Although Île de la Cité’s Notre Dame withstood looting, vandalizing during the French Revolution and bomb threats in both world wars, the fire on Monday, April 15 caused the most damage during the cathedral’s 854 years of history. While the cultural heritage site’s most famous relic, a part of the thorny crown that Jesus Christ is believed to have worn during the crucifixion, survived, many masterpieces, including the Rose Window, will need extensive restoration.
Commissioned by the Pope Alexander III, construction on Notre Dame began in 1163. Cathedrals of this caliber often undergo renovations, alterations, and additions as the centuries tick by, creating a pastiche of architectural elements from different centuries. The roof was the oldest section of the monument. Craftsmen built the ceiling from five thousand oak trees during the 13th century; burned to cinders, the “forest of trees” suffered the brunt of last week’s fire.
While other artworks and architectural elements can be repaired or replaced, the roof cannot. According to an official that spoke to The New York Times, there are no longer oak trees tall enough in France to replicate the roof. A few prestigious architects are already facing this challenge by submitting proposals for a glass roof or other high-tech solutions meant to, as President Emmanuel Macron said, create a structure “more beautiful than before.”
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the Notre Dame fire was when the flames reached the wooden spire and met its fiery doom. The original spire dated back to the 13th century but was lost in 1792. It was then replaced in the mid-19-century. Even more damage may have transpired if the copper statues of the Twelve Apostles and four New Testament evangelists had not been removed a week earlier for restoration.
Sculptures along with a series of large paintings depicting scenes from the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles and the 8,000-pipe organ, suffered extensive water damage during the fire. Officials speaking on behalf of the objects are confident that they will be restored. Accounts differ on the state of the famed Rose window; nets now cover the stained glass panels to limit the destruction. Early reports painted a grim picture, describing the iron casing as melted into the glasswork. More recent details suggest that the damage is less catastrophic, and experts have been consulted for its restoration.
Although the fire of Notre Dame is an unexpected calamity, it is not suspicious. French authorities now speculate that the fire may have kindled from the elevator wiring put in place for the scaffolding and efforts to repair prior damage to the cathedral. Funds for the Notre Dame’s repair had been hard to come by because the land technically belongs to the government and falls under the jurisdiction of secular law. The government did allocate 2.28 million of its budget to repair the most urgent matters, which had included the roof and upper corridors of the monument.
Some critics have argued that the aid received was too little and too late: It is not just a sacred space, but a cultural asset that drives over twelve million tourists each year to its façade and through its doors. Notre Dame allows believers from all religions to experience its arcades and precious objects. By law, it is not permitted to charge an entry fee. The lack of this type of income is especially problematic because all that France has to offer in the way of cultural enrichment through buildings, artworks, ruins, and objects require maintenance.
Notre Dame cathedral faced centuries of dangers, but it took a destructive fire for many to realize its worth. Without the blaze, the cathedral may have experienced a slower death from decay while suffering from the lack of funds to restore itself. The Gothic monument has undergone two primary restorations due to waves of renewed interest during both Napoleonic eras and after the publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The much-needed restoration will hopefully bring the cathedral once more to its former glory and highlight its role in not only telling the story of France, but of humanity.
Photographs by the author, Maria Trujillo.