The Primacy of Primatice

Seldom are new discoveries made in the course of an otherwise routine restoration project. Yet that is precisely what has happened within a small jewel box of a chapel on the grounds of the great Abbey of Chaalis, 50 kilometers northeast of Paris. There, architects and restorers working to salvage a thirteenth-century building plagued by centuries of water infiltration came upon an extraordinary cycle of murals by the sixteenthcentury Italian master Francesco Primaticcio, known in France as Le Primatice (1504–1570). Executed in a mixture of raised stucco and fresco, the paintings—obscured in part by zealous overpainting and clouded by water damage—constitute a rare example of the artist’s foray into the realm of ecclesiastical painting and are the sole surviving works of their kind in France. Thought to have been inspired by Michelangelo’s 1508 fresco cycle in the Sistine Chapel and painted between 1543 and 1545, the murals within the Chaalis chapel include a main scene depicting the Annunciation, which graces the choir wall, and images of church fathers, apostles, evangelists, and angels bearing the “instruments of the Passion” rendered on the three rib vaults of the ceiling. That this Renaissance wonder could remain virtually unknown to art historians can be explained in part by the mutable history of the abbey.

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