PARIS – Even as Holy Week unfolds, historians and experts in monument restoration are weighing in on the implications and repercussions of the blaze that nearly destroyed the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday.
Regardless of the time, money and resources needed to bring the church back to its splendor, they all shared confidence that Notre Dame will rise again and that the Holy Week fire of 2019 will only be a blip in its more than 800-year story.
According to French art historian and guide Pawel Clapak, the fact that the cathedral is still standing with its treasures largely preserved is nothing short of a miracle. As he watched the fire that engulfed Notre Dame on Monday his first thoughts were for the safety of the multiple artworks and relics inside.
“The organ, one of the most famous in the world, survived,” he told Crux in an April 17 interview. “Nobody expected this.”
It will take approximately two years to restore, clean and tune the 8,000 pipes of the famous organ, which is among the many items that constitute the “soul” of Notre Dame. About 95 percent of the art in the cathedral was saved, including its revered relics.
But some things are gone forever. The roof, which was created more than 800 years ago, was made with millenary trees that the Parisians searched for all over the country and brought to the cathedral, which was set to become the purest example of gothic style and a benchmark for architecture for the next 400 years.
Unfortunately, that very ancient wood and the 250 tons of lead over it ended up feeding Monday’s fire.
“Even if we wanted to make it the same, we don’t have trees like this,” Clapak said. “And if we had trees like this, we would not cut them anymore.”
Modern technology will have to be used to recreate the roof of the cathedral, he added, but even though it might look the same from the outside, it will never be the same on the inside. But Clapak said that losing the roof and the overhead spire were a fair price to pay to save the interior.
“When you see the roof dying, it’s like watching a celebrity you know from TV die,” he said. “When we talk about the towers, about the interior, about the stained-glass windows, about the organ, it’s like losing a member of the family.”
But Notre Dame is not out of danger yet, according to the art historian.
The collapse of the roof has altered the delicate balance that allows the massively large structure to stretch toward the sky. Medieval architects devised flying buttresses on the outside of the building that like giant arms help the thin walls, with its large glass windows, support the heavy roof.
“There is a chance that if the vault falls down or it’s too weak the walls might cave in toward the inside,” Clapak said. “In the worst scenario, which I doubt will happen, the vault and walls could collapse, and the flying buttresses would be left circling the ruins.”
Uncertainty regarding the short-term solidity of the cathedral, he added, may also delay restoration efforts, especially given the damage that the fall of the almost 300-foot-tall spire did to the vault.
“Nothing is controlling the balance of weight anymore,” the art historian said. “There is a danger that the vault collapses at any time.”
During the Notre Dame fire, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to the people of Paris and the world with the promise to “rebuild it together” in five years’ time.
But Clapak was less confident.
“I would say, after the renovation of Reims Cathedral, at least 10 years,” he said, referring to another French cathedral, which endured extensive damage during the First World War and is still undergoing restorations that began in 1919.
The complexity and secrets of the gothic architecture as well as the ingenuity of the medieval architects will make the reconstruction of Notre Dame a challenge for modern-day engineers.
“Without having all tools at the time, they made something so amazing, so complicated and so technologically and technically advanced that it’s not easy for us to rebuild,” he said.
French technologies and savoir-faire represent impressive resources, according to Louis Manaranche, French contemporary historian, who nonetheless said it may be challenging for Macron to keep his promise.
“Everyone is expecting a short time to rebuild the cathedral, but in the meantime, everyone knows that when you have a real historical monument like that you can’t be too much in a hurry,” he told Crux in an April 18 interview. “You have to do it properly and respect its history.”
“I’m sure the French population will accept waiting years and years and maybe decades if in the end we have a real beautiful cathedral with a real soul,” he added.
Manaranche also chimed into the debate that is beginning to bubble in Paris about whether the restoration should be faithful to the original or allow for modern solutions, as was the case for the now-famous glass triangle at the entrance of the Louvre Museum.
“I can’t say that at one time in the history of the cathedral, Parisians or kings or bishops decided to do something modern in the old structure,” he said. “Even if it’s innovative, we can find other places to do interesting architecture. Maybe not the cathedral, I think it would be disrespectful for such an old lady.”
Another debate regarding restorations for Notre Dame percolated in Paris at the beginning of the 1800s, with one side advocating for its restoration and the other for its dismantling.
Among those advocating for its survival was Napoleon Bonaparte, who had crowned himself emperor in the presence of Pope Pius VII in 1804 underneath its gothic vault. A proposal had already been signed for its destruction, but Napoleon overturned it despite lacking the funds for the restoration.
Shortly after, in 1831, Victor Hugo’s famous novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame detailed the decay of the cathedral after 600 years of neglect.
“The hunchback never existed,” Clapak said, “but nevertheless, he saved the cathedral.”
Having read the book, Parisians ran to the cathedral to offer donations for its restoration, which would eventually be taken up by two architects, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, for the next 30 years.
The input of donations by lay people and organizations has been and continued to be essential for the survival of Notre Dame. Only two days after the blaze, more than one trillion euros were donated to restore the cathedral.
All monuments in Paris that were built before 1901 belong to the French government or municipalities, which are tasked with their preservation. Given the massive amount of historic buildings in the country this represents a challenge.
For this reason, “it’s critical that lay people participate in this process,” said Brian Smith, Director of the American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés Church foundation in a phone interview with Crux April 18.
“I think that this event raised awareness about the fact that churches and other buildings require upkeep,” he added, and “they have to be fixed or otherwise they will collapse.”
Smith leads a foundation that is committed to the restoration of the oldest church in Paris, built in 543 CE, and has extensive experience with the unexpected costs and complexities that restoring an old church can entail.
“Only when you see something as devastating as this fire you realize that something that you take for granted could disappear overnight,” he said, adding that the blaze of Notre Dame has “awakened the world to this reality.”
According to firefighters at the scene, if they had intervened on the cathedral 50 minutes later, there was a high probability that the entire building would have collapsed. Its famous halo-shaped windows would have fallen under the weight of the lead, forever changing the Parisian landscape.
“The cathedral was always a story teller,” Clapak said, referring to the reliefs covering the entrance that represent important moments of the life of the Virgin Mary and the Final Judgement.
“Without all this, I wouldn’t see the purpose of rebuilding the cathedral as it was. Because whatever would be constructed it would have no soul,” he added. “It’s about all of its rich history and the story represented there.”
Through the flames, Paris was blessed with a miracle when the core of Notre Dame was spared. Once the restorations are over, whenever that may be, the cathedral that converted kings, made emperors and celebrated the end of world wars will have yet another story to tell.