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La Salle des Mays de Notre-Dame,
Gallery in Arras Museum

"Saint Peter Raising the Widow Tabitha" - the 1652 May, by Louis Testelin (1615-1665). A good example of the painters' desire to express the feelings of the characters portrayed by use of gestures and expression, so that people could "read" the painting.

Salle des Mays
From 1449, the goldsmiths of Paris had traditionally made a gift to the Virgin Mary in Notre Dame cathedral on the 1st May. In 1630, they ask if their gift could be a huge religious painting to hang in the nave.

Another painting each year
Artists vied for the prestige of being chosen to paint the "May". Rules were strict, as laid down at the Council of Trent in 1545: they had to portray scenes of the apostles and saints in classical dress, painted in clear bold colours with no distracting background detail.The paintings had to be at least 11 feet high.

Contribution to the Counter-Reformation
The whole growing collection was displayed in the nave to encourage faithful Catholics to pray to saints for help with their problems. Protestants in contrast would only pray direct to God. The "Mays" became an enormous manifesto of the Catholic faith, a sort of religious education. But by 1707 the pillars of the nave were full. The custom had to be stopped because there was no room for any more paintings.

Dispersal of the collection
After the Revolution, the 76 Mays were dispersed. Later 45 were traced, and 14 of them were found in Arras. Seven have now been restored and are displayed in the Musée d'Arras's biggest gallery, the "Salle des Mays".

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Joseph Parrocel (1646-1704), worked in Paris, normally on battle scenes: "The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist" was the 1694 May. The dynamic construction of the painting was greatly admired by other artists - the eye is led from the centurion on the right to St. John on the left, framing the women and children in the middle.

Claude Simpol (1666-1716) worked in Paris, usually on lighter subjects. "Jesus at Martha and Mary's House" in 1704 was one of the last Mays. It is a return to a more classical tradition, with the composition crammed into the lower half of the picture, standing out from a severely plain architectural backdrop.


Related background information
Church and religion
Retables - Baroque altarpieces

Places to visit:
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras - which contains this gallery.

Try: baroque, counter-reformation, rubens ... & other painters.

The Salle des Mays is the largest gallery in Arras Museum.

Location: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 22 rue Paul-Doumer, 62000 ARRAS
Information/ reservations:
Tel: 00 33 3 21 71 26 43

Medieval Art
Les Mays
Flemish Art
18th-19th century French artists

Artists of Côte d'Opale

Modern Art




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