APRIL 15 AND 16, 2019 — Notre Dame de Paris, the famous world heritage site, began burning early Monday evening, local time (noon EST), minutes after it closed to the public. As of late afternoon, EST, fire had poured into the empty space left when the iconic spire toppled into the nave of the cathedral, threatening the wooden frame, flying buttresses and famous rose windows. The Île de la Cité had been evacuated, but acrid black smoke, possibly due to the burning of the 250 tons of lead topping the spire, was visible and pouring soot and smoke on people standing safely across either side of the Seine watching the catastrophe unfold.
The Cathedral’s construction was ordered by Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris, in 1160, during the reign of Louis VII with construction beginning in 1163, completed in 1345. The flying buttresses invented to hold the eaves of the Cathedral together were not in the original plans. They were added when height was added to the structure whose weight caused the thin walls to buckle. Those flying buttresses were Monday threatened with fire, which, if destroyed, would then cause much of the structure to collapse. As of late evening of April 15, EST, two thirds of the roof was gone, but the west window, two towers and wall where sculptures and reliefs illustrating bible stories including the Last Judgement were still standing. The flying buttresses survived the fire, and were likely the reason the main walls of the building remained standing.
The Gallo-Roman remains and artifacts of Lutetia, predecessor to the city of Paris, in the Crypte Archéologique de Notre Dame underneath Notre Dame, are presumably fine.
We know minimal details of the fate of the 18-century grand pipe organ. It was still intact following the fire but was said to have been significantly affected by the blaze.
Sixteen bronze statues (c. 12th and 13th centuries), of twelve apostles and four animals representing evangelists Lohn, Luke, Mark and Matthew were removed from the spire last Thursday for the first time in over a century as a part of the current $6.8 billion renovation project, and were coincidentally saved from the flames.
Firefighters managed to save many of the most valuable works of art inside Notre Dame. Items named from the rescue were the Holy Crown of Thorns, which is believed by some to have been placed on the head of Jesus as he was crucified, and is considered to be the most precious and venerated relic of Notre Dame; The linen Tunic of St. Louis, said to have belonged to King Louis IX, an artifact of the 13th century; and the large paintings — Les grands “Mays” de Notre-Dame de Paris — seem to have only minimal smoke and water damage and will be moved from the cathedral on Friday to be taken to the Louvre to be dehumidified and to begin the restoration process. The fate of the “True Cross,” a relic brought from the Byzantine empire in 1238 by Louis IX with the Crown of Thorns — a piece of wood and nail said to be part of the cross used in Jesus’ crucifixion — is currently unknown. All of the works in the “treasures” area of Notre Dame are thought to have been spared. The fate of the Madonna and Child statue and the painting of St. Thomas Aquinas are still unknown.
The three rose windows, on the north, south and west facades have suffered soot damage, but reportedly nothing catastrophic. There had been some uncertainty around the lead that holds the panes of glass in place that may have melted due to the high temperatures.
As the fire spread to the north (left) tower, threatening the vault of the 12th-century Gothic cathedral, vast areas of Notre Dame were spared, as the firefighters fought the flames in an attempt to save over 850 years worth of history contained within those walls.
As midnight closed in on Paris on Monday, April 15, the fire was controlled, but still smoldering. As of around 3:40 a.m. of Tuesday, April 16, local time, the 9-hour battle had slowed; the fire was completely under control and partly extinguished; by 9:30 a.m., local time, the fire was entirely extinguished. It will be a gargantuan effort to rebuild and rehabilitate but much of the art, statues, towers, stained glass windows and relics were saved. As in the past, Notre Dame will be repaired and its spire will rise again.
Notre Dame de Paris has withstood much in the past. The rioting of the Huguenots in 1548 damaged some of the statues of Notre Dame. During the French Revolution in 1793, the cathedral was plundered by anti-royalists, many of its treasures destroyed in the process; the 28 statues of the kings of Judah (descendants of Abraham and ancestors of Mary and Jesus) located below the two towers and rose window on the western façade — known as the Gallery of the Kings — were mistaken to be French kings and beheaded; all other statues on the façade, except for the Virgin Mary on the portal of the cloister, were destroyed. The cathedral remained in this half-ruined, battered state for decades, but in 1831, Victor Hugo published his novel “Notre-Dame de Paris” (published in English as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”) and its broad success cast new light on the issue. A restoration effort began to rehabilitate the cathedral in 1844, including a taller and more ornate reconstruction of the spire and the replication and enhancement of the original decorations; it took 25 years to complete. Nearing the end of World War II, Notre Dame de Paris suffered minor damage from stray bullets during the liberation of Paris in 1944; medieval stained glass was replaced with modern abstract designs. Restoration repairs continued throughout the 20th century and will continue throughout the 21st.
It has been speculated that the fire may have been caused by construction activity as parts of the roof and the spire were undergoing restoration at the time, and the attic was where the fire is thought to have started, though the investigation is still in its infancy. There is yet to be any evidence of arson and the theory favored by investigators currently is one of an accident.
Although devastating, only one firefighter and two policemen suffered minor injuries, and French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild.
As Tuesday morning came around, with the towers still standing, the windows mostly intact, though covered with soot, many had already pledged millions to assist in the rebuild. The first pledge came from François-Henri Pinault, president of the investment firm, Artémis, and CEO of Kering (which oversees Gucci and Saint Laurent), who said Monday night that he and his family will donate 100 million euros to Notre Dame’s reconstruction. Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH (which oversees Dior and Moët & Chandon), and his family have pledged 200 million euros to fund the rebuild. Another 200 million euros was pledged by L’Oreal (the french cosmetics company) and the Bettencourt Meyers family (L’Oreal’s principle shareholder) and their charitable foundation. The french gas company Total has promised to donate 100 million euros. French billionaires Martin and Oliver Bougues, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière and the Crédit Agricole — Pays de France Fondation have, together, pledged $28 million. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana has pledged $100,000 towards the renovations. Early Tuesday morning, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, called on every member state of the EU to contribute to the reconstruction, as well. Paris’ City Hall pledged 50 million euros to the rebuild, and President Macron has launched a national fundraising campaign that will accept further contributions toward rebuilding and more pledged donations pour in by the hour.
The flames were hardly out, before the good people in France took over to rebuild their and the world’s architectural heritage. It is hardly surprising that a country that so values art acted so quickly.
President Macron wants the restoration to be done within 5 years, but a restoration expert, Frédéric Létoffé, said it could take 10–15 years. There are many challenges ahead for Notre Dame de Paris. The site needs to be secured: new scaffolding built, an umbrella to protect the area missing a roof from the elements. Another challenge will be to find trees large enough to rebuild the roof. The original was made with an estimated 13,000 trees: each tree cut down at 300–400 years old, no trees exist in France that are large enough to replace the ancient Beechwood forest that burned down Monday night.
The next 48 hours will be about saving the salvageable and taking steps to prevent further damage; the remaining infrastructure will need preserving and structural risk will need surveying. But there is no question that Our Lady will stand again.