Notre Dame Series Pt. 3 - What Was Saved and What Was Lost

29 April 2021

Notre Dame Series Pt. 3 - What Was Saved and What Was Lost​​​​​​​

The roof and the spire come down

As the fire swept through the cathedral’s attic, it sent the spire “plunging like an arrow into the heart of the sacred space.”

The wood-and-lead-sheathed roof burned vigorously, with about a third staying intact. The rest of the roof fell on the stone-vaulted ceiling, some of which also collapsed, dumping copious amounts of ash on the marble floor. Still, most of the ceiling survived, because of the use of rib vaulting (seen at the left). This construction technique significantly reduced damage to the building’s interior and the objects in it.

In 2014, the Ministry of Culture had estimated Notre-Dame would need €150 million of renovations. And in 2016, three years before the fire, the Archdiocese of Paris had appealed for €100 million in funding over the following five to ten years.

Ironically, at the time of the fire, the spire was being restored yet again, and scaffolding was being built over the transept to support that effort.

Saving elements of the interior

Early during the emergency, civil servants, police, and emergency workers launched a concentrated and largely effective effort to save works of art and religious relics. A chain of more than 100 people passed artworks, reliquaries (containers holding religious relics), and other items of religious significance to the nearby sacristy. These items included:
  • A crown of thorns said to be the one Jesus wore when crucified
  • A piece of the cross on which Jesus was supposed to have been crucified
  • The Tunic of Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France)
  • The 14th century statue of the Virgin of Paris (Notre-Dame de Paris)
Some valuables, such as the statues of the twelve Apostles at the base of the spire, had already been removed for the planned renovation. Some survived though they had not been removed.

Miraculously, the cathedral’s altar, three pipe organs, and the three 13th-century rose windows were grimy with soot but largely undamaged. The rooster-shaped reliquary on top of the spire was found among the ruins. The largest of the cathedral’s bells, or bourdon, survived. The lead holding some 19th century stained-glass panels together had melted. In an act of solidarity, Monika Grütters, the German Commissioner of Culture, said that “her country would shoulder the costs” of restoring large clerestory windows high in the wall of the cathedral.

Undoubtedly the passionate involvement of so many in Paris and around the world will ultimately restore this lovely part of the global patrimony. As Aline Magnien, director of the National Monuments Research Laboratory (LMRH) has said, “Notre Dame will be restored! Its artwork, stone, and stained glass will be cleaned; it will be more luminous and beautiful than before … Notre-Dame will come out of this experience enriched. And so will we.”

​​​​​​​Next week, we’ll continue our saga with an installment about the cathedral’s architecture and history.