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Homage at Notre-Dame

At the age of nine, during a year in which his family lived in Paris, Andrew Tallon fell in love with the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in the fourth arrondissement. Since then, the Gothic cathedrals of France have held a particular fascination for Vassar’s newly tenured associate professor of art.

A highlight of Vassar’s private viewing was seeing the flying buttresses close up.

He and Stephen Murray, professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, spent five years developing Mapping Gothic France (, with funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The website, an educational and research tool for students and scholars, features a database of more than 10,000 images, texts, and historical maps that illuminate the architectural achievements in—as well as the geopolitical context of—12th- and 13th-century France.

It never occurred to Tallon that that project would lead to an exhibition at the very cathedral that initially sparked his interest in Gothic architecture. But in late May, he mounted Notre-Dame: Nine Centuries in the Life of a Cathedral on-site.

Seeing the Paris from atop the cathedral inspired the photographer in everyone.

The exhibition, underwritten by Vassar’s President’s International Advisory Council (PIAC) and a small group of alumnae/i, will be shown indefinitely and is expected to be seen by more than six million visitors to the cathedral while on display.

Paris-area alumnae/I, members of PIAC, and college trustees not only had the opportunity to view the exhibition but also attended a private opening reception hosted by President Hill and a lecture presented by Tallon and Dany Sandron, professor of the history of the art and architecture of the Middle Ages at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.

Tallon's panels created a cathedral of knowledge inside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame

It was the first time Tallon had hosted a Vassar audience inside the cathedral itself, though he had shared his vast knowledge of its Gothic structure with alumnae/i groups on campus and across the country. There were certain advantages to delivering his talk on-site: Tallon was able to take trustees and exhibition donors throughout the cathedral—all the way to the top, where they could examine the structure's distinctive flying buttresses close up.

Tallon says the roughly 37,000 daily visitors to the cathedral “have had few resources for understanding the building through which they walk. The exhibition supplies some badly needed pedagogical information on the construction of the building.”

Guests assemble for Tallon’s lecture.

Notre-Dame: Nine Centuries in the Life of a Cathedral takes advantage of a three-dimensional laser scan of the cathedral created in conjunction with the 2010 documentary film Les cathédrales dévoilées, co-produced by PBS/Nova and Arte. The highly detailed spatial map of the building, transformed into 3D models by graphic designer Laurence Stefanon, contains more than a billion points of data, each precise to within five millimeters, and tells the story of the construction and reconstruction of Notre-Dame over the past nine centuries.

 “Putting up a show like this was quite complicated,” says Tallon because “when you’re dealing with a building of this importance—no matter whether you define importance in art historical, political, or touristic terms—things are bound to be a bit tricky. But it went exceedingly well thanks to an exceptional transcontinental collaboration between Vassar and the cathedral staff.”

Officials at the cathedral had long been admirers of Tallon’s scholarship on Notre-Dame’s architecture, but couldn’t afford to mount an exhibition. But Tallon says it is John Mihaly ’74, senior director of regional programs, who saw the potential for a win-win between the college and the cathedral.

"The exhibition came about in large part thanks to John's ability to think quickly and creatively," he says.

PIAC co-chair Julia Cook with PIAC members Libby Pratt and Candace Johnson

“That’s what the Office of Regional Programs strives to do,” says Mihaly. “We create opportunities that don’t exist and, if they do exist, take advantage of the synergies as much as possible.”

The exhibition builds on Mapping Gothic France, which features interactive laser scans and three-dimensional, panoramic photographs that enable visitors to the site to explore the cathedrals from virtually every angle—and even to access areas not normally made available to the general public.

“For me, this was the primary attraction—to have people be able to learn from my work,” Tallon says.

Andrew Tallon

One of those people was local alumnus Joshua Grainsky ’79, who had been to Notre-Dame many times over the years, but admits that his “knowledge of the building came basically from Art 105 and the Janson textbook.” The former history major says, “Choosing to see Notre-Dame in private was a no-brainer.”

For his part, Tallon says the exhibition helped him to realize a “lifelong dream of doing homage to this key building.” It only “added to the good feeling” that he learned that he had been awarded tenure at Vassar while he was in Paris for the opening.

Way to go, Tallon!

—Elizabeth Randolph

Photos, from top, by Andrew Tallon except PIAC members (John Mihaly ’74) and Tallon portrait (Nancy Crampton ’56).

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, July 9, 2014