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IN PICTURES: The painstaking restoration of the Royal Chapel of Versailles

The Royal Chapel at the Palace of Versailles, the final great building work undertaken in the reign of Louis XIV, is undergoing a painstaking restoration that is expected to be finished within 18 months.

IN PICTURES: The painstaking restoration of the Royal Chapel of Versailles
The former royal palace of Versailles. All Photos: Dominique Faget for AFP

The intricate work to clean and restore its extraordinary windows, statues and other features is being carried out under the strictest security measures to avoid any repeat of the fire that severely damaged Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in April.

The chapel was completed in 1710 after over a decade of work during the final years of the reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King who ruled for 72 years and was famed for the splendour of his court.

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The restoration includes the roof timbers, decorative lead work, the statues and stained glass windows.

Workers restore the stone sculptures in the walls using photographs to ensure complete fidelity to the original.

The restoration is literally under wraps, with the chapel surrounded by a protective canvas that conceals the restoration work from visitors standing in long queues to enter the palace.

The canvas, which evokes the majestic structure's interior, covers a web of scaffolding with the statues of holy figures peeping out of the metalwork.

Restoration of the chapel was “one of the urgent priorities” when Catherine Pegard (pictured below) a former journalist, became head of the palace complex in 2011, she said.

The restoration is only the second major such work on the building in its history, with the last taking place from 1875 to 1878, when France was weakened by war with Prussia and not able to devote a lot of resources to the work.

“Today we are doing this as Versailles deserves it,” said Frederic Didier, the architect overseeing the restoration.

The work is taking part under the strictest conditions, especially after the fire that broke out in Notre-Dame on April 15, when the great Paris cathedral was itself undergoing restoration.

Experts regularly check every potential danger point, and thermal cameras and smoke detectors are in place throughout the site.

This will prevent any chance of the tragedy at Notre-Dame repeating itself at Versailles, said Sophie Lemonnier, head of heritage and gardens at the palace.

The two first stages of the restoration are scheduled to cost some €16 million, helped by 11 million euros of funds from the Swiss foundation Philanthropia as well as money from French building materials and construction firm Saint-Gobain.

Pegard is also counting on private donations to restore six of the 28 monumental statues that decorate the exterior of the chapel. The restoration work is expected to finish in 2020.

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CULTURE

Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.

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