May 26, 2019

Letter From Paris: As Notre Dame Burns, the World Mourns

Nicole Prévost Logan

On April 15, the world watched in shocked awe as the 850-year-old Notre Dame cathedral went up in flames.  The emotion was immediate, intense and spread around the globe.  Crowds of stunned people, who gathered on the banks of the Seine, many in tears, some singing religious hymns, gasped when the flèche (spire), consumed by the blaze, finally collapsed.

The French president decided to postpone an important public address.

Heads of state reacted to the fire in the same manner as if it were a major event in world affairs.

Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times that France, “… Weeps for a Symbol of Paris’s Enduring Identity.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was consumed by flames, April 15.

Why is this venerable monument so loved?  It is for a combination of reasons.  Situated on a strategic location on the Ile de la Cité, it is more than a place of cult but a symbol of a civilization.  A Gallo-Roman basilica or temple stood there in the 4th century when Paris was still Lutetia,  then a Merovingian palace was built by Clovis in the 5th century, which was followed by a Christian church in the 10th century.  The construction of the existing cathedral started in 1132 and was not completely finished until 1345.

Napoleon chose it for his self-coronation. as depicted by Jacques Louis David. in 1807. It was to Notre Dame that Charles de Gaulle went first, after marching down the Champs Elysées, in August 1944. During the funeral of François Mitterand, German chancellor Helmut Kohl could be seen with tears in his eyes.

“There was a great and furious flame rising between the two towers, with whirlwinds of sparks” wrote Victor Hugo in 1832. At that time, Notre Dame   was falling into disrepair and Victor Hugo accomplished the best ever exercise of “com” by writing the novel, “Notre Dame de Paris” (translated into English the following year as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) to attract attention to the plight of Gothic architecture.  The monument has become an iconic part of the popular culture since.

The 1939 American film,”The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” added to the collective memory by showing the unforgettable Charles Laughton begging for water on the pillory and the 19-year-old gypsy girl Maureen O’Hara helping him.  “Notre Dame de Paris” has been one of the most popular musical comedies in recent years.  Today computer games attract younger populations under the nave.  In this era of globalization, the cathedral has been an obligatory stop for mass tourism, bringing more than 12 million visitors a year to the building.

On a French televised literary program shown the day after the fire, British author Ken Follet was invited to talk about his 1989 best seller, “The Pillars of the Earth,” describing the generation-long construction of a fictional early Gothic church set in the English countryside.

The cathedral has inspired artists, like Turner, Corot, Hopper, Matisse.  In 1909,  Paul Delaunay created a modernistic vision of the city, as seen from the  top of the spire, through movement and light.  Listening to Debussy’s “La Cathedral Engloutie,” one can’t help thinking of  Notre Dame. The opening stark fifth chords describe the calm waters from which the cathedral slowly rose, inspired from a medieval Breton legend.

But the main reason to revere Notre Dame is that, like the Parthenon, it is a perfect example of the canon of architectural beauty. The masters of the 13th century created a well-balanced, light, elegant structure, devoid of unnecessary decorations.  They created a building at human scale.  Unlike some other cathedral, such as the much taller and rather austere Cologne cathedral, for example, the feeling of height is not oppressive because of the elegant archways of the  “tribune” and the “trifonium” and the upper windows pouring light over the six-point vault rib of the nave.  The giant 13th century rosaces (rose stained glass windows of the north and south transept) filter soft red-blue colors.

This is why I, like so many Parisians or visitors, have being seduced by the cathedral.  Once you visit it, it becomes yours.  Aware that I may never see it again, I am holding on to shreds of memories.

A view of Notre Dame before the devastating fire.

In the mid 19th century, the cathedral was showing its age and historian and medievalist architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc,  aged 31, was chosen to lead the restoration starting in 1843 . He first created  stunning drawings, blueprints and watercolors.  Beside repairing the damage of time, he also made some bold additions such as the flèche – completed in 1859 – the gargouilles (gargoyles) and chimeras representing fantastic birds, demons, often used as rain spouts.  Built in Neo-Gothic style, they matched  the original spirit of the structure.

Within 48 hours of the fire, there was an unprecedented outpouring of donations.  French billionaires – Francois Pinault (maker of luxury goods, owner of Christie’s auction house) and Bernard Arnaud (LVMH, Vuitton) – rivaled each other as to whom would donate the most and turn down the tax deductions.

The main loss was the 13th century oak framework under the roof.  When it collapsed, the flèche fell through the nave at the crossing of the transept, leaving a gaping hole. For a while, experts feared the danger of collapse in three particular areas. Then stormy weather, with rain and strong winds, forced the workers  to do a fast and amazing job of protecting the structure.  The ones with mountaineering experience were dispatched to the most difficult places, like pinnacles, to lay down tarps over a temporary frame installed where the roof had been.

Two weeks after the blaze, Benjamin Mouton, former chief architect of Notre Dame commented that the building was still fragile.  Stones were at first dangling in the air.  Work by an expert will have to determine the damage caused, in a great part, by the tons of water the hundreds of firemen hosed on the building to put out the fire. It will take several months just to dry up.  The consolidation process alone will take about four months.

Fortunately the rosaces were not damaged, but to bring them back to their original condition will be a painstaking job: each pane of the stained glass will have to be taken down, cleaned, then stored until reinstalled.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced an international competition.  How to conduct the restoration is causing an ongoing controversy:  whether to duplicate the original building or modernize it by using new technology?  Philippe Villeneuve, chief architect of historical monuments, will arbitrate opposing point of views.  Should Notre Dame freeze in the past or at the same time, should one stay away from wild architectural projects not in keeping with the soul of the cathedral?  One of the main dilemmas is whether to replace the oak framework (called “the forest”) with wood or use another material such as metal — as in Reims cathedral — or concrete and metal as in Chartres?

An army of carpenters,  stone-carvers and glass-blowers will be needed.  Les Compagnons du Devoir et du Tour de France (nothing to do with the annual bicycle tours), dating back to the Middle Ages, is an association of monastic character, with 80 houses across France, producing the best artisans and craftsmen in the world.  The transmission, through the centuries, of their savoir-faire will be crucial.

Restoration work, as a rule, is overseen by the Ministry of Culture.  But this time the government appointed General Jean-Louis Gorgelin, former army chief of staff, to conduct the work … and on the double.

The day after the fire, Notre Dame, seen from the East on Quai d’Orléans on Ile St Louis,  looked like a wounded bird.  With the roof gone, buttresses seemed disconnected and to be flying in all directions.

Let us hope it will rise again soon in all its former splendor.

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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