The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

The Heads of the Kings of Judah

Têtes de rois (Musée de Cluny) (8951012424)

The west facade of Notre-Dame de Paris is adorned with 28 Kings of Judah. Unfortunately, the heads of the original statues were decapitated during the French Revolution. In 1977, 21 of those 28 original heads were unearthed and are now on display along with other fragments from the cathedral’s portals.

In 1793, the same month that Marie Antoinette was beheaded, a Paris mob collected in front of Notre Dame Cathedral and cried for the heads of more kings. The sculptured figures, dating back to 1230, above the portals of the Cathedral represented the kings of Judea. Unfortunately, the mob, thinking they were French kings, tied rope around the statues pulled them down and guillotined them in square in front of the Cathedral. Some of the revolutionaries believed Louis XVI descended from the Kings of Judah. The statues were replaced in the early 19th century, but the original sculptures disappeared.

Two hundred years after the kings were decapitated and their heads had disappeared, workmen working at a building site, discovered 21 of the heads plus over 300 other statuary fragments buried within a wall of plaster in the underground foundations.

Head of a king of Judah MNMA Cl. 23002

For over 500 years, these faces had witnessed Paris history from their perch on Notre Dame Cathedral. Then they disappeared for 200 years. Today we can once again see the original “Heads of the Kings of Judah” and reflect on the lesson of history and hysteria.

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                     The Heads of the Kings of Judah
  • Date:                      1230
  • Destroyed:            1793
  • Rediscovered:      1977
  • Material:               Limestone
  • Museum:               Musée National du Moyen Age

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“To taste the sweet, you must taste the bitter.” French Proverb

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Photo Credit: 1) By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (Têtes de rois (Musée de Cluny)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 2) © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons