Les Grands Mays

The Mays of Notre-Dame de Paris are large paintings accompanied by poems in honour of the Virgin. They were commissioned almost every year from 1630 to 1707 by the Parisian Goldsmiths’ guild. They were offered the following spring of each year, on 1 May, to their cathedral in honour of the Virgin Mary.



On 1 May 1449, the Parisian Goldsmiths instated the May Offertory to Notre-Dame de Paris. This tradition took on various forms over the
centuries. Early on, it was a leafy tree decorated with banners and
ribbons planted solemnly in front of the cathedral’s high alter as a sign of Marian devotion. In 1499, the Goldsmiths began donating an architectural machine in the shape of a tabernacle to which sonnets and poems were attached before hanging the gift from the vault. In 1533, the tabernacles were decorated with scenes from the Old Testament , starting with the Creation , and a series of small mays was found. The most commonly depicted subject was the life of the Virgin . Finally, in 1630, following an agreement with the Cathedral Chapter, the small mays were replaced by large canvases commemorating one of the Acts of the Apostles. So began the goldsmiths’ annual tradition of offering a nearly 3-metre tall painting, in a decisive gesture of artistic creation. The first grand May measured 3.40 metres by 2.75 metres.

The themes were taken from Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, which focus on the missionary activity of Christ’s first disciples. The subjects were chosen in close cooperation with the Cathedral’s canons, who always approved the painters’ sketches. The artists chosen for this prestigious endeavour were all members or friends of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which was founded in 1648. These painters were driven by a competitive spirit, and these commissions quickly became a means of judging large-scale holy painting. Les Grands Mays , which were initially exhibited in front of the Cathedral, were permanently hung in the arcades in the nave, choir, counter-braces and deambulatory, and in the chapels, so they could be seen by a large audience and accompanied by written commentary. These paintings served as an irreplaceable representation of the artists’ skills and abilities. Collectors tried to get copies of them, or modelli. Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne had his portrait painted in this way, holding a preliminary drawing for Saint Paul Stoned in Lystra.

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Vue de la nef au XVIIIème siècle.

On remarquera les grands Mays accrochés aux chapiteaux des piliers de la nef ainsi que, au premier plan, l’une de ces "machines d’architecture en forme de tabernacle" pendue à la voûte.
XVIIIème siècle. Musée Notre-Dame de Paris. © NDP

Seventy-six of these paintings remained when the Brotherhood was dissolved in 1708 [1]. In the early 18th century, due to financial difficulties in the Goldsmiths’ Guild and reforms undertaken by Colbert, this activity came to an end. The Chapter canons made it well known that the public was scandalised that this pious duty would no longer be fulfilled. Les Grands Mays, like other ecclesiastical property, were seized in 1793 [2] and taken to the Musée des Petits-Augustins and the Louvre. They were partially returned to Notre-Dame after the Concordat that followed the turbulent Revolution, but the decoration was deemed too cumbersome for the 19th century restoration, and the paintings were separated. Today, around fifty of these paintings still remain, but only thirteen are on public display at Notre-Dame in the chapels of the nave:

- The Descent of the Holy Spirit by Jacques Blanchard – 1634
- Saint Peter curing the sick with his shade by Laurent de la Hyre – 1635
- The Conversion of Saint Paul by Laurent de la Hyre – 1637
- The Centurion Cornelius at Saint Peter’s Feet by Aubin Vouet – 1639
- Saint Peter’s Sermon in Jerusalem by Charles Poerson – 1642
- The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Sebastien Bourdon - 1643
- The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew by Charles Le Brun – 1647
- Saint Paul Blinding the False Prophet Barjesu and Converting the Proconsul Sergius, by Nicolas Loir – 1650
- The Stoning of Saint Stephen by Charles Le Brun – 1651
- The Flagellation of Saint Paul and Silas by Louis Testelin – 1655
- Saint Andrew Quivering with Joy in front of his Torture by Gabriel Blanchard – 1670
- The Prophet Agabus Predicting Saint Paul’s Suffering in Jerusalem by Louis Chéron – 1687
- The Sons of Sceva Defeated by the Demon, by Mathieu Elyas – 1702

In 1949, for the quincentennial of their guild, the goldsmiths of Paris decided to commemorate this May tradition, which came to an end in 1707, by offering Notre-Dame a green tree as well as a sumptuous silver and vermeil monstrance, which has since been kept in the cathedral’s treasury.

Notre-Dame’s Grands Mays can also be admired in other French churches, in the Louvre, and in provincial museums, such as the Musée des Beaux-arts in Arras, in the Pas-de-Calais (62), which inaugurated a Mays room in 1999.


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Vue de la croisée des transepts depuis la nef au XVIIIème siècle.

On remarquera les grands Mays accrochés dans les arcades de la nef, du chœur, des transepts.
XVIIIème siècle. Musée Notre-Dame de Paris. © NDP


[1There were no offerings in 1683 and 1684.

[2Five or six were lost during the Revolution.

par Jacques BLANCHARD (1634)

par Laurent de La HYRE (1635)

par Laurent de LA HYRE (1637)

par Charles POËRSON (1642)

par Sébastien BOURDON (1643)

par Charles LEBRUN (1647)

par Charles LEBRUN (1651)

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