As the smoke clears around Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, relief that hundreds of firefighters were able to save the centuries-old Gothic landmark from complete collapse is mixed with uncertainty over just how much irreplaceable history and culture went up in flames during Monday’s devastating fire.
Both French President Emmanuel Macron and Paris Mayor Anne Hildago tried to cut through the sadness after the blaze destroyed the UNESCO World Heritage site’s roof and toppled its iconic spire. Its two bell towers are still standing, and Macron has announced an international fundraising campaign to reconstruct the iconic piece of Paris’s history — dating all the way back to 1163, when construction on the cathedral began.
Hildago expressed gratitude that a significant collection of artwork and holy objects kept inside the Catholic church had been recovered.
But amid that optimism, it’s not yet known what has become of many items listed on the cathedral’s website as “the masterpieces of Notre-Dame,” which include centuries-old statues, stained glass, organs and bells.
A French cultural heritage expert said France no longer has trees big enough to replace ancient wooden beams that burned in the fire.
Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of preservation group Fondation du Patrimoine, told France Info radio that the wooden roof that went up in flames was built with beams more than 800 years ago from primary, or old-growth, forests.
Speaking Tuesday, he said the cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire because “we don’t, at the moment, have trees on our territory of the size that were cut in the 13th century.”
He said the restoration work will have to use new technologies to rebuild the roof.
Notre-Dame is especially important to Catholics and for the people of France, said Father James Farge, a Catholic priest and historian at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, who lived in Paris for a total of about seven years and regularly attended the cathedral.
“I’ve been in that place hundreds of times and it’s always just moved me,” Farge said. “It just took your breath away.”
He believes the cathedral, which attracts thousands of visitors every day, holds broad significance.
“I think everyone who understands the importance of culture and history would be devastated by this event,” he said.
Here are some of the key historical, architectural and cultural features threatened by the fire — and what’s known about how they have fared.
Notre-Dame Cathedral was “full to the brim” of statues and sculptures, said Alexander Andrée, a professor of Latin and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.
Much of Andrée’s research focuses on the 12th and 13th centuries in France — including Paris, where he has lived.
Photos taken on Monday night showed that at least some statues inside the cathedral appeared to be intact after the fire.
Some bronze statues were removed from the cathedral last week, which was undergoing renovations, and are believed to be safe.
All of that is good news — but the full extent of the damage can’t yet be known, Andrée said.
“There’s lots of things that you see [standing in the cathedral] … but there’s also even more things that you can’t see because it’s built so high up,” he said.
There are sculptures and statues built into the walls, pillars and masonry, “many of them far up towards the ceiling,” he said. Those works of art, — many of which aren’t easily visible from below — include depictions of scenes from the Bible, gargoyles and royal figures, he said.
It’s unlikely statues located up high remained untouched by a fire that destroyed the cathedral’s roof and spire, Andrée said.
Some statues were made of wood and were likely destroyed, he said.
Others made of stone may “crack or be otherwise damaged” if they survived.
According to its website, Notre-Dame Cathedral’s three rose windows “constitute one of the greatest masterpieces of Christianity.”
Dating back to the 1200s, that round “rose” style of brilliantly coloured glass is a hallmark of Gothic cathedrals, Andrée said.
The largest of the rose windows — “La Rose Sud” (the South Rose) — has a diameter of 12.9 metres, the church’s website says.
The stained glass artistry is “invaluable” and “very, very difficult to replicate,” Andrée said. “So much has been lost in terms of, you know, crafts and arts [from that time].”
Other stained glass windows in the cathedral include Les vitraux du cloître — the windows of the cloister — which depict the life of St. Geneviève, the patron saint of the city of Paris; and Les verrières hautes de la nef — the high windows of the nave. The nave is the central part of the church.
There are fears that the fire may have melted or otherwise destroyed the stained glass.
“The stained glass — much of it is from the 13th century,” said Farge. “And, you know, in the Second World War, they would have taken it all out and put it in boxes and taken it out to the country. But now it’s in danger.”
The Great Organ
Le Grand Orgue (the Great Organ) dates back to the 1700s and is “an enormous instrument” capable of filling the huge cathedral with sound, said John Paul Farahat, director of music at St. Basil’s Church at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
Farahat performed a concert on that organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2015 — an experience he had always dreamed of and will never forget.
“There’s nothing like it,” Farahat said. “I walked away thinking, ‘You are basically standing on the shoulders of giants.'”
The “best and brightest organists” in the world have played the Great Organ, which has about 8,000 pipes. By comparison, the organ in his home church in Toronto has about 3,500 pipes, he said.
Even just walking into the organ loft, located high up in Notre-Dame Cathedral, “was absolutely surreal,” Farahat remembers.
“They’d obviously just finished a service, and you could see the evening light streaming through the stained glass window and just these clouds of incense billowing up toward the ceiling. It was absolutely stunning.”
Watching news images of the fire tearing through that same beloved place on Monday was “heartbreaking,” he said.
Farahat worried that the Great Organ, made of wood and metal and located high up, close to the fire, would not have escaped the effects of the intense heat.
But on Tuesday, the deputy mayor of Paris said the organ remained intact. Emmanuel Gregoire told BFMTV that a plan to protect Notre-Dame’s treasures was rapidly and successfully activated.
The cathedral has several bells, each with a name and corresponding to a different note. The two in the south bell tower are named Emmanuel and Marie, and the eight bells in the north tower are named (from lowest to highest): Gabriel, Anne-Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Étienne, Benoît-Joseph, Maurice and Jean-Marie.
The Paris fire service said it was able to stop the flames from spreading to the north tower.
That’s good news not only for the bells themselves, said Andrée, but also because it may have prevented further damage to the cathedral had the heavy bells fallen.
“The crown of thorns, the tunic of St. Louis and many other major artifacts are now in a safe place,” Hildago, the Paris mayor, wrote in a tweet thanking firefighters and others who worked to save the historic and religious treasures.
The crown of thorns is believed in the Christian faith to have been worn by Jesus Christ when he was crucified, said Andrée. It’s usually kept away from the public and brought out only on certain occasions, such as Good Friday.
The mayor did not specifically mention another significant Christian artifact housed in Notre-Dame Cathedral: a “piece of the true cross.”
That’s believed to be part of the cross that Christ carried, which was eventually divided up and distributed to different European churches in the Middle Ages, Andrée said.
Artworks that were removed from the cathedral during the blaze were first moved to the city town hall and will now be transferred to the Louvre Museum, according to France’s culture minister, Franck Riester.