An essential restoration for a 300-year-old building
The Royal Chapel has withstood the passage of time with just minor renovations, but it now requires a complete restoration to preserve the building. The roof, stone facing, statues, stained glass, and roof timbers all require comprehensive restoration work to preserve its unique harmony. In the autumn of 2017, Versailles began its greatest restoration project since the Hall of Mirrors.
The Royal Chapel has barely been modified since 1710, the date of its completion, except for the removal of a roof lantern in 1765, whose weight was severely damaging the timbers. This longevity is a testament not only to the quality of its overall architecture, but also to the choice of materials used in its construction. For example, no fewer than 10 different kinds of stone were used to build the Chapel, and its roof timbers, made entirely of oak, are among the finest in the Palace.
Nevertheless, damage over time is unavoidable. Despite a drainage system that was remarkable for its discretion and effectiveness, leaks in the roof, which is weighed down by lead decorations, are damaging the roof timber structure. On the facades that are exposed to bad weather, the ornaments and sculptures are gradually eroding. Three centuries after the inauguration of this jewel of sacred architecture, a large-scale restoration of the entire chapel is required to preserve the building’s coherence.
I. THE ROOF TIMBERS
Though the Royal Chapel’s roof timbers are not visible, they are of major heritage interest. The complexity of the design and the assembly of solid components hewn out of oak is exceptional. The structure is still in fairly good condition, but leaks have recently caused damage which must be repaired as quickly as possible. This renovation will respect the original materials, using identical replicas of the damaged oak pieces.
II. THE ROOFING AND DECORATIVE LEAD WORK
The “great roof” is a significant component of the Royal Chapel’s exterior, remarkable for the large quantity of sculptures and lead ornaments that cover it. Two sets of sculptures define the extremities at the top of the building, with each ridge bearing decorative friezes. The slate roof also features six dormer windows also decorated with lead sculptures. In order to restore the roof timbers, the entire roof must be dismantled. Its sculptures and decorations will be restored in the workshop and regilded to return the building to its original state.
III. THE WINDOW FRAMES AND STAINED GLASS
The windows are a unique feature of the building’s overall architecture, and much like the interior and exterior of the Royal Chapel itself, they are slender and luminous. This effect is only possible because of the size of the large windows made of clear glass, a true luxury at the time. The metal window frames that hold the clear glass and stained glass panes together have become damaged over time. They will have to be dismantled so that the windows can be renovated and the clear and stained glass windows restored in the workshop.
IV. THE STATUES
The statues were produced by the most important artists of the time, and the allegories and iconography they display were chosen quite deliberately. However, their expressiveness and technical virtuosity present a challenge to the restorers of these works. This restoration has become critical as a result of the erosion caused by their exposure to the elements. An adopt-a-statue campaign has been launched to finance this key part of the restoration.
V. THE SCULPTURES
The quality of the Royal Chapel’s sculpted decorations is unquestionably part of what makes this exceptional building so outstanding artistically. With the gargoyles, torches, pilaster capitals (tops of the facade columns), cherub heads on the windows and 46 bays framing these openings, no fewer than 140 components will have to be reworked in the workshop or on-site to restore the building to its unique sculptural splendour.
This extensive project to fix all the damage from deterioration over time will require a multitude of skills and professions that are essential to the preservation of heritage and artisanal traditions. Master roofers, master carpenters, stonemasons, sculptors, master glassmakers, glaziers, gilders, locksmiths, and so on will all contribute to the first large-scale renovation of this masterpiece of sacred architecture.
According to Frédérique Didier, Head Architect for Historic Monuments for the Palace of Versailles, it is hard to make occasional improvements to a building with such a unified style. “We have been debating whether to undertake this renovation for more than 20 years. […] Making comprehensive improvements, starting with the top of the monument, requires considerable means.” A project of such magnitude was only possible thanks to the support of Fondation Philanthropia and Saint-Gobain.
To restore and safeguard this masterpiece of heritage, initial weatherproofing will begin, for a period of 36 months, with urgent work to the roof (timbers, slates, lead ornaments and gilding) as well as the stone facing, statues and windows.
PHASING THE WORK
The stages of the first phase:
– Erection of scaffolding and temporary roof:
August 2017 – January 2018
– Removal of existing elements (roof, lead, groups of sculptures): March – May 2018
– Restoration and consolidation of the roof timbers:
• preparatory work: November 2017 – June 2018
• restoration of roof timbers: June 2018 – June 2019 • installation of new elements: June 2019 – late April
– Restoration of groups of sculpted figures and lead roof ornamentation in the workshop: June 2018 – late May 2019
– Restoration of the upper parts of the facades in dressed stone: April 2018 – June 2019
– Conservation work on the bas-relief sculptures above the main windows: April 2018 – June 2019
– Gilding of the lead ornaments on the roof and
windows: July 2018 – November 2019
– Restoration of the attic windows: April 2018 – late November 2019
– Gilding of the lead ornaments on the roof: July 2019 – December 2019.
Budget for the first phase: €11 million
The second phase:
This phase comprises further restoration work and is itself divided into three conditional phases concerning the lower part of the Chapel, the sculpted decoration and the stained-glass windows.
Budget for the second phase: €5 million
This work will also restore coherence and harmony to the building and ensure its integration into the Palace as a whole, as Louis XIV wished.