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As Smoke Clears, Paris Envisions a Path Forward for Notre-Dame

Officials take stock of the damage done to the cathedral as billionaires pledge money and academics brainstorm the best path forward for restoration.

Notre-Dame this morning after the firefighters extinguished the flames (photo by Joseph Nechvatal for Hyperallergic)

After a ravenous fire destroyed Notre-Dame’s spire and two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof on Monday evening, Paris officials now say that the flames have been extinguished. And while yesterday night, Parisians gathered in tears to mourn for the iconic building’s destruction, today they are looking for a path forward.

French president Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the church, a symbol of the city for more than eight centuries regarded as an apex of Gothic architecture. (Macron was originally scheduled to deliver a highly-anticipated televised address to the nation about the Yellow Vest movement on Monday evening; that speech was postponed due to the fire.) “We will rebuild Notre-Dame,” he announced outside the smoky cathedral’s grounds hours after the fire, “Because that is what the French expect.”

Donations are already pouring in from the country’s mega-rich. Pledges have already surpassed €600 million (~$675 million), including €100 million (~$113 million) from the Pinault family and €200 million (~$226 million) from the Arnault family. (The Pinaults own Christie’s and Bernard Arnault, an art collector, operated the luxury retailer LVMH Moët Hennessy Luis Vuitton.) The Bettencourt Meyers family, which owns cosmetics giant L’Oreal and Total have each pledged another €100 million for the 850-year-old cathedral. This morning, the United States formally offered its assistance on Notre-Dame’s rehabilitation.

An investigation into the cause of the fire has already begun. In a statement on Tuesday, Paris investigator Rémy Heitz announced that nearly 50 investigators were working to determine the cause of the fire, interviewing workers and witnesses. “It will be a long and complex investigation,” he said, noting that the blaze currently appears to have been an accident. “Nothing at this stage suggests a voluntary act.”

The cathedral’s rector, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, told press that the fire appears to have started in “the forest,” a network of heavy wooden beams above the interior vaulted stone ceiling and below the roof.

“At the cathedral, we have fire monitors,” the rector told the radio station France Inter on Tuesday. “Three times a day they go up, under the wooden roof, to make an assessment.”

There was no indication of whether or not those checks occurred yesterday, or if the on-site fireman normally stationed at the cathedral was present. The first fire alarm rang at 6:20 pm just as the church began to close operations to tourists. Checks were carried out but no fire was found, according to Heitz. A second alarm triggered at 6:43 pm, which is when the fire was discovered in the attic’s wooden framework.

Two police officers and one firefighter were injured, but no deaths have been reported.

Church officials are still surveying the damage done by the flames, which endangered Notre-Dame’s vast collection of Christian relics, tapestries, stained glass, and other artworks.

On Monday night, the bishop of the Archdiocese of Paris, Benoist de Sinety, told the press that the high heat had damaged the rose windows, melting the lead that held their panes in place. The tone was more optimistic on Tuesday, when French culture minister Franck Riester announced during a news conference that “the large rose windows don’t appear to have suffered catastrophic damaged.”

The rose windows are a major tourist attraction in Paris, drawing a significant portion of the 14 million people who visit Notre-Dame each year. Each stained-glass pane depicts a scene from the Old and New Testaments, including the resurrection of Christ and the Twelve Apostles. Respected as a jewel of Gothic glasswork, one of the church’s windows is the lead image for Wikipedia’s article on beauty.

During a Tuesday radio interview, Riester said that “Notre-Dame’s treasury, which included, for example, the crown of thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis, is safe in Paris City Hall.”

Stephen Murray, a professor emeritus of Gothic architecture and medieval art at Columbia University, told the New York Times that the cathedral’s crown contains fragments of the original artifact. Notre-Dame also holds a piece of wood believed to be a piece of the cross and a nail that some believe was used for the crucifixion.

Screenshot of BBC footage via YouTube

But the relics of St. Denis and St. Geneviève, the patron saints of Paris, were stored in the church’s now-collapsed spire. According to Gregory Bryda, an assistant professor of Western medieval art and architecture at Barnard College, the relics included bones, teeth, or hair from both saints. St. Denis was a third-century Christian martyr who was decapitated and later died while carrying is own head. St. Geneviève is credited with saving Paris through group prayer by diverting Attila, king of the Huns, from the city in 451 CE. Their whereabouts are unknown.

Fortunately, some other major items were spared destruction in the flames. Church officials say that Notre-Dame’s largest bell is safe. Fabricated more than 300 years ago, it weighs over 13 tons and chimes for major Catholic holidays and events and moments in French history, like the end of both world wars. The radiating chapels that spring from the cathedral’s nave also appear to have avoided damage. French publications are reporting that the thirteen monumental “Mays” paintings have escaped damage. The artworks were commissioned by a Parisian goldsmiths’ guild for Notre-Dame nearly every month of May between 1630 and 1707.

Experts also say that the church’s large Great Organ has survived most of Monday’s heat and smoke, though it will likely have to undergo rehabilitative work. The instrument’s 8,000 pipes, which range in age from the 1200s to the 1800s, all appear to be standing intact according to an eyewitness. In the next few days, Notre-Dame will send Betrand Cattiaux, an organ builder who worked on the organ’s restoration in the 1990s, to assess the damage and a plan for restoration if needed.

Remarkably, the cathedral’s façade and interior architecture seems to have sustained minimal damage. The high-vaulted ceilings of the nave and the exquisite details of Notre-Dame’s appear saved. Because the fire appears to have started within the roof’s network of wooden beams, the stone materials below seem to have acted as a safeguard against a possible collapse of the entire building. Nevertheless, surveyors will need to confirm of the structure is safe for visitors, or if the blaze has caused the building’s skeleton to dangerously shift.

While lamenting the destruction of yesterday’s fire, Gothic architecture scholars contextualized such cataclysms as commonplace in the medieval world. “Once fire caught hold of a wooden roof,” noted scholar Roger Stalley in his Early Medieval Architecture book, “it was virtually impossible to stop it destroying the whole building, as burning timbers fell into the church below.” Nevertheless, citizens would usually return to the ruins and immediately begin rebuilding upon the ashes.

Still, it’s unnerving to see something that took more than 100 years to construct collapse in under 60 minutes, Notre-Dame has gone an astonishingly long time without a major threat, surviving French Huguenots in the 1540s and French Revolution radicals who in the 1780s used a guillotine to chop of the heads of biblical figures they mistook for sculptures of French kings.

Writing for the Washington Post Matthew Gabriele, a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech, lists a multitude of Gothic cathedrals that met their untimely ends by fire. “In Mainz, Germany, the candles used to illuminate the city’s new cathedral accidentally brought the structure to the ground on the very day of its consecration in 1015,” the academic noted in his article. “The cathedral at Chartres was heavily damaged by fire in 1194 and an inferno allegedly killed about 1,000 people at Vézelay in 1120.”

After St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Notre-Dame is arguably the world’s most famous cathedral. That high-profile has also made it the subjects of hundreds of studies over almost a millennium. More recently, architecture historians have employed new technology to document the building’s details and designs. For preservationists wishing for a faithful reconstruction, this information will be key. Mapping Gothic France is an archive of information that includes some 30,000 high-resolution images and hundreds of 360-degree views of over 200 cathedrals, including Notre-Dame. The project was initiated be Murray and Andrew Tallon, a Vassar College professor of art history who died in 2018.

Tallon also devised an impressive laser scan of the building, which he said was “accurate to within five millimeters” in a 2015 National Geographic article about the technique. Receiving the data for analysis, a computer could then stitch together measurements to form a “point cloud” containing more than a billion points, revealing otherwise imperceptible structural details.

The laser scans revealed surprising information about Notre-Dame’s structure. Tallon described the western end of the cathedral as “a total mess … a train wreck” because neither the interior columns nor the aisles align. He described this anomaly as a cost-cutting measure used to ameliorate worries that the western façade, built on unstable soil, began leaning north during construction.

Developers for the video game Assassin’s Creed also produced immaculate renderings of the cathedral for their Paris entry, subtitled Unity, which was set during the French Revolution. Known for fairly faithful recreations of historical recreations, game designers pours hundreds of hours into getting the French landmark just so. Caroline Miousse, a level artist for the game told the Verge in 2014 that she spent nearly two years finessing the French landmark’s digital design for accuracy after scouring hundreds of detailed maps and photographs for reference.

Right now, it’s too early to know how the French government plans to rebuild Notre-Dame, but Parisians are sure to have a vested interested in reconstruction. “It is like losing a member of one’s own family,” one local told the New York Times yesterday. “For me there are so many memories tied up in it.”

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