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“Notre Dame is on Fire!”: the April 15, 2019 blaze that devastated the world-famous Gothic cathedral in Paris, its architectural history and what lies 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 extensive and serious damage.

Hundreds of Paris firefighters battled the blaze for hours at Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019.

First responders saved the cathedral though its expansive timber roof, frame and spire burned and crashed into the nave.

Fire broke out with 1,000 people inside the building

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

Pledges to rebuild

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

Spotty maintenance record for 850-year-old stone and wood building

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 twelfth and thirteenth 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 size.

Almost ironically, the Cathedral roof that burned—a major attic fire— was one of the larger parts of the original 12th century cathedral builder’s monied investment.3

BRIEF ACCOUNT OF NOTRE DAME DE PARIS’S ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY

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.

Above: Notre Dame de Paris before the April 15, 2019 blaze. In touristy Paris, the cathedral is the tourist mecca.

Below: The cathedral’s great nave in the aftermath of the April 15, 2020 fire.

Reims Cathedral on fire in World War I. The cathedral was 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 operation and maintenance. Engineering of the 12th and 13th centuries proved resilient over nearly 1000 years — through hardly impervious to obsolescence and decay.

The 2019 blaze caused serious damage to the cathedral infrastructure. The flames left behind many questions to be answered about the medieval stone and timber building’s ultimate stability. History’s endurance for more than a church was at stake. Notre Dame de Paris is Paris Point Zero – the very center of the Île-de la-Cité, Paris, and all distances in France and, by extension, the world, are to be judged.4

The Paris bishop Maurice de Sully (1120-1196). The visionary bishop and his chapter of cathedral canons started the building of Notre Dame de Paris in 1163. Most of the Gothic 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 the scene depicted is from about 300 years after the death of Bishop de Sully, the art work captures the grandeur and history of the archbishop at the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.

The Gothic cathedral- a quintessentially French Story

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 flying buttresses support the nave and apse. The oak spire is a later addition (1860). It went up in flames like a torch and crashed full bore into the nave in the April 15, 2019 fire.

The Gothic church called Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu is in northeastern France. looking to paris for inspiration, it was constructed between 1186 and 1240.

Its subterranean crypt contains the tomb of Irish St. Laurence O’Toole (1128-1180). The saint’s heart is in Dublin at Christ Church Cathedral.

The main impetus for the building of the new Gothic church was to accommodate pilgrims who came to venerate at O’Toole’s tomb.

French Gothic building project stretched from a Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent d’Eu (1186) in northeastern France to Toulouse Cathedral (13th century) in in France’s Languedoc in the south.

Impact of the Crusades on Notre Dame de Paris

The Gothic age was characterized by international crusades of Western conquest to the Holy Land. The French king, Louis IX, or St. Louis (1214-1270) led its seventh manifestation from 1248 to 1254. Louis died while on its Eighth.

In the Holy Land the French king purchased relics to bring back to France, including the highly prized Crown of Thorns reputedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. Relics were an investment that could pay off by generating pilgrimages.

In the April 2019 fire, scores of ordinary people and cathedral personnel formed a human chain to save the cathedral’s artifacts, most irreplaceable, and prevent their consumed in the hellish blaze.

Louis IX (St. Louis) with his counselors and Blanche de Castile (1188-1252), Louis’s mother, 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 as a major news event. It caused many to shed tears and ask questions about what is ahead for a beloved symbol 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.

THE FIRE’S IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH

In the 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 uncertain and requires further close study. The cathedral is undergoing a major effort to remove fire debris including the oak spire (or flèche) dating from 1860 as well as the arch that burned and crashed into the nave.

Cataloguing debris and predicting the building’s future

To the highest degree possible, each bit of fallen debris will be deciphered, cataloged and saved for potential reuse in a restoration. One month after the fire, it was declared premature to know if the building is completely stable or if it might further 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 centuries of history into one location 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.

Eugène Atget, Photographer: L’Art Dans Le Vieux Paris.

Eugène Atget Studio c. 1910

Eugène Atget, Photographer’s Studio, c. 1910.

Atget anonymous


Eugène Atget in an anonymously-taken photograph. Atget was born in 1857 near Bordeaux (Libourne) and after his parents died in 1862, the 5-year-old boy was brought up by his grandparents in Bordeaux. Atget received a solid education and, similar to Paul Gauguin, eventually went to sea in the merchant navy and later, in 1878, settled in Paris where he aspired to be a dramatic actor. For the next decade, Atget was a traveling thespian in the Paris theaters. Even after he left Paris and the theater profession in 1888 to become a fine arts painter in the provinces, Atget always considered himself to be an actor. By 1890, his brief painting career over, Atget was back in Paris where he decided to become a documentary photographer.

There is a portrait of Eugène Atget (1857-1927) by Berenice Abbott created in 1927 that can be found here: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/eug%C3%A8ne-atget?all/all/all/all/0. The portrait was taken in Berenice Abbott’s studio after Atget had recently taken up photography again. In August 1927, he died. It was at Man Ray’s suggestion that Berenice Abbott introduced herself to Atget in 1925 and began taking photographs of him. Of her subject she observed: “[Atget] will be remembered as an urbanist historian, a genuine romanticist, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization.” (quoted in Paris Eugène Atget 1857-1927, Taschen, 2000, p. 22).

Atget, Children Playing Luxembourg Gardens, c 1898


Eugène Atget, Children Playing, Luxembourg Gardens, c.1898. Atget created many photographs with people in them, including this straightforward portrayal of Parisian life that also serves as a document of historical interest.

Atget The Old School of Medicine, 1898.


Eugène Atget, The Old School of Medicine, Rue de la Bûcherie, 1898. Near the cathedral Notre Dame de Paris and the Place Maubert, between La Seine and Boulevard Saint-Germain, Rue de la Bûcherie is one of the oldest Left Bank streets. In the Middle Ages discarded meats were prepared here to feed the poor. The dome of this sixteenth-century building built for the University of Paris housed an auditorium in which classes were held. In Atget’s time it was a hotel that housed a street-level wine shop. After 1910 it became a school dormitory and a library after that. Today, the Old School of Medicine has been restored to original appearance.

Atget, St-Julien-le-Pauvre Facade


Eugène Atget, Façade, St-Julien-le-Pauvre, 1898. The chapel on this site since the sixth century was destroyed in the ninth century by the Normans. Remnants of a twelfth century church that was sacked by students in 1524 remain after the church was reconstructed in 1651. During the French Revolution the church was used to store and sell various stock, and rededicated as a church in 1826. When Atget photographed it, St Julien-le-Pauvre was a Melkite Catholic Church which it is today. The arch at the top of Atget’s photograph is a camera effect from the glass plate not being covered by the lens. The church guard is seated to one side of the main door. The buildings to the side of the passageway in the photograph are largely gone today.

Atget Place Saint Medard


Eugène Atget, Place Saint-Médard, 1889-99.

Atget, Hotel de Brinvilliers Rue Charles V


Eugène Atget, Hôtel de Brinvilliers, Rue Charles V, 1900.

Atget, Au Bon Puits, rue Michel-Le-Comte, 1901


Eugène Atget, Au Bon Puits, rue Michel-Le-Comte, 1901.

Atget, Lampshade seller, rue Lepic


Eugène Atget, Lampshade Seller, rue Lepic, 1901.

Ragpicker, avenue des Gobelins, 1901

Eugène Atget, Ragpicker, avenue des Gobelins, 1901.

Atget, Fountains at Juvisy, 1902.

Eugène Atget, Fountains at Juvisy, 1902.

Atget. Petit Bacchus, 61, rue-St-Louis-en-l'Ile, 1901-02


Eugène Atget, Petit Bacchus, rue-St-Louis-en-l’Ile, 1901-02.

Atget,Au Petit Bacchus rue St-Louis-en-Ile detail


Eugène Atget, detail, Petit Bacchus, rue-St-Louis-en-l’Ile, 1901-02.

Atget, Temple of Love, the Petit Trianon, 1902.


Eugène Atget, The Temple of Love, the Petit Trianon, 1902.

Atget, Paris Antique Store, Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honore 1902


Eugène Atget, Paris Antique Store, Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, 1902.

Atget, Paris Maison, Place du Caire, 1903


Eugène Atget, Façade du no 2 , Place du Caire, 1903.

Atget, Courtyard of Farewells, Fontainebleau, 1903

Eugène Atget, Courtyard of Farewells, Fontainebleau, 1903.

Atget, Ancienne Barrière du Trône, Paris, 1903-04.

Eugène Atget, Ancienne Barrière (tollgate) du Trône, Paris, 1903-04.

Atget, France Triumphant, Versailles, 1904

Eugène Atget, France Triumphant, Versailles, 1904.

Atget, Paris Palais Royal


Eugène Atget, Palais-Royal, Paris, 1904-05.

Atget, Tree Roots, Saint Cloud Park, 1906.


Eugène Atget, Tree Roots, Saint Cloud Park, 1906.

Atget, Rue Sainte Opportune, Paris, 1908 (or 1912)


Eugène Atget, Rue Sainte Opportune, Paris, 1908 (or 1912).

Eugène Atget, Water Lilies, before 1911.

Eugène Atget, Water Lilies, before 1911.

Old Courtyard, rue Quincampoix, 1908 or 1912.


Eugène Atget, Old Courtyard, rue Quincampoix, 1908 or 1912.

Atget, Entrée du passage de la Réunion, 1 et 3 Rue du Maure, 3° arrondissement en 1911.


Eugène Atget, Entrée du passage de la Réunion, 1 et 3 Rue du Maure, 3° arrondissement, 1911.

Atget, Tinsmith's Shop, rue de la Reynie, 1912


Eugène Atget, Tinsmith’s Shop, rue de la Reynie, 1912.

Dress shop, rue de la Corderie, 1920.


Eugène Atget, Dress shop, rue de la Corderie, 1920.

Atget, Hairdresser's shop, boulevard de Strasbourg, 1912


Eugène Atget, Hairdresser’s shop, boulevard de Strasbourg, 1912.

Atget, Ragpicker's Hut, 1912.


Eugène Atget, Ragpicker’s Hut, 1912.

Atget, old mill, Charenton 1915.

Eugène Atget, Old Mill, Charenton, 1915.

Atget, Reflecting Pool, Saint-Cloud, 1915-19.

Eugène Atget, Reflecting Pool, Saint-Cloud, 1915-19.

Atget, rue de l'hotel de Ville 1921

Eugène Atget, Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 1921.

Atget, Cour de Rouen, 1915.

Eugène Atget, Cour de Rouen, 1915.

Atget, Hotel Richelieu, 18 quai de Bethune 4th 1900

Eugène Atget, Hôtel Richelieu, 18 quai de Béthune, (4th arr.), 1900.

Atget, Ancienne maison de la maitrise 1902

Eugène Atget, Ancienne maison de la maîtrise, 1902.