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Continuing this series, for those of us who have seen it, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris seems immortal, protected by divine providence.

This is what we remember:

This structure largely remained the same over the centuries. This was before the spire was added:

This photograph is nearly a century old. Note the spire:

Around ten years later, a new fire ladder — the world’s tallest at the time — was tested at Notre-Dame:

So, when tragedy struck on the Monday of Holy Week — April 15, 2019 — the world was stunned, especially Parisians returning home from work:

Later that evening, the inferno continued:

Nine hours after the blaze started, this is what was left:

The following image will become iconic. It made one magazine cover in Britain:

French journalist François Picard tweeted his thoughts before hosting a special programme on France24 about the inferno:

Catholics presented a parochial perspective:

Fair enough, however, millions of Protestants — myself included — were equally struck by my many visits to Notre-Dame and this almost untameable fire.

President Trump spoke well for the world at large in expressing what Notre-Dame means:

That said, structural issues appeared in the cathedral some years ago:

Despite that, in 2016, a new organ console was installed:

The tweet about the structural issues points to a 2017 article in Time, updated after the fire: ‘Notre Dame Cathedral Is Crumbling. Who Will Help Save It?’

Journalist Vivienne Walt, the author, sounded the alarm (emphases mine):

Notre Dame, which looms over the capital from an island in the center of the city, is a constant reminder of Paris’ history. It has seen more than its share of epic dramas, including the French Revolution and two world wars. But now there is another challenge. Some 854 years after construction began, one of Europe’s most visited sites, with about 12 million tourists a year, is in dire need of repairs. Centuries of weather have worn away at the stone. The fumes from decades of gridlock have only worsened the damage. “Pollution is the biggest culprit,” says Philippe Villeneuve, architect in chief of historic monuments in France. “We need to replace the ruined stones. We need to replace the joints with traditional materials. This is going to be extensive.”

As always, it was a question of money:

Under France’s strict secular laws, the government owns the cathedral, and the Catholic archdiocese of Paris uses it permanently for free. The priests for years believed the government should pay for repairs, since it owned the building. But under the terms of the government’s agreement, the archdiocese is responsible for Notre Dame’s upkeep, with the Ministry of Culture giving it about €2 million ($2.28 million) a year for that purpose. Staff say that money covers only basic repairs, far short of what is needed. Without a serious injection of cash, some believe, the building will not be safe for visitors in the future. Now the archdiocese is seeking help to save Notre Dame from yielding to the ravages of time.

She gives us a brief history of the cathedral:

The architects of Notre Dame knew all too well about lengthy building work; it took more than a century to build the cathedral, beginning in 1163. It was periodically vandalized over the turbulent centuries that followed. Rioting Huguenots damaged parts of the building they believed to be idolatrous in the mid–16th century. During the French Revolution, mobs of people carted off or smashed some of its paintings and statues. The hated royalty suffered the brunt of the carnage, with crowds destroying 28 statues of monarchs from the building’s Gallery of Kings. After that, Notre Dame languished in neglect.

Then, in 1831, along came Victor Hugo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its disfigured protagonist Quasimodo:

In it, France’s beloved writer raised alarm about the building’s decay, describing “mutilations, amputations, dislocations of the joints.” “Beside each wrinkle on the face of this old queen of our cathedrals,” he wrote, “you will find a scar.”

But for Notre Dame, Hugo’s book sparked fresh problems. The best seller inspired a restoration in 1844, which used low-quality stone and even cement, since France at the time could not produce the quantities of high-grade material that the job required.

Today, that restoration work is crumbling, as Vivienne Walt saw for herself:

Chunks of limestone lay on the ground, having fallen from the upper part of the chevet, or the eastern end of the Gothic church. One small piece had a clean slice down one side, showing how recently it had fallen. Two sections of a wall were missing, propped up with wood. And the features of Notre Dame’s famous gargoyles looked as worn away as the face of Voldemort. “They are like ice cream in the sun, melting,” says Michel Picaud, head of the nonprofit Friends of Notre Dame de Paris, looking up at them.

Whilst the mediaeval structure of the main part of the cathedral is sound, Andrew Tallon, an expert on Gothic architecture at Vassar College, told Walt:

The flying buttresses, if they are not in place, the choir could come down,” he says. “The more you wait, the more you need to take down and replace.”

Walt explains no one knew about this until a few years ago. Until then, the French government put large parts of the cathedral off limits. These areas were locked off. The government eventually allowed a total of 200 old keys to be standardised, which allowed Notre Dame caretakers to access previously blocked off spaces. André Finot, a spokesman for Notre Dame, told Walt:

We were shocked when we got up there.

The government purchased new bells in 2012 for Notre-Dame’s 850th anniversary. In 2017, the cathedral received an extra €6 million ($6.84 million) for restoration of the 19th century spire. Water damage to the spire could adversely affect the ancient oak roof, which has been there for over eight centuries.

When Walt wrote her article in 2017, the government was not terribly interested:

To the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care. “France has thousands of monuments,” says the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media. Among them, Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case. “It will not fall down,” she says.

Notre-Dame staff were less relaxed about the state of the building:

there is plenty of alarm in the church. Finally accepting that the government would not pay to restore the cathedral, the archdiocese launched Friends of Notre Dame in October to appeal for help. It hopes to raise €100 million ($114 million) in the next five to 10 years. “There is no part of the building untouched by the irreparable loss of sculptural and decorative elements, let alone the alarming deterioration of structural elements,” the organization says on its website. The cathedral, it says, “is in desperate need of attention.”

Ironically, given the fire:

By the time serious renovation work begins–perhaps sometime before the end of this decade–the damage could be worse than it is today.

Indeed. Little did anyone know what would happen at the beginning of Holy Week 2019.

Fortunately, huge donations amounting to €500m arrived swiftly. The Arnault family donated while the inferno raged:

On the morning of April 16:

Pardon the repeat photos, but the accompanying comments are moving:

What a bittersweet memory of Holy Week 2019.

I will have more on Notre-Dame next week.

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