Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
Vitrine du voile de la Vierge
Image © DRAC CVL – F. Lauginie
Chartres is home to one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France. A centre for pilgrimage since the Middle Ages and a World Heritage Site since 1979, it is celebrated as a stunning example of French Gothic art. And now the Cathedral’s most precious relic – the silk Veil of the Virgin Mary – is safely displayed in a sophisticated new treasure chest made by Goppion, as part of a project by designer and scenographer Hubert Le Gall.
According to tradition, the veil (called Sancta Camisia because it was mistakenly interpreted as a tunic or shirt), was worn by Mary during the Annunciation or the Nativity. Believed to have been presented as a gift to Charlemagne by the Empress Irene of Byzantium, it was later donated to the Cathedral by his grandson, King Charles the Bald, in 876 AD.
The veil has had a charmed existence. Miraculously it escaped a fire that devastated the Cathedral in 1194. When the building was stripped during the French Revolution, the veil was cut into several portions, and then sold. Surviving pieces were later returned to the Cathedral, which again narrowly avoided destruction during the Second World War.
The present reliquary was created by the goldsmith Poussielgue-Rusand in 1876 to celebrate the millennial anniversary of King Charles’ gift. But until now, the veil was still vulnerable to environmental degradation and, above all, to humidity.
To combat this, a new airtight showcase was created: the result of two-and-a-half years of collaboration between the Conservation Régionale des Monuments Historiques of the DRAC Centre-Val de Loire, the Laboratoire de Recherche des Monuments Historiques and other research laboratories.
The new showcase is made of brass-plated stainless steel, to combine aesthetic and functional requirements. Before polishing, the brass has been hand-brushed to give it the appearance as close as possible to that of the reliquary it contains. The creators have combined the gilding of the display case with the unique blue of Chartres, two colors that complement each other perfectly and are not unlike the famous stained glass windows that watch over the relic.
But, in addition to artistic attention to detail, the showcase was designed with a practical focus on the conservation of its delicate content. This was vital to halt the deterioration caused by the veil’s corroded old display case. An electrolytic membrane system, which directly transfers the data collected to a computer, ensures climate control and humidity regulation.
An integrated sliding drawer in the display case allows the reliquary to be easily extracted without direct handling. This is crucial for ceremonies such as the annual procession on 15 August, the occasion of the Feast dedicated to the Virgin.
It deserves, finally, to remember the effort employed for the transport, lifting and placing of the monumental showcase. This was a challenge met using technical means expressly conceived for transporting and mounting objects in small spaces. Now the Cathedral’s most precious relic is safe again, its mystique still preserved more than a thousand years since it arrived at Chartres.