For many people the Notre Dam Cathedral fire is a ‘tragedy’. Billions of dollars have already been donated towards its restoration. Why is this such an iconic building? What is it that creates such wonder, such admiration, and now – such sadness.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is the epitome of living heritage. It is an extraordinary construction. The stonemasonry is intricate and exquisite. Construction began reputedly between 24th of March and the 25th of April 1163. The French Monarch of the time King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III were present at the laying of the cornerstone. Four phases of construction took place with the original Cathedral completed and opened in 1302.
Consider that in those times simple building materials (such as nails) were yet to be in common use. The timber that was burnt in the intricate roof was harvested from trees planted in the 10th Century. 13,000 trees were estimated to have been used in the extremely complex timber ceiling. The joinery and carpentry of the times was simply amazing for a building of this size.
Equally astonishing is the Stonemasonry of the medieval masons (actually their guild was the forerunner of the actual Masonic Movement that still exists today). With no mechanised lifting equipment, no pumps as we know them and no modern adhesives, these artisans created the most intricate of buttresses, and the stone vaulting that forms the inner ceiling. Without this ‘inner ceiling’ the building would almost certainly have been lost.
Because of the simply breathtaking finesse and competence of the original stonemasons, in all likelihood this incredible edifice can and will be restored.
A full report on the fire from the ABC documents the disaster.
Notre Dame cathedral staff took 23 minutes to discover catastrophic fire, Paris judicial official says
It took Notre Dame staff 23 minutes after the first fire alarm sounded to discover the blaze that went on to cause widespread destruction to the 850-year-old cultural icon.
Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said the cathedral’s fire alarms went off twice on Monday evening, beginning at 6:20pm (local time).
A Paris judicial official, speaking anonymously, said staff checked under the roof after the first alarm and saw nothing — but when the fire was discovered 23 minutes later, after the second alarm, it was already too late to stop the inferno.
The official said investigators had now questioned about 30 people, who were mostly employees working on the renovation of the monument.
The fire blazed for several hours and damaged the roof, causing the cathedral’s large spire to collapse and coming perilously close to destroying the entire building.
France’s deputy interior minister Laurent Nunez said saving the cathedral came down to a key timeframe of between 15 and 30 minutes, praising the work of firefighters who contained the blaze.
More than $1 billion has been pledged to the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying he wanted to see the cathedral rebuilt in five years.
Mr Macron said Notre Dame would be “even more beautiful” after the restoration, however experts said the staggering amount of cash flung at rebuilding efforts might not be enough to replace what was lost.
‘Perhaps it can’t be recreated as it was’
Notre Dame’s heritage director Laurent Prades said the high altar, which was installed in 1989, was hit and harmed by the cathedral’s spire when it came crashing down in the flames, but many other relics and structures had been saved.
“All the 18th-century steles, the pietas, frescoes, chapels and the big organ are fine,” he said.
Mr Prades added the three large stained-glass rose windows had not been destroyed, though they may have been damaged by the heat and will be assessed by an expert.
However, there are concerns that even the $1 billion pledged so far may not be able to replace what was lost in the blaze — it also depends on the availability of materials.
Professor Peter McPhee, a specialist in French history at the University of Melbourne, said he feared “that the sheer heat of that fire may have chemically compromised some of the masonry” in the historic building.
Likewise, the centuries-old timber within the building’s internal structure, much of which was crafted into an intricate support structure by medieval artisans, may be irreplaceable.
“One of the extraordinary things about Notre Dame was that … an estimated 13,000 trees had been felled to create this delicate timber infrastructure,” he said.
“Those trees had been saplings in the 10th century, they were mature trees by the 12th century when they were felled. They’re the beams that caught fire and then brought the lead roof down with them.
“Is it possible to recreate that kind of medieval artisan work with timber on that scale? Or in fact is that the great compromise you’d make?”
He said there was a huge debate in Europe around the restoration of medieval castles.
“Certainly heritage architects argue that the most important thing to do is stabilise and where necessary use modern materials to make them safe,” Professor McPhee said.
“You might say, ‘well it’s not actually recreating Notre Dame as it was’. But perhaps it can’t be recreated as it was.”
Prayers for an icon
Hopes for a rebuild of the iconic cathedral are strong among Parisians the ABC spoke with.
With the beloved cathedral partially in ruins, tens of thousands lined the Seine to observe the historic moment — a masterpiece of gothic architecture forever changed.
Sister Madeleine, a Dominican nun from Paris, was visibly upset when she arrived to inspect Notre Dame, a day after the blaze.
“It’s a very deep sadness. The spire … is what we saw from a distance in Paris,” she told the ABC.
“I hope we’ll be able to rebuild.
“Even now that the situation is under control, we feel a lot of sadness. This is something huge for western culture, and for the world. It was hard to imagine this could ever happen.”
Parisian Beatrice Champetier arrived to lay flowers — it was the least she could do, she said, for a building that “is our life”.
The Friends of Notre Dame, a society founded to foster the preservation of the cathedral, has held concerns about the building’s structural integrity for a long time.
One of the group’s members, Ron Ivey, said he was “heartbroken”.
“One of the most moving things was to see all the French people who were there that were singing French hymns and songs, it was deeply moving,” he said.
“The people, the spirit of the people, is going to help rebuild this building.”
Ultimately, the Cathedral is an extraordinary construction, and a creation of breathtaking beauty. It is an iconic remnant of time long gone and it is with great hope we look forward to its restoration.
For those inclined, here is an historic summary from Wiki of its construction, its history over nearly 1000 years and its extraordinary features.
The chronicler Jean de Saint-Victor [fr] recorded in the Memorial Historiarum that the construction of Notre-Dame began between 24 March and 25 April 1163 with the laying of the cornerstone in the presence of King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III. Four phases of construction took place under bishops Maurice de Sully and Eudes de Sully (not related to Maurice), according to masters whose names have been lost or were not recorded.
Cross-section of the double supporting arches and buttresses of the nave, drawn by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as they would have appeared from 1220 to 1230.
The first phase began with the construction of the choir and its two ambulatories. According to Robert of Torigni, the choir was completed in 1177 and the high altar consecrated on 19 May 1182 by Cardinal Henri de Château-Marçay, the Papal legate in Paris, and Maurice de Sully. The second phase, from 1182 to 1190, concerned the construction of the four sections of the nave behind the choir and its aisles to the height of the clerestories. It began after the completion of the choir but ended before the final allotted section of the nave was finished. Beginning in 1190, the bases of the facade were put in place, and the first traverses were completed. Heraclius of Caesarea called for the Third Crusade in 1185 from the still-incomplete cathedral.
The Crown of Thorns was placed in the cathedral in 1231 by King Louis IX, during the construction of the Sainte-Chapelle.
The decision was made to add a transept at the choir, where the altar was located, in order to bring more light into the center of the church. The use of simpler four-part rather than six-part rib vaults meant that the roofs were stronger and could be higher. After Bishop Maurice de Sully’s death in 1196, his successor, Eudes de Sully (unrelated to the previous Bishop) oversaw the completion of the transepts, and continued work on the nave, which was nearing completion at the time of his own death in 1208. By this time, the western facade was already largely built, though it was not completed until around the mid-1240s. Between 1225 and 1250 the upper gallery of the nave was constructed, along with the two towers on the west facade.
Another significant change came in the mid-13th century, when the transepts were remodeled in the latest Rayonnant style; in the late 1240s Jean de Chelles added a gabled portal to the north transept topped off by a spectacular rose window. Shortly afterward (from 1258) Pierre de Montreuil executed a similar scheme on the southern transept. Both these transept portals were richly embellished with sculpture; the south portal features scenes from the lives of St Stephen and of various local saints, while the north portal featured the infancy of Christ and the story of Theophilus in the tympanum, with a highly influential statue of the Virgin and Child in the trumeau. Master builders Pierre de Chelles, Jean Ravy [fr], Jean le Bouteiller, and Raymond du Temple succeeded de Chelles and de Montreuil and then each other in the construction of the cathedral. Ravy completed de Chelles’s rood screen and chevet chapels, then began the 15-metre (49 ft) flying buttresses of the choir. Jean le Bouteiller, Ravy’s nephew, succeeded him in 1344 and was himself replaced on his death in 1363 by his deputy, Raymond du Temple.
Philip the Fair opened the first Estates General in the cathedral in 1302.
An important innovation in the 13th century was the introduction of the flying buttress. Before the buttresses, all of the weight of the roof pressed outward and down to the walls, and the abutments supporting them. With the flying buttress, the weight was carried by the ribs of the vault entirely outside the structure to a series of counter-supports, which were topped with stone pinnacles which gave them greater weight. The buttresses meant that the walls could be higher and thinner, and could have much larger windows. The date of the first buttresses is not known with any precision; they were installed some time in the 13th century. The first buttresses were replaced by larger and stronger ones in the 14th century; these had a reach of fifteen meters between the walls and counter-supports.
The massive buttresses which counter the outward thrust from the rib vaults of the nave.
During the Renaissance, the Gothic style fell out of style, and the internal pillars and walls of Notre-Dame were covered with tapestries.
In 1548, rioting Huguenots damaged some of the statues of Notre-Dame, considering them idolatrous. During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the cathedral underwent numerous alterations to comply with the more classical style of the period. The sanctuary was re-arranged; the choir was largely rebuilt in marble, and many of the stained-glass windows from the 12th and 13th century were removed and replaced with white glass windows, to bring more light into the church. A colossal statue of St Christopher, standing against a pillar near the western entrance and dating from 1413, was destroyed in 1786. The spire, which had been damaged by the wind, was removed in the second part of the 18th century.
In 1793, during the French Revolution, the cathedral was rededicated to the Cult of Reason, and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being. During this time, many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered. The twenty-eight statues of biblical kings located at the west façade, mistaken for statues of French kings, were beheaded. Many of the heads were found during a 1977 excavation nearby, and are on display at the Musée de Cluny. For a time the Goddess of Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars. The cathedral’s great bells escaped being melted down. All of the other large statues on the facade, with the exception of the statue of the Virgin Mary on the portal of the cloister, were destroyed. The cathedral came to be used as a warehouse for the storage of food and other non-religious purposes.
In July 1801, the new ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, signed an agreement to restore the cathedral to the Church. It was formally transferred on 18 April 1802. On 2 December 1804 Napoleon and his wife Joséphine, with Pope Pius VII officiating, were crowned Emperor and Empress of France. The cathedral was also the site of Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810.
19th century reconstruction
The cathedral was functioning in the early 19th century, but was half-ruined inside and battered throughout. In 1831, the novel Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame had an enormous success, and brought the cathedral new attention. In 1844 King Louis Philippe ordered that the church be restored. The commission for the restoration was won by two architects, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was then just 31 years old. They supervised a large team of sculptors, glass makers and other craftsmen who remade, working from drawings or engravings, the original decoration, or, if they did not have a model, adding new elements they felt were in the spirit of the original style. They made a taller and more ornate reconstruction of the original spire (including a statue of Saint Thomas that resembles Viollet-le-Duc), as well as adding the sculpture of mythical creatures on the Galerie des Chimères. The restoration took twenty five years.
During the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the cathedral suffered some minor damage from stray bullets. Some of the medieval glass was damaged, and was replaced by glass with modern abstract designs. On 26 August, a special mass was held in the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris from the Germans; it was attended by General Charles De Gaulle and General Philippe Leclerc.
In 1963, on the initiative of culture minister André Malraux and to mark the 800th anniversary of the Cathedral, the facade was cleaned of the centuries of soot and grime, restoring it to its original off-white color.
Artwork, relics, and other antiques stored at the cathedral include the supposed crown of thorns which Jesus wore prior to his crucifixion and a piece of the cross on which he was crucified, a 13th-century organ, stained-glass windows, and bronze statues of the 12 apostles.
The full description is far too involved to be added here. Suffice to say this incredible building must be restored if at all possible. It represents such an incredible and rich heritage. It is an absolutely irrefutable link to a time where such a design and construction was nigh on impossible. And even today, the lessons of engineering, construction and architecture of those times are still incredibly relevant. Then there is the history. Oh the history.
Viva la France!
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