The Paris Heritage Strolls
The Mosaics Stroll
A Parisian Renaissance 1867-1945
After centuries of blazing success in Roman and Byzantine art, mosaics fell out of favour during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, especially in France, where the art form lost the contest to stained-glass windows. However, in the second half of the 19th century, archaeological digs and the first restoration projects made the mosaic fashionable again.
This revival was mostly due to Italian artists such as Facchina, Salviati, Odorico and Mazzioli, hired from 1867 to 1875 to complete Garnier’s splendid Paris opera house. Their work inspired French decorators like Guilbert-Martin and the Mauméjean brothers, who specialized in both stained-glass and mosaics in the inter-war period.
The Universal Expositions, for which buildings like the Palais du Trocadéro (1878), the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais (1900) were raised, also showcased the work of mosaicists.
The popularity of mosaics soared in the period 1870-1900. They could be found in every Parisian edifice, and even on the streets, thanks to Art Nouveau. During the Art Deco period in the 1920s and 1930s, with the renewal in religious art and interest in ancient crafts, the mosaic was in its heyday. After World War II, despite a few experiments with urban mosaics, enthusiasm for the technique waned.
The Mosaics at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Butte-aux-Cailles
186, rue de Tolbiac, 13th arrondissement - Charles Mauméjean 1937-1941
A stroll through the charming Butte-aux-Cailles area is always a treat, and this one holds the added thrill of an art-treasure hunt.. The neighbourhood church, Sainte-Anne-de-la-Butte-aux-Cailles, is your goal. Although completed in 1912, the church’s interior decoration was delayed until 1937-1941.
The stained-glass windows and mosaics depicting scenes from the lives of the Virgin and Saint Anne, by Charles Mauméjean, reflect the church’s Romanesque and Byzantine revival style. The business founded in the city of Pau in 1860 by Jules-Pierre Mauméjean prospered in the inter-war period because it could produce original, high-quality décors rapidly and at low cost. Of the three brothers, Charles, Joseph and Henri, who inherited the firm, Charles was the most active in Paris. He was an architect by training, and had an eye for new artistic trends. He was in charge of decorating the interiors of Saint-Dominique (1921), Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus chapel (1927), Saint-Pierre-de-Chaillot (1935-1938) and the columbarium chapel in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery (1952).
Mosaics are everywhere (walls, tabernacles, altars, communion tables, floors), incorporating elements ranging in size from tiny glass tesserae to huge moulded glass cabochons.
In the chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart, behind the entombed Christ in relief on the front of the altar, you will see a niche graced by winged angels presenting the face of Jesus and the crown of thorns. To the sides, two large mosaics depict Christ with children and Christ with labourers (left and right respectively). The archaic flavour of the technique is counterbalanced by the spirited drawing style featuring everyday objects from modern life, including tools and factory smokestacks.
The man who got the ball rolling for the construction of Saint-Jean-Bosco church was Father Siméoni. Designed by Rotter, it was built between 1933 and 1937 and remains one of the flagships of the Chantiers du Cardinal, a church construction programme. Despite limited and entirely private funding, a surprisingly large portion of the budget was allocated for stained-glass windows, mosaics and frescoes, most created by Charles Mauméjean.
The work embeds one technique into another – frescoes with gilded mosaic highlights, glass cabochons, crystal mosaics beside reshaped and moulded glass, textured glass, opaline and glass tesserae. These tesserae glitter everywhere: walls, floors, pillars, ceilings, tabernacles, altars, baptistery, pulpit, the relief of the Crucifixion, stations of the cross, etc. The iconographic programme around the dedication to Saint Jean Bosco and the special invocation to the Virgin alternates between original pieces and pre-existing models.
On the large mosaic panel created in 1943 in the left branch of the transept, the rare iconography explained on the banderole informs us of worship to “Mary Help of Christians”. The title of “helper” (auxiliatrice in French) goes back in history to the battles of Lepanto (1571) and Vienna (1683), against the Turks. The tesserae show remarkable diversity in size and colour. Lines are dynamic. The composition is rich and animated. There is a juxtaposition of illusionistic surfaces with others that are more synthetic.
The relative obscurity inside Sacré-Coeur is offset by the brilliance of its saturated decor, where mosaic work reigns supreme on the walls (semi-dome, cupola, murals), and the liturgical furnishings (consecration cross, stations of the cross, holy water fonts, altar, etc.). The architect deliberately chose mosaics over frescoes (more common at that time) for the ability of the mosaic to resist dampness, a real asset in dank churches. Besides that, mosaics heightened architect Paul Abadie’s Romanesque-Byzantine style with clear echoes of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, and Saint Mark’s in Venice. As the Sacré-Coeur was to be a monument to French art, Italian mosaic artists were avoided and the Guilbert-Martin firm was hired to execute the vast majority of the enamel and gilded mosaics.
Four artists participated in creating the mosaics in the semi-dome over the choir. In 1911, Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920), the renowned Christian artist, was the supervisor;. Lucien Magne, the assistant. After Magne's death in 1916, and Merson’s in 1920, Henri-Marcel Magne and Marcel Imbs, two of Merson’s students, took over.
The décor wasn’t unveiled until November 1923. The impressive task required a myriad of sketches and preparatory drawings, which were then reproduced and enlarged before being handed to the mosaicists. In just three months, his five-man team accomplished the incredible technical feat of covering a surface of 473 square meters (over 5,000 sq. ft.) with 25,000 tesserae weighing 68 tonnes. Christ’s head alone measures two meters in height.
The mosaic work offers a symbolic summary of sacred heart worship. In the centre, a monumental Christ shows his heart and extends his protective arms to the Christian world. Around him and at his feet, the Virgin Mary, Saint Michael, Pope Leon XIII, and Joan of Arc present him with the main proponents of this devotion, from the first Christian martyrs up to Legentil and Rohaut de Fleury who ordered the basilica’s construction.
Medieval reminiscences explain the red lines festooning the composition, the blue background enhancing the bright colours, the height of the characters varying with hierarchic importance, and the incorporation of unusual architectural materials.
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The Madeleine’s mosaic in its semi-dome wasn’t part of the initial decorative scheme. It dates from 1888-1893, a half century after the church was completed. Father Le Rebours, the church’s priest, wanted to make a geometric marble space warmer. Despite fears that a Byzantine touch wouldn’t be appropriate in the neo-classical Greek architecture and that the colours might distract worshippers, the Paris architectural commission gave the plan a green light. Funding came from the tile manufacturer, the priest, and the parishioners.
The mosaic completes Jules Ziegler’s Histoire du Christianisme Illustrée, seen overhead. Spanning 120 square meters (1292 sq. ft.), it depicts the origins of the Christian faith in Gaul. The resurrected Christ in the centre is surrounded by the main saints (the disciples) and those who spread the religion throughout France. Some portraits are easy enough to recognize: Charles Garnier as Saint Ursin, M. Alphand as Saint Georges, the artist himself as Saint Front. These faces stand out on a golden background in a symbolic space dotted with palm trees. One finds a similar march of saints against a gold background in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and closer by, in Paris, at the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul church, with a frieze painted by Hippolyte Flandrin. Charles Joseph Lemeire executed the sketch. Auguste Guilbert-Martin directed the transfer to mosaic work. Guilbert-Martin, a chemist by training, opened his mosaic workshop in 1879 and decorated the Lycée Montaigne as well as the Lycée Fénelon, the Panthéon, and the Palais-Royal theatre. The tesserae were fired at the Manufacture de Sèvres, which put its best workers on the project and set up a workshop in the Gobelins neighbourhood.
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For the Petit Palais, an attraction of the 1900 Universal Exposition, Girault was aiming for a palatial effect within the sober confines of a public building. The mosaic, one of the luxury elements, is both decorative and resistant. Its geometric and leaf patterns scroll across the floor of the galleries, pavilions, entrance and peristyle. Pretty golden water lilies a blue background border the pools in the indoor garden.
These mosaics were the work of Gian Domenico Facchina (1826-1903), a native of Italy’s northeastern Friuli region. Facchina was trained to restore the mosaics in St. Mark's in Venice. He later worked in Saint-Martin-d’Ainay in Lyon. His new technique, involving placing the tesserae on backing paper then transporting the composition on site to be set directly in wet cement, garnered him success at the 1855 Universal Exposition and again in 1876 during the construction of Charles Garnier’s opera house. Given the advantages of Facchina’s method (rapid application, low cost, and high quality), his mosaic work spread around France and even abroad. Facchina’s work in Paris was colossal and ranged from museums (Galliera, Grévin, Carnavalet) to department stores (Le Printemps, Le Bon Marché), from shopping arcades (Galerie Vivienne) to banks (Comptoir National d’Escompte), from schools (Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Collège Chaptal) to theatres (Théâtre Antoine).
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Architect Charles Girault, art director of the 1900 Universal Exposition, laid out a triumphant road running from the Invalides to the Champs-Élysées One of the sensational new buildings was the Grand Palais, designed by Henri Deglane, Albert Louvet, and Albert Thomas. Beneath the peristyle of the façade were two enamel and gold friezes spanning 75 meters (246 ft.). Mosaic was chosen for its durability, its colours, and its luxuriousness. The technique also gained favour with Girault, who in 1880, during his year as a Prix de Rome, had had ample time to develop a passion for the mosaics of antiquity. For the Institut Pasteur, he built a marble and mosaic-covered crypt inspired by the Galla Placidia mausoleum in Ravenna.
Louis-Édouard Fournier’s sketch for the mosaic was carried out by Guilber-Martin. It features the world’s great civilizations as imagined at the turn of the century. Thus, Egypt succeeds Mesopotamia, Augustus’ Rome succeeds Pericles’ Greece, the Italian and French Renaissance succeed the Middle Ages, industrious Europe succeeds classical and baroque Europe. More distant civilizations’ role seems to be reduced to glorifying colonial France whether the outposts be in the Mediterranean or sub-Saharan Africa, India, Indochina, China, Japan, North or South America.
Gian Domenico Facchina
Charles Joseph Lameire et Auguste Guilbert-Martin
Background Information on the Mosaics Strolls :
Glass is a common denominator between the arts of mosaics and stained-glass windows. Both techniques involve tessellation of coloured pieces. Both require collaboration between the paper artist and the materials artist.
With mosaics, materials can be applied to a great variety of surfaces: pavements, walls, furniture, in civil or religious contexts. Both arts’ charms are many and paradoxical. The materials never fade or degrade. Their colours remain vibrant and central to the essence of polychrome architecture. They combine durability and ruggedness with luxury, hygiene and splendour.
The mosaic medium is appropriate for suggesting archaic sources. It is also a way to make a piece fit into an architectural style. whether Romanesque, paleo-Christian or Byzantine motifs may alternate with original, modern designs.