Notre Dame de Paris: History and Restoration

Notre Dame de Paris

The dramatic fire at Notre Dame de Paris on the 15th April 2019 left everyone around the world feeling shocked and in disbelief. The world-famous cathedral is a true emblematic symbol of the French culture and history. Its impressive architectural composition leaves over 14 million visitors in awe every year, with its unique façade and abundant decorative sculptures which adorn the outside of the church. And it is just as impressive and iconic inside, with its huge spaces and majestic art, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to know that it is the most visited monument in France and Europe.


WhatsApp Image 2021-04-22 at 09.56.06 (3)History of the cathedral:

Notre Dame is one of France’s most ancient gothic cathedrals. Its construction was an initiative of the bishop Maurice de Sully and it lasted from 1163 until the mid-XIV Century. Although it isn’t the earliest example of gothic architecture in France, a title that goes to the Cathedral of Saint-Denis, the construction of Notre Dame brought forward higher levels of sophistication, innovation and artistic expression. In fact, the architects that began this masterpiece weren’t just aiming to build a church. They wanted to create the highest religious monument to ever exist, with the central aisle being 35 metres tall and two towers reaching 60 metres. The cathedral was meant to watch over the whole city in all its magnificence.

The French Revolution of 1789 was a difficult period for Notre Dame. Viewed like a symbol of power, it was widely mistreated: its treasures were stolen, some statues were destroyed or beheaded and the spire was dismantled. At one point it even got used as a warehouse for wine and some even proposed to disassemble it and sell its stones. In 1793, the philosopher Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon, the founder of the political and religious movement known as Saint-Simonianism, was actually about to buy the cathedral with the aim of destroying it.

Fortunately Notre Dame survived this troubled period and was given back to the Catholic Church in 1801 through the famous “concordat” signed between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pio VII. Thus just two years later, in 1804, Pope Pio VII religiously celebrated at Notre Dame the grand coronation of Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine. The five-hour long ceremony is depicted in Le Sacre de Napoléon by Jacques-Louis David, his official painter, which is now one of the most famous artworks in the Louvre.

Nonetheless, between the damages caused by the Revolution, the passing of time and the Parisians’ disinterest in the monument, its state began to deteriorate. It was thanks to Victor Hugo who honoured it in his masterpiece “Notre Dame de Paris” in 1831, if the public interest in the cathedral was sparked again.

The restoration project was approved in 1842, after a petition made by Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and two important architects were chosen to direct the works, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who had already made an impressive job on the Sainte Chapelle. Following 1844, the significant restoration works began, the majority of which happened under the sole direction of Viollet-le-Duc, due to Lassus’ death. Although those officially ended in 1865, the maintenance of the cathedral never really stopped and continued through the years up until the disastrous fire. It was during Viollet-le-Duc’s works, in 1860, that the iconic 45 metre high steeple was erected and the famous gargoyles were put in place to help the rain water’s circulation.

WhatsApp Image 2021-04-22 at 09.56.06 (4)During the Paris Commune of 1871, only a few chairs and benches were burned, without any other major damage, then Notre-Dame was fortunately spared during the two world wars. Some changes were made during the 20th century; for instance, in 1935 cardinal Jean Verdier commissioned twenty-four contemporary artists to design twelve stained glass windows, which were then installed in 1938. However, due to many complaints and criticism regarding the inconsistency between the artistic style of the twelve artists, Jacques Le Chevallier is given commissioned in 1952 to create a new design for the stained glass windows, basing it on the initial project from the 1930s. These masterpieces were then inaugurated in 1966.

In the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, numerous small restoration projects were carried out at Notre Dame, including a new internal lighting system and new bells.

In 1991, the site “Paris, banks of the Seine”, including Notre Dame, was classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Some of the most prominent figures in history passed through the doors of this superb building. Here royal weddings were celebrated, such as the one between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Francis II of France in 1558, as well as baptisms of kings and princes, and state funerals, like Charles de Gaulle’s in 1970.

This mythical cathedral has also inspired several very popular movies and served as their background. For instance, many adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel “Notre Dame de Paris” were shot and performed in this monument, most notably Wallace Worsley’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1923. This film was then readapted several times, including in 1996 in the famous Walt Disney Pictures cartoon. One of its most memorable scenes shows Quasimodo, the hunchback, signing while holding onto the symbolic flèche – or spire – of Notre Dame, victim of the fire of 2019 as mentioned above. The cathedral also appeared in the film “Amélie” by Jean-Pierre Jeunet in 2001 and then in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset”, produced by Warner Bros. Pictures in 2004. In the latter, actress Julie Delpy pronounces the ominous line “Notre Dame will be gone one day”.


The terrible fire of 2019:

The fire on the 15th April 2019 resulted in the collapse of the flèche and the roof. Fortunately, the fire brigade’s hard work was able to save the main structure of Notre Dame and the majority of the art works, including those that were kept in the cathedral’s treasure. The extreme shock of this event left the world incredulous, but very quickly, in a little less than a week, the exceptional donations coming from all over the world to help with its reconstruction reached nearly a billion euros.

The disastrous fire seems to have originated on scaffolding between the vault and the roof, where works were underway to reinforce the roof of the cathedral. The flames quickly spread on the 850 year old wooden beams and, just after an hour, the magnificent flèche collapsed, then followed by approximately two-thirds of the roof. The official investigation, still ongoing today, is launched immediately; in order to uncover the cause of this fire, not excluding any hypothesises. As it stands, although the exact details of what happened are not yetWhatsApp Image 2021-04-22 at 09.56.06 (4)8 completely clear, nothing now appears to accredit the criminal trail, so the fire may have been caused accidentally by a cigarette or a short electrical circuit.

The dust and soot created by the fire made the famous organ of Cavaillé-Coll unusable, but, spared from other damage it will be completely dismantled and restored. The statue of the Virgin Mary with child, which dates back to the XIV century, renowned also for being the statue with which Paul Claudel converted to Catholicism, only got wet from the water used to extinguish the flames. The Paul VI altar was crushed by stones and beams that fell from the roof but the ancient traditional altar was instead spared from damages, just like the golden wooden cross. In addition, although some stained glass windows have been slightly damaged, the iconic Rose du Midi, dating from 1260 and one of the most precious masterpieces of Notre-Dame, has remained miraculously intact.


The restoration works:

As soon as the fire was extinguished, the first priority was to implement emergency measures to avoid any risk of other parts of the cathedral getting damaged even more or falling down. Two years later, this tedious project of security is now almost complete, the reconstruction will finally be able to begin.Two years later, the security project is now nearly done and, following this, the reconstruction will begin. In depth studies with experts have been carried out in order to create the right plan following the specific European guidelines regarding the conservation of material cultural heritage, as well as international recommendations and the opinion of the Commission Nationale du Patrimoine et de l’Architecture.

This mission has not been an easy one and the many professionals working on the site have to follow strict protocols every time they enter the building to protect themselves from the three many issues that have been encountered. The threat of parts of the cathedral collapsing is still very much a reality, so helmets and specific footwear are mandatory. In addition the melting of the roof caused lead pollution, so a protective full suit must also be worn and a shower is compulsory when moving between the construction site and the offices. And last but not least, the Covid-19 pandemic meant everyone has to also wear masks at all times in and around the site.

A great controversy among experts originated from several debates regarding whether the roof and the spire should be rebuilt in the same way as it was before, thus using an extremely large amount of wood (oak), or if it should be redesigned, using innovative technologies and materials, which could be safer and more protective in case of another fire.

As the restoration of oak wood was finally decided, a first campaign of felling of a thousand oak trees began in early 2021 with a view to rebuilding the recent part (carried out in the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc), namely: the arrow, its base and the frame of the transept. To do this, the selected oaks must be between 150 and 200 years old and, after being felled, they must be left to dry for 12 to 18 months, in order to reach a moisture level of less than 30%.

A second cutting campaign will then be launched to provide the trees necessary (of a lower dimension), for the reconstruction of the medieval part of the roof.

WhatsApp Image 2021-04-22 at 09.58.47The debates are far from over, because beyond the subject of the arrow, another issue is also to decide whether the stained-glass windows destroyed by the fire should be redone identically or whether they should be substituted by more contemporary ones, as suggested by Michel Aupetit, Paris’ archbishop.

With an impressive amount of donations, President Macron’s objective to see Notre Dame opening to the public in April 2024, just five years after the fire and right on time for the 2024 Paris Olympics, seems to be realistic. Certainly, the restoration works won’t be completely finished by then and will continue for long after that, but it will be a true relief to see the doors of Notre Dame open again. The best technicians, construction workers, artisans, sculptors, stained glass restorers, architects, and many other experts are working everyday to reach this goal and soon we will be able to see Notre Dame in all of its splendour again.