“Notre Dame is on Fire!”: a look at the inferno that devastated the world-famous Gothic cathedral in Paris, its immediate aftermath, and what could be ahead.

By John P. Walsh, May 21, 2019.

Flames engulf Notre Dame de Paris in an historic early evening blaze on Monday, April 15, 2019. The fire left the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral standing, but suffering serious damage.

Hundreds of Paris firefighters battled the blaze for hours at Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019. They saved the cathedral though its expansive timber roof, frame and spire burned crashed into the nave.

Notre Dame de Paris suffered a devastating fire on April 15, 2019 causing most of its roof and a 300-foot oak spire to collapse. The fire broke out during an early evening Mass when more than 1,000 people were in the cathedral which is the most touristic site in the center of the most touristic city in the world. The priest had been in the middle of reading that day’s Gospel of John. It was Holy Monday, the first day of Holy Week where the gospel tells the story of Mary pouring oil over the feet of Jesus which will anoint him for burial. Judas complains the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.1

Notre Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris” named in honor of the Virgin Mary) will take years, even decades, to rebuild and at great expense. This will be the case whether the edifice is simply restored or, as some have argued for, more creatively re-imagined for modern times. Whichever rebuilding vision or visions are followed – and there will be voices from many quarters involved in the restoration process ahead – French president Emmanuel Macron promised to complete its rebuilding by around 2024. Within 48 hours of the fire, donations poured in from around the world to rebuild the cathedral amounting to more than one billion dollars whose substantial amount may prove inadequate to fully cover rebuilding costs.2

While the fire’s precise ultimate cause is yet to be fully determined, the conditions surrounding the blaze are recognizably available: its spotty maintenance record over 10 centuries; the anachronistic methods and complexity of its 21st century renovation going on when the fire broke out; the 12th and 13th century flammable oak “forest’” that constitutes the building’s roof and frame; and the challenges encountered by hundreds of firefighters owing to the cathedral’s size and the fire’s location and breadth. Ironically, the Cathedral roof that burned—a major attic fire— was one of the larger parts of the original 12th century builder’s monied investment.3

Notre Dame de Paris is one of Paris’s famous icons–an historical and religious treasure–and one of France’s great cathedrals along with Reims (which was nearly destroyed by fire during World War I) and Chartres (reconstructed after a fire in 1194). Others on any short list of great French cathedrals would include Amiens and Bourges, among others.

Notre Dame de Paris before the April 15, 2019 blaze. The Roman Catholic cathedral is the tourist mecca in the most touristed city in the world.

Reims Cathedral on fire in World War 1. The site of the coronation of French kings, the Gothic cathedral was virtually destroyed by bombing. After the war, the massive cathedral was completely rebuilt.

In 1163 when it became time to roof the superstructure of Notre Dame de Paris’s choir which was the first part of the church to be constructed, Paris bishop Maurice de Sully (1120-1196) provided 5000 French livres so that it could be richly and securely layered with lead. That and other of the Cathedral roof’s protective lead covering was stolen during the French Revolution in the eighteenth century. The roof’s space and design provided a large part of the church’s riddle of secret passages – including spiral staircases in the nave’s columns – that served mainly for the needs of the religious complex’s maintenance. Obviously twelfth and thirteenth century engineering proved resilient but not impregnable over ten centuries. The 2019 blaze caused serious damage leaving questions to be answered about the medieval stone and timber building’s ultimate stability. This is highly symbolic as Notre Dame de Paris is Paris Point Zero – the very center not only of the Île-de la-Cité and Paris, but the place from which all distances in France and, by extension, the world are to be judged.4

The Paris bishop Maurice de Sully (1120-1196) who with his chapter of cathedral canons started the building of Notre Dame de Paris in 1163. The structure was completed in 1250.

Episodes from the life of a bishop, c.1500, oil on panel, 61.5 x 47 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Though about 300 years after the death of Bishop de Sully, this artwork captures some of the grandeur and long history of the archbishop at his cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.

The story of the Gothic cathedral, such as Notre Dame de Paris, is essentially a French story. By the end of the Gothic Movement in the late 14th century, all corners of France -– and points between — possessed a Gothic church that displayed pointed arch, stained glass, and buttresses, some of them magnificently flying. The style and power of Gothic art reflected not only a new theological thinking in the Renaissance of the 12th century but also an assertion of royal power.5

Notre Dame de Paris viewed from the south side of the Seine. Its magnificent flying buttresses can be seen supporting the nave and apse as well as its oak spire erected in 1860 that burned and crashed into the nave during the April 15, 2019 fire.

Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu in far northeastern France is a Gothic church constructed between 1186 and 1240, roughly contemporaneous to Notre Dame de Paris. The subterranean crypt contains the tomb (excepting his heart which is at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin) of Irish St. Laurence O’Toole (1128-1180). The main impetus for the building of the new Gothic Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu was to accommodate the pilgrims who came to venerate at the saint’s tomb. French Gothic building efforts stretched from a Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu (1186) in northeastern France to Toulouse Cathedral (13th century) in the south in France’s historic Languedoc.

It was the age of international crusades of Western conquest to the Holy Land where a French king, King Louis IX, or St. Louis (1214-1270) led its seventh manifestation from 1248 to 1254 and died while on its Eighth. Here the king purchased relics to bring back to France, including the highly prized Crown of Thorns reputedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. During the April 2019 fire, scores of ordinary people and cathedral personnel formed a human chain to save the cathedral’s many irreplaceable artifacts and preventing them from being consumed forever into the hellish blaze.

Louis IX (St. Louis) with his counselors and mother Blanche de Castile (1188-1252) in a miniature of the 15th century.

King Louis IX, or St. Louis (1214-1270) led the Seventh Crusade from 1248 to 1254.

As one of the first cathedrals built Notre Dame de Paris is of enduring architectural significance. Monday, April 15, 2019 was a tragic day in history as fire broke out in the 850-year old edifice while the world watched. Thousands of people gathered in the streets of Paris, and transmitted pictures of the dramatic blaze from smartphones and other devices onto the internet and television. It caused many to shed tears as well as express consternation and questions about what lies ahead for one of the most famous and beloved symbols of Paris.

Notre Dame de Paris is on fire, April 15, 2019. Countless pictures were taken and transmitted instantaneously around the world on the internet.

Extent of the fire damage (in red) at Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 fire, workers aimed to secure and protect the edifice which will take several months to finalize. By May 2019, the north tower was stabilized and secured while the transept’s beams were declared in good condition. Although the interior was not damaged, the structural integrity of the high vaults that protected it remains precariously uncertain and requires further close study to determine its ultimate fate. The cathedral is undergoing a major effort to remove fire debris including the oak spire (or flèche) dating from 1860 and the arch that fell into the nave.

To the highest degree possible, each bit of fallen debris will be deciphered, cataloged and saved for potential reuse in a restoration. Just one month after the fire, it would be premature to determine if the building is completely stable and it could still suffer some sort of collapse. Working on the cathedral in the 21st century are virtually the same type of skilled laborers who built it in the first place in the 12th and 13th centuries – namely, masons, stonecutters, carpenters, roofers, iron workers, and master glassmakers.6 The work associated with the Notre Dame de Paris in the aftermath of the 2019 fire promises to concentrate long centuries of history into one place looking to sustain its continued thriving existence for future generations.

NOTES:

1. “Vows to Restore Notre Dame Following a Harrowing Rescue,” by Sam Schechner and Stacy Meichtry, The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2019; see Gospel of John, Chapter 12.

2. “Some say the $1 billion donated to the Paris cathedral should’ve been directed elsewhere,” by Sigal Samuel, Vox, April 20, 2019 – https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/20/18507964/notre-dame-cathedral-fire-charity-donations- retrieved May 21, 2019.

3. Gimpel, Jean, The Cathedral Builders, Grove Press, Inc., New York and Evergreen Books, Ltd., London, 1961, pp. 171-72.

4. see “Paris Point Zero” – https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/paris-point-zero – retrieved May 21, 2019.

5. Duby, Georges, The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420, translated by Eleanor Levieux and Barbara Thompson, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1981, p.97.

6. “Notre-Dame de Paris: Very serious damage that can be repaired,” Élodie Maurot, La Croix International, May 14, 2019 – https://international.la-croix.com/news/notre-dame-de-paris-very-serious-damage-that-can-be-repaired/10094 – retrieved May 20, 2019.

Text©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.

MORE PHOTOGRAPHS OF NOTRE DAME DE PARIS:

Suzy Parker with Notre Dame de Paris Gargoyle, 1951. Photograph: Richard Avedon (1923-2004).

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