What Do We Know One Month After The Notre-Dame Fire?

Notre Dame before
Source: Pixabay

On the night of April 15th, all of Paris and most of the world watched in silent pain and stupefaction as the cathedral of Notre-Dame burned. The fire began in the wood roofing of the cathedral and quickly spread. It was only completely extinguished fifteen hours later, after nine hours of non-stop battle by 400 firefighters. All indications for the moment point to an accident which luckily did not cause any deaths, only three injuries in the emergency personnel.

How and where did the fire start?

At the time of the fire the cathedral was already in its second year of a 14-year restoration project. The first four years were to concentrate on cleaning the spire and its sculptures, with the next ten years of work on the choir. The spire and the roof were therefore covered in scaffolding outside with some supporting structures in the roof space between the wooden roofing and stone vaulted ceilings.

Investigations are still underway, but the fire started after all renovation work was done for the day and the last workers had left. A first fire alarm went off at 6:20 pm local time, however after security personnel went looking and found nothing, it was believed to be a false alarm. Twenty-three minutes after the first alarm, it sounded again. This time security guards discovered flames and the firefighters were called at 6:51 pm as the first smoke appeared in the work zone on the roof.

The fire began in the roof space of the base of the spire which then collapsed an hour and a half after the first alarm. By 9 pm the flames had reached the north tower. Firefighters chose to concentrate on saving the towers, leaving the rest of the roofing to burn. Had the towers burnt, the whole structure could have collapsed.

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A well-loved cathedral and place of beauty

Notre-Dame de Paris was built between 1163 and the middle of the 14th century on the Ile de la Cité, the birthplace of Paris. The Bishop Maurice de Sully decided to build a new Gothic-style cathedral to replace the existing smaller Romanesque one. In the mid-13th century the famous northern and southern rose windows were installed in the transepts and the flying buttresses were built. These buttresses are what allowed the building to be taller and have larger windows than others of the time as they help support the weight of the roof.

Over time, other well-known architectural features of the cathedral were added. These include the gargoyles, grotesque sculptures both symbolizing the danger of not following the church’s teachings and serving a practical purpose – as rain spouts. The 19th century flèche which collapsed during the fire was designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who worked on the renovations of the cathedral at the time. The 13th century roof beams, nicknamed the “forest” as an entire forest of oak trees (1,300) was used to make them, also did not survive the flames. The ten bells and organ have provided the melodies of this monument in one form or another since the 15th century.

Notre-Dame contains many other stained-glass windows, sculptures, paintings, and treasures, making the cathedral one of the most visited monuments in France and a free museum for all people.

Where do things go from here?

Most of the treasures, relics, and artwork were able to be saved, either the night of the fire or in the following weeks. Most of the artwork is in the Louvre for restoration and storage. The organ will eventually be restored as well. Luckily, the bronze statues of the twelve apostles from the spire had been removed four days prior to the fire to be sent off for restoration.

Emmanuel Macron promised in a speech to the nation the following day that the restoration of the cathedral would be done within five years. However, specialists warn that more time is needed to do a thorough job. The National Assembly passed a law on May 11th to bypass heritage rules and regulations in vigour so as to attempt to abide by President Macron’s schedule, sparking controversy.

Over one billion euros have been pledged to fund the restoration works, but only 71 million euros have actually been donated so far. French billionaire families Arnault (LVMH) and Bettencourt (L’Oréal) each pledged 200 million euros. The Pinault family (Artémis) and Total pledged 100 million euros each. Other private organizations and companies, domestic and foreign governments, and private citizens have also pledged money and resources.

Now we will have to wait and see how many donation promises are kept, what spire design is chosen, and how many years it will actually take to complete the renovation of this beautiful lady.