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Le Parement de Narbonne

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo M. Bellot

Prints and Drawings
14th-15th centuries

Boyer Sarah

A grisaille on silk altarcloth acquired by Boilly at Narbonne. The initial K for Karolus in the medallions on its painted border indicates that Charles V commissioned the altarcloth, probably between 1364 (date of his accession) and 1378 (death of the queen). The king and queen are kneeling in prayer on either side of the central scene, the Crucifixion. The Narbonne Altarcloth, which inaugurated a French style and tradition, is the only object of its kind still preserved.

A French tradition

The liturgical function of the Narbonne Altarcloth - it was part of a Lent "chapel" (set of vestments and ornaments) - explains the figurations of the Church and the Synagogue, presented by a prophet, that surmount the royal figures, while scenes from Christ's Passion are depicted around them: the Kiss of Judas, the Flagellation, the Carrying of the Cross, the Entombment, the Descent into Limbo and the Noli Me Tangere. The architecture, typical of Île-de-France, and the svelte elegance of the figures are similar to the Belleville Breviary (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris). The iconography and treatment are reminiscent of certain Italian works and the realism of the faces shows northern influences, but the arrangement of the scenes, style of drawing and technique are French. The origin of a genre, it developed the theme of portrait likeness in royal figures, depicted with sincere realism and noble simplicity. The technique, fashionable in Paris, was also used in stained glass (the windows by Jean de Berry in the Saint Chapelle, Bourges) and miniatures (The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Monochrome for Lent...

The format, materials, technique and iconography of the Narbonne Altarcloth, which may have originally belonged to the royal household, are those of a "chapel": a collection of liturgical garments and altar decorations that were either "entire" (or "complete"), and used only on specific occasions, or "daily". They were essential elements in cathedrals and church treasuries, used during ceremonies in royal houses, and a necessary part of a noble lady's trousseau. Usually in silk of various weaves (camocas, gold thread, satin, velvet, samite), they were often adorned with colored embroideries in gold or silver thread and sometimes with pearls and precious stones. Given its scenes, colors and dimensions, the Narbonne Altarcloth probably decorated the back of an altar during Lent, as each type of ceremony or time of year has its own specific colors. Usually on ash-colored, white or violet silk, Lent "chapels", which were often decorated with ornaments, mottoes and emblems, sometimes feature narrative scenes determined by their function and emplacement. Conceived as part of a complete iconographic ensemble, the images on the Narbonne Altarcloth complemented the priest's robe and mitre.


Painting in black ink on silk leaves little scope for error: the composition of the Narbonne Altarcloth, initially planned, comprises several alterations to the portraits, but its skilful artifices were attained almost exclusively by the artist. The presence of a text on the queen's book, whereas the king's is blank, is hard to explain. The use of lines enables the artist to define the architectural forms and decorative elements, whereas the modeling and relief of the figures were achieved with gentle washes of ink of various densities.


Paris 1400. Les arts sous Charles VI, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre, 26 mars - 12 juillet 2004, pp. 47-48, n 8.
S. Nash, "The Parement de Narbonne : Contexte and Technique", in The Fabric of Images, sous la direction de C. Villlers, Londres, Archetype Publications, 2000, pp. 77-87.
F. Baron, in Les fastes du gothique, cat. exp. Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 1981, pp. 371-373, n 324.

Technical description

  • ANONYME FRANCAIS fin du XIVe siècle

    The Narbonne Altarcloth

    Between 1364 and 1378

    Jules Boilly Collection, purchased 1852 and entrusted to the curator of the Musée des Souverains

  • Gray wash on fluted silk imitating samite

    H. 0.78 m; W. 2.08 m

  • Musée des Souverains; transferred in 1869

    MI 1121

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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