The Lost Heads of Notre Dame

Today I want to share with you one of my most precious Paris discoveries, the kind of tale that just blows my mind continually, and makes me want to cover all the other secrets undoubtedly hidden, LITERALLY, in the streets of Paris.

Photo by Tove Liu on Pexels.com

I hope I am not boring you with Notre Dame hidden gems, but you can’t deny that this 856 year old behemoth of a historical landmark has more drama than one of those paperback romance novels from the 80’s with a bare-chested Fabio deflowering a graciously bosomed Dame in his arms on the cover.

In one of the greatest archeological discoveries (in my humble amateur non-archeologist opinion) of the 20th century, was the random unearthing of 21 stone heads and other fragmented sculptures during the renovation of The French Bank of Foreign Trade, which was located in the Hotel Moreau in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.

Let’s go back to the time of the French Revolution..

The Cathedral in 1845

By order of the Convention of Paris in 1793 (the new government which took the place of the head-less Louis XVI and French Monarchy) all images of tyranny and superstition were to be eradicated. It started off innocently enough; streets and squares were renamed (Place Louis XV became the infamous Place de la Revolution, where King Louis XV’s grandson King Louis XVI would be decapitated) and statues like that of King Henry IV that sat next to the Pont Neuf were discarded.

Everyone going BANANAS at the Place de la Revolution

Unfortunately for French History and Culture, in the ensuing witch hunt of anything resembling royalty, the French people got a little too carried away with their mad frenzy to bring all the power to the people, and made a few mistakes by destroying their heritage (hmm this seems to be a popular theme). Notably, on October 23, 1793 some asshole stood in front of Notre Dame cathedral and pointed to the 28 statues gracing the three portals and shouted “hey, guys!! Check it out! See those Royal-ish statues way the hell up there? Those are FRENCH KINGS! Let’s mutilate them, and push them off the edge!!” and everyone was like “Hell yeah!” and voila, bye-bye 630 year old relics of gothic architecture.

In their haste, they had mistaken the Gallery of the Kings of Juda as French Kings, and these limestone statues were pushed off the Cathedral and discarded. Reconstructed and added to the cathedral during the 19th century, (and who assume their position today) the original heads were assumed to have been thrown in the river Seine.

Or not. PLOT TWIST!

Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Lakanal, a weathly Parisian lawyer bought the heads of the statues in 1796 (apparently, they were just piled up in a nearby street for three years until people started complaining) and used them as a sort of foundation for the mansion/hotel particulier he was building on the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. A devout Catholic and knowing the real significance of the statues (but wanting to be discreet, because no one wanted to appear to have sympathy for the royalty during the French Revolution, duh), he followed the rules of “destroying” religious relics and buried each 3.5 meter head with respect, all interred in a line and facing the same direction.

He died not long after his home was finished and like many other significant historical artifacts, the heads were forgotten.. but not forever! Some 180 years later, in spring of 1977- construction workers were enlarging the basement at the French Bank of Foreign Trade, and they unearthed 21 heads (the other 7 are still missing).

Where the heads were uncovered..

In another remarkable twist of fate, the President of this very bank, Francois Giscard d’Estaing, who was the cousin and good friend of the French President (of the 5th Republic) in 1977, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing- was very knowledgeable in archeology and suspected immediately that the heads found in the foundations of his bank were the original Kings of Juda. With the help of other archeologists and historians, Francois proved himself right, especially when the heads were discovered to carry the same traces of paint used to decorate Notre Dame when it was first built! (Did you know Notre Dame Cathedral used to be COLORFUL? IS YOUR MIND BLOWN?!)

The heads were excavated, and put on display at the Cluny Museum, not far from their original home, where they remain today. And to wrap this up with a BANG, let’s appreciate the randomness of the unearthing of these statues. As Francois Giscard said himself, “Its an extraordinary coincidence that I should be the one to find them. I can only hope that the cousin of the French president of the 5th Republic can repair the misfortune caused by the President of the 1st Republic!”

The original heads at the Cluny Museum

I’m genuinely curious how many of my followers knew about this; its really one of the best, yet widely unknown “secrets” in Paris in my opinion! Please comment below!

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