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The Courtauld Institute of Art

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Notre-Dame

April 16, 2019

News of the Notre-Dame fire has deeply shocked people worldwide. Amidst the various reasons for it holding a deep-seated significance for many people, including religious, cultural and national, is Notre-Dame’s status as a Gothic icon. For art historians, amateur enthusiasts and casual onlookers alike, the prospect of losing the cathedral, its stained glass, its Cavaillé-Coll organ and the artworks inside, is nothing short of horrifying.

Notre-Dame, Pre-Fire (Photo: Francesca Vine)

 

Sitting down to dinner, I idly opened my newsfeed and gasped in horror at the breaking headline. The live footage was worse, showing billowing clouds and bright orange flames rising high above the cathedral. At first, the fire seemed to be contained to the transept, but soon after the spire had collapsed, crashing through the vaulting and onto the cathedral floor, it became clear that it had spread and was engulfing the entire roof of the nave. Images captured by drones showed an infernal fire pit. Ironically, this was positive as it meant the stone vaulting was still supporting the majority of the flaming roof, save for the hole left by the spire. Official outlets played its collapse on repeat, but were scarce on any real news, leaving many desperately scouring social media for information on the state of the interior. French government sources gave a bleak outlook, with the French deputy interior minister announcing that saving the cathedral was “not certain” and French fire services announcing that they were “not sure” if the fire could be stopped. 

 

The vast crowds that assembled in the Parisian streets looked on in helpless horror, many in tears, as firefighters battled desperately to rescue what they could from the interior while simultaneously stopping the fire from spreading to the iconic towers. Flames were, at one point, visible in the North tower, but this fire was later confirmed to have been extinguished. Finally, the fire service announced that the structure of the building had been saved and shortly afterwards, the first images of the interior began to appear on Twitter. Inaccurate reports that the vaulting had collapsed, and the interior burnt out, which had circulated for several hours, were shown to be false, with photographs revealing the unburnt wooden seating, Nicolas Coustou’s Pietà and the altar cross dimly illuminated by the fire raging above. 

 

This morning, shortly before the fire was confirmed to have been extinguished in its entirety, the first images of the North rose window, with its original twelfth-century stained glass, emerged and all three rose windows were reported to be intact. An organ technician posted that, although suffering from water damage, the great Cavaillé-Coll organ had not been engulfed in the North tower fire, as had been previously suggested. The main casualty appears to have been the original timber roof, made up of 13,000 oak trees (about 21 hectares of forest), which, after the equivalent of 900 years in a wood store, were bone dry and allowed the fire to spread at such a great speed. 

Cavaillé-Coll Organ, Notre-Dame, Pre-Fire (Photo: Francesca Vine)

 

The upside, if there can be an upside, is that this could have been much, much worse. If it had happened even just a century ago, there would now likely be nothing left. Modern firefighting capabilities were doubtless a large part of the reason the Notre-Dame still stands. Catastrophic cathedral fires were a fairly regular occurrence in the Mediaeval period and beyond, often acting as the catalyst for extensive rebuilds in a new and contemporary style, enabling artistic progression.  Such instances can be seen in posterity (however inaccurate this might actually be in some cases) as watershed moments where new and innovative ideas arose from the ashes. Complete or partial rebuilds commonly occurred multiple times over the course of a cathedral’s lifetime as a spiritual centre for the community. St Paul’s Cathedral in London, for example, was rebuilt in its fourth iteration by the Normans after a 1087 fire (a further fire occurring in 1136 while it was being constructed) during which time the prevailing style changed from Romanesque to Gothic and the resulting church became a fusion of the two styles. In 1666, of course, the Great Fire of London gutted the church, with the remains being demolished in the early 1670s, when it became clear that the structure had become dangerously unstable. The modern cathedral was then built by Christopher Wren in a new restrained (English) Baroque style which it retains today. 

 

Notre-Dame, however, unlike such other cathedrals, had survived largely unscathed throughout its 900-year lifetime. Even so, it is a testament to its twelfth-century builders that the stone vaulting held up, as it was doubtless designed to do under such circumstances. The priority now will be restoring the cathedral, as much as possible, to its pre-fire state. At the time of writing, two French billionaires have pledged a combined total of 300 million euros and Emmanuel Macron has announced an international fundraiser. There will, however, be challenges. There are already voices of concern that France does not have tall enough oaks to create the new roof. 

 

As my parting thought, I can only add that if you visit a cathedral, or indeed any historic site, and think about putting it off because of the long queue or decide to forgo the tower tour to save five euros, on the premise that it will be there next time - don’t. As we can see from this tragic event, it might well not be.

 

 

 

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