On Monday evening, firefighters battled against a truly devastating fire that tore its way through one of Paris’s national treasures – the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The cathedral was undergoing an extensive restoration programme when the fire started, although the cause is unknown.
“What the Paris firefighters did was close to a miracle” acknowledged Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College London.
The flames engulfed the main structure of the 850-year-old building, causing its iconic spire to collapse. Despite this devastation, firefighters were able to save the central nave and some of the priceless artworks held inside.
First constructed in 1160, Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture and possesses an important collection of art and Christian relics. Many see the cathedral as a bastion of French identity.
“Notre-Dame Cathedral is the very soul of Paris but so much more—it is a touchstone for all that is the best about the world, and a monument to the highest aspirations of artistic achievement that transcends religion and time,” declared Robert A. Maxwell, a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York.
Officials are still assessing the full extent of the damage, but French Culture Minister Franck Riester released a short statement detailing what was saved.
Housed within Notre-Dame since the 13th century, the crown of thorns thought to be worn by Christ during the crucifixion was rescued. Firefighters also preserved a tunic of Louis IX, who was king of France from 1226-1270. According to Paris mayor Anne Hadalgo, brave emergency responders and Priest Jean-Marc Fournier entered the burning building and created a human chain around these relics.
The famed rose windows – three stained-glass windows installed in 1258 – seem to have been spared from the fire, as well as the 18th-century grand organ. Rescued from destruction, the copper statues lining the base of the spire were fortuitously removed just five days prior for restoration purposes.
Some works will be transferred to the Louvre to be repaired or restored. But it is still unclear the extent to which smoke has damaged the collection and many objects remain unaccounted for, such as a piece of wood and a nail believed to be from Christ’s crucifixion.
Kevin Murphy, Humanities Chair and professor of Art History at Vanderbilt University, expressed his concern; “now, the other issue with fire, of course, is water. They pumped a gigantic amount of water onto the building, so where did it go? Is that sitting on top of the vault? Has it gone into the building?”
Yesterday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the cathedral will be rebuilt over five years and will be “even more beautiful than it was.” Around the world, people have already raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help with the renovation.
Barbara Drake Boehm, a senior curator at the Cloisters in New York, encapsulated the sadness felt across Paris and the world; “It has survived so much—from the French Revolution to Nazi occupation—to watch its devastation is excruciating.”