The treasury, a safeguard for precious objects

It goes without saying that these objects’ value is primarily linked to the rarity of the materials used to make them: gold, vermeil, and precious stones. Their value is also related to the talent of the artists and craftsmen who created them.

Over the centuries since it was built, Notre-Dame has received sumptuous donations from sovereigns and great men who hoped to demonstrate their attachment to the Church and their spirit of patronage. The value of these objects could also be connected to the historical circumstances surrounding them: some of them commemorate visits from Sovereign Pontiffs, like the chasuble worn by Jean-Paul II during the 1997 World Youth Days, or, on a more tragic note, objects used by the three archbishops of Paris who died violent deaths in the 19th century.

Until the Revolution, the Treasury was commonly considered to be a possible money reserve that could be used in times of crisis, such as epidemics, famines, and foreign and civil wars. Either upon the express request of the king or on his own volition, the chapter of Notre-Dame has always had the habit of melting down precious objects to make money. This was the fate of the vermeil reliquary of Saint Simeon and Saint Andrew, which had been a gift from Philippe-Auguste, the sapphire and pearl statuette of Saint Denis bearing the coat of arms of Isabeau de Bavière, which was sold around 1429, the golden bust of Saint Agnes decorated with a rich sapphire surrounded by eight precious gemstones and bearing a gold branch.

During the civil war between the Armagnacs and the Burgunds in the early 15th century, and again during the wars of religion, other items were sold off or melted down in 1562 and in 1577: the golden reliquary, covered in precious gemstones, for the head of Saint Philip, which was a gift from the Duke of Berry in 1414 and sent off to be melted down in 1562.

Again, in the mid-18th century, in December 1759, during the Seven Years’ War, Louis XV requested that ten silver chandeliers – four of which had been gifts from the last bishop of Paris Henri de Gondi in 1607 (Paris had become an archdiocese after his death) - six vermeil chandeliers which had been donated fifty years earlier by the Cardinal de Noailles, a large baptismal font, a lamp standard, a large 17th century chapel and a large silver lamp donated by Anne of Austria in 1636, be taken to the Mint to be melted down.

During the Revolution, after the Church’s property was nationalised on 2 November 1789, the revolutionaries ordered that objects not used in services and later objects used for services be confiscated and melted down, on 3 March 1791, and 10 September 1792 respectively. The Treasury disappeared completely and the objects dating prior to this period that are there today came in later. None of them are from Notre-Dame. After the Concordat, the Treasury was reconstituted, partially thanks to donations from Napoleon. During the Restoration, the crown and the clergy formed a close alliance, which would lead to considerable additions to the Treasury. Many objects would be lost in the 1830 and February 1831 riots. There have been no major disasters impacting the Treasury since that time, despite a few cases of theft. Since the 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State, the State has owned the objects housed in the Treasury before the inventory in that year.

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