In one of her first moves as the newly appointed president of the Louvre, Laurence des Cars plans to formally launch a department devoted to Byzantine and Coptic art at the Paris museum. If that department comes to fruition, it would signify a break with the Louvre’s current president, Jean-Luc Martinez, who had deemed its formation unnecessary, and a willingness to expand the ways the museum presents religious art.
“It is a magnificent collection that deserves a department in its own right,” des Cars said in an interview with the French radio station France Inter.
In 2014, Martinez called the department “not an emergency.” At the time, the Louvre owned 10,000 Coptic objects and 1,000 Byzantine artworks, according to a report by the French Roman Catholic newspaper La Croix. At the time, just 750 of those 11,000 works were on display, and it has historically been difficult to view them together in one designated space.
The department would oversee thousands of objects that hail from the regions controlled by the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere along the Mediterranean. Many are Christian in nature and date back to Late Antiquity until its decline in the Middle Ages. Coptic art specifically refers to Christian art made during this time period primarily in Egypt.
Debates over the department began in 2010, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president of France, began calling for its creation. Henri Loyette, at the time president of the Louvre, threw his support behind the idea.
Plans to form the department were put on hold in 2014, after curators reportedly raised concerns about grouping artworks by religion. Martinez also claimed that founding it would require too much “reshuffling” of other departments. Certain politicians—including Christine Boutin, the conservative minister of housing and urban development under Sarkozy—decried Martinez’s decision, claiming that Byzantine and Coptic art needed to be given at least the same weight as Islamic art at the museum. In 2019, Martinez said he wanted to eventually create galleries dedicated to Byzantine art.
Controversy over religious art at the museum has continued in years since. In 2020, shortly before the pandemic began in France, the Louvre canceled an exhibition that was devoted to stylistic interchanges between Christian and Islamic art in Bulgaria after experts questioned the accuracy of its curatorial framework.
Des Cars, who is currently the president of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, is set to begin leading the Louvre in September. She will be the first female president of the Louvre in its 228-year history.
In her France Inter conversation, des Cars said creating the department would help the museum expand its offerings. “The Louvre can be fully contemporary because it can open up to today’s world while telling us about the past, giving relevance to the present through the weight of the past,” she said. “We need this look at the long term.”