Golden Legend and to fill in lacunae in the tituli. To justify his first change Joubert identified the saint tortured in the first panel as Gervasius.

    Following the story in The Golden Legend, this panel could no

    longer precede Vital's death, which was at the beginning of the narrative, but had to be placed before the martyrdom of Protasius and the burial of the two saints.17 Joubert's second



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  • FIG. 4 Life of Gervasius and Protasius (d