Our Lady of Paris

As I write, a catastrophic fire is raging in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Having started on the roof (or perhaps in a space underneath it), the flames spread rapidly through the mediaeval timbers of the building, bringing down the ceiling onto the nave, and causing the spire to collapse.

Restoration work on the roof started just four days ago and the area where the fire began was surrounded by scaffolding. Though nobody yet knows for sure what caused the fire, it seems likely to have been something to do with the ongoing repairs.

Watching the video streamed live from the scene with increasing horror, it seemed to me that the firemen were helpless to halt the advancing inferno. They just couldn’t get enough water onto the top of the huge structure quickly enough to contain the blaze. It was heartbreaking viewing. I fear very little will be left standing and most of the interior will have been completely destroyed, as this drone picture suggests:

At least there seem to have been no fatalities, although one brave fireman is reported to be seriously injured.

The loss of an iconic building like Notre Dame is shattering event for anyone who has been there, as I have on several occasions. Nobody who has seen the splendour of the 13th Century Rose Windows, for example, will ever forget the experience, so the destruction feels like losing a part of one’s own life. But above all it is a terrible loss for the people of Paris, as Notre Dame is the embodiment of so much of that beautiful and ancient city’s history.

Nobody put this better than Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris:

Notre Dame de Paris, in particular, is a curious specimen of this variety. Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and of art. Thus—to mention here only a few of the chief details—whereas the small Porte Rouge almost touches the limits of fifteenth century Gothic delicacy, the pillars of the nave, by their massiveness and great girth, reach back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One would imagine that six centuries lay between that door and those pillars. Not even the Hermetics fail to find in the symbols of the grand doorway a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus the Roman Abbey—the Church of the Mystics—Gothic art—Saxon art—the ponderous round pillar reminiscent of Gregory VII, the alchemistic symbolism by which Nicolas Flamel paved the way for Luther—papal unity—schism—Saint-Germain-des-Prés—Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie—all are blended, combined, amalgamated in Notre Dame. This generative Mother-Church is, among the other ancient churches of Paris, a sort of Chimera: she has the head of one, the limbs of another, the body of a third—something of all.

I’m sure Parisians will be in a state of shock tonight and that will turn to something very close to grief. Mere words from me won’t help much, but let me in any case express my profound sadness and sympathy to my French friends and colleagues in Paris and around the world.

But if I know them at all, the French will soon set about the task of rebuilding, probably creating something majestic and extraordinary to replace what has been lost.

UPDATE: the morning after, it seems the fire was brought under control quickly enough to save the walls and towers, and at least one of the Rose Windows.

That this has been achieved owes everything to the courage and skill of the Pompiers, 500 of whom fought the blaze last night. Magnifique.

9 Responses to “Our Lady of Paris”

  1. brissioni Says:

    To almost lose something that has roots so may centuries ago and that has drawn so many admirers, lived through many wars and comforted so many worshippers brings tears to all our eyes.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    I personally heard one British eye-witness interviewed on BBC rolling news say that it took one hour from the outbreak for the first hose to be playing on the fire. If true, that is highly inefficient.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m told that the firefighters followed a strict and long-established protocol: save the people first, then the artwork and the sacraments, then the furniture, then the structure. The roof was obviously irretrievable early on so there was no point wasting time by trying to recover a lost cause. They saved so much that seemed lost by concentrating resources on the things that could be saved. The roof can be rebuilt.

      It would in any case have been difficult to get enough water onto the top of such an enormous building to deal with the fire on the roof.

  3. Dave Carter Says:

    On Friday we booked a Eurostar trip to Paris, in part to see Notre Dame, which we had never seen. We will go, and we will enjoy other things, but will have to wait until a future trip after it has been rebuilt to go round. I hope they rebuild the spire. I quite like the Japanese way of maintaining centuries old wooden buildings, which is that you rebuild them every 50 years or so.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      That used to be necessary in Europe before the discovery of dampproofing. Did the Japanese not work it out, or work it out later?

      • telescoper Says:

        I wonder how they will rebuild the roof of Notre-Dame? Will it be mainly wood again, or some other modern material?

    • Dave Carter Says:

      If it was me I would be looking at wood which was pressure treated with a fire retardent. There are a number of suppliers in the UK, no doubt even more will spring up now.

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Except it seems that there may not be enough oak in France. Oak is slow growing of course, so they will probably have to look at alternatives. I had not realised but the spire was 19th century, and at the time was a replacement in contemporary materials of the medieval spire.

  4. I hear the Cavaillé-Coll organ has survived, although it’ll need cleaning up. Here’s it being played, although this recording doesn’t do justice to the acoustic.

    The composer, Vierne, dropped dead onto the pedal board during a recital. Way to go, so to speak.

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