Throughout the centuries, the month of May has been celebrated as the month of Mary, or Our Lady, in many religions. In Paris, this adoration was shown every year by giving gifts and trinkets to Notre-Dame de Paris. Beginning in 1449, the Brotherhood of Goldsmiths in Paris made gifts to Notre-Dame Cathedral on May 1st to commemorate the month of Mary. These gifts became known as “the Mays”.
The history of the Mays
The guild’s offerings ranged from a decorated tree to tabernacle decorations known as “small Mays”. Eventually they transitioned to large canvas paintings, known as “great Mays”, that were commissioned by the guild to offer to Notre-Dame Cathedral. The tradition of annual, commissioned paintings began in 1630 and one painting was offered each year between then and 1707, with the exception of 1683 and 1694.
The theme of each painting was chosen in collaboration with the canons of Notre-Dame Cathedral, and painters were invited to submit their sketches before a final commission was given to the winner. The artists chosen were usually members of France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. At a time when museums didn’t exist, exhibiting a work in the cathedral gave promising young artists the opportunity of a permanent public exhibitions.
These paintings hung in the arcades of the nave, the choir, the braces, the ambulatory and the chapels. In 1708, the Brotherhood of Goldsmiths was dissolved due to financial difficulties, ending the annual commission for the great Mays. Some of the great Mays were lost during the French Revolution and the rest were seized in 1793 and sent to the Musée des Petits Augustins and the Louvre. Today, out of the 76 paintings commissioned by the Brotherhood between 1630 and 1707, only 52 great Mays are still in existence. When the fire broke out in 2019, 11 were on display in Notre-Dame de Paris. All 11 paintings survived the fire but are in need of restoration work before they can be displayed in the cathedral again.
You can help restore Notre-Dame Cathedral’s great Mays!
The 11 Mays are included as pieces in Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris’ Puzzle campaign, launched to commemorate the second anniversary of the fire. You can visit the gallery on the website, learn more about the history of each painting and their painter, and give towards the paintings’ restoration.
With the help from our dedicated community, the Mays will once again adorn the walls of Notre-Dame de Paris.