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Monday, September 16, 2019

After the Fire

Shortly before eight p.m. Notre Dame's iconic wooden
spire toppled into the attic inferno below.
A little over six years ago I wrote detailing our visit to Notre Dame de Paris. A lot has happened since then. A smoke alarm alerted a fire security employee who was monitoring the system in a building beside the cathedral at 6:18 p.m. on April 15, 2019. That employee then rang a security guard who was standing near the altar and told him to check it out. The guard reported that there was no fire. The guard had gone to the wrong part of the cathedral—a connected building called the sacristy. The security employee called his boss rather than the fire department, who did not pick up initially. When his boss called back, they realized what was happening and told the security guard to immediately look at the attic of the main cathedral—where by then, the fire was burning out of control. The mix-up has since produced a bitter round of finger-pointing over who was responsible for allowing the fire to rage unchecked for so long.
Notre Dame interior--before                           and after the fire               
The fire was devastating, but it could have been much worse. Firefighters were in a life-threatening race against time to stop the cathedral from collapsing, which ended with the loss of its steeple and wooden structure but the preservation of its towers, main structure, famous stained-glass windows, and many of the world-renowned treasures inside. An important collection of artwork and Christian relics stored in and around Notre Dame also faced danger from the flames. Firefighters and other emergency responders formed a human chain and entered the building to save what holy relics they could. Thanks to the bravery of Paris firefighters, and in no small part that of the cathedral staff, many of the most vital works of art and artifacts were saved from the fire. That includes the crown of thorns—-believed by some to have been worn by Jesus during his crucifixion—-and the tunic of St. Louis. Some of these and other works have been moved to the Louvre, where they are expected to be repaired or restored, if necessary.
Some of the items saved from the fire.
In the stunned aftermath of the Notre-Dame blaze French firefighters and experts ventured into the devastated cathedral on Tuesday morning to survey what remained. They finally declared—-to the relief of millions—-that the structure of the 859-year cathedral had been saved, and that firefighters had rescued some of the most precious relics even while the world watched aghast at flames leaping from the Medieval icon. There was a sense of disbelief among Parisians on Tuesday morning that Notre-Dame had been so vulnerable to devastation, after withstanding nearly a millennium of epic upheavals, including the French Revolution, and just in the past century alone, two world wars and the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Notre Dame's high altar after the fire.
However, those who have for years tracked the declining condition of the cathedral wondered whether the fire might have been far less severe had they launched major renovations years ago—an option that cash-strapped Notre-Dame had been unable to do. Notre-Dame began a €150-million ($170 million) construction project last year, in an effort to restore and upgrade the wooden roof and spire, which were considered to be the most urgently needed work. There was fire proofing everywhere, but it was not enough. The restoration of the cathedral had been taking place all along the years, since the 19th century. But it would have been better had they started this program much earlier. It was in the upper roof portion, where construction was ongoing, that the fire appears to have started. Some experts have speculated that the initial cause might have been a spark from a welder’s torch, although there is no proof for their theory. The fire appeared to smolder for a while before turning into a blaze. French officials have ruled out any criminal act.
In what was the most shocking moment of the fire, the delicate 300-foot spire, which dated back more than 200 years, (seen here before the fire) tilted to one side and then snapped off almost like a twig (top photo).
What was lost? Two-thirds of the roof collapsed in the fire, and in the process also destroying some of the centuries-old statues of saints that were perched on the spire. Part of the nave and the choir are also gone. The most severely damaged were the vaults of the ceiling (below), which Medieval architects had constructed from about 5,000 oak trees. Until that Monday night, this feat of Medieval engineering and architecture had been one of the finest examples of Gothic construction still standing. The original spire was lost in 1792, shortly before the French Revolution. At the time, fiercely anti-clerical crowds laid siege to the cathedral, ransacking its irreligious artworks. The spire destroyed on Monday night dated to the mid-19th century, when a new spire was erected. Making matters worse, the spire was very delicate and it was made of wood.
Notre Dame's ceiling vault frescoes--damage beyond repair.
Many of the grand paintings in the cathedral were too difficult to rescue while firefighters battled the blaze. France’s Minister of Culture told reporters that the paintings would be removed and transported to the Louvre Museum a short distance from the cathedral. There, they would be treated for water and smoke damage, and stored for a time when Notre Dame might finally be reopened. There were only sketchy details on Tuesday morning of the state of many treasures. Initially it was believed that Notre-Dame’s famous Rose Windows and other stain glass windows were lost (below). As it turned out, only one collapsed. However, the fate of a fragment of the Holy Cross and Nail is not known.
there is a waiting list of more than two years of organists wanting to play it.
Each pipe was individually cleaned during a 2013 refurbishment.
The impressive organ (above) dating to the 1730s and boasting an estimated 8,000 pipes did not burn and is intact, but nobody knows yet whether it was damaged by the heat or water. “The organ is a very fragile instrument,” The organ is said to have “incredible” sound, with “very rich colors.”
Most of the stained glass windows were only slightly damaged in the fire.
What lies ahead is a mammoth salvage and rebuilding effort. So far, no one can say how long that might take, nor how many hundreds of millions, or perhaps billions, might be required. Ironically, the immense loss from the fire, and the sense of grief that settled over Paris, prompted huge private donations within hours—the kinds of donations for which Notre-Dame officials had appealed for years, with no luck. The family of French billionaire François Pinaud pledged €100 million (about $113 million) to rebuild the cathedral. Not to be outdone, Bernard Arnaud, who heads the luxury group LVMH, pledged €200 million (about $226 million). The French oil giant Total said it would donate €100 million. Conspicuously absent is any pledge of funds from the Vatican. Hundreds of regular Parisians went online to donate small amounts to crowdfunding efforts that sprang up as the fire raged on Monday night.
Much of the sculpture beneath the collapsed roof was either destroyed or heavily damaged.
Even so, the French government had hesitated to commit serious funds for Notre-Dame’s restoration, in part because of the laws imposing strict secular government limits on funding for churches. An annual maintenance budget from the government of €2 million (about $2.26 million) covered the bare basics. Notre-Dame draws a giant 13 million tourists a year, or about 13,000 a day—more than the Eiffel Tower does. Yet it is forbidden under law from charging an entrance fee, since places of worship are required to be open to all, at any time. Yet even a modest fee, would have gone a long way toward solving their ongoing funding crisis. Officials noted that last year, a group of preservationists raised about $2 million in the U.S. alone. It seems Americans are the most passionate non-French people about the cathedral. Sociologist have noted that there is a tradition of philanthropy in the U.S. which does not exist in France.
One of the ceiling frescoes heavily damaged or destroyed.
Some five to ten per cent of the artwork has probably been destroyed (above). The cathedral was home to dozens of paintings, including a series of 76 pieces depicting the Acts of the Apostles, and a Medieval image of the Virgin Mary by Jean Jouvenet. Surprisingly the smaller paintings appear to be unaffected. However, further inspection is needed to confirm if the smoke from the fire, or the water used to quell it, did any damage to the paint. Fortunately, 16 religious statues got a lucky escape from Monday’s blaze. Just four days before the fire, they were removed from the top of Notre Dame for the first time in over a century to be taken for cleaning. The removal was part of a restoration of the cathedral’s towering spire, now gone. The 3-meter-tall copper statues represent the 12 apostles and four evangelists. The cathedral’s roof was the most enduring loss. It was built using a lattice of giant beams cut from trees in the primeval forests of the 12th and 13th centuries. Experts say France no longer has trees big enough to replace the ancient wooden beams that burned in the fire. Thus the cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire. Restoration work will have to use new technology to rebuild the roof. Notre Dame and the French nation have dodged a complete disaster, but one that could largely have been avoided had the kind of money now pouring in for restoration and rebuilding been available for ongoing maintenance. In another twist of irony, the very pre-fire restoration work on the roof and attic may have been responsible for the fire.
Notre Dame de Paris today.


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