Sunday, April 21, 2019

Notre-Dame de Paris

I had another Missive brewing but decided I could not ignore the fire at Notre-Dame.   As one art historian said the day of the fire, “This is the worst art disaster in my lifetime”.

Notre-Dame sits of the Isle de la Cité right in the center of the Seine.  If you have visited Paris, you have seen it.  It is a very exclusive area where some of the City’s wealthier citizens live.  What is interesting is that it is not just a great monument to gothic architecture, but it is also a place of worship where people pray and hear mass every day. 

Notre-Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris, there are other churches called Notre- Dame in France and other parts of 
the world, but this is the grandest of them all … The Queen.  The Cathedral was begun in 1160 and mostly finished a century later.  During the French Revolution in the 1790’s, it was ransacked, and sculptures and paintings were damaged, but the structure stood.  In 1804 Emperor Napoleon I held his Coronation in Notre-Dame. The liberation of Paris in 1944 was celebrated there as well.

International attention is often attracted to a work of art not by its inherent qualities.  Leonardo’s, Mona Lisa, became world famous only when it was stolen in 1911.  In the case of Notre-Dame it was Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”.  All the attention the Cathedral received from the book ushered in major restoration from 1844-1864 under the guidance of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and it was he who added the great spire which was lost last week.  I was surprised to learn that Notre-Dame is visited by twice as many visitors per year (13 million) as the Eiffel Tower.

Photo by Philippe Wang, Getty Images

I remember buying a book in the Pelican Series (paperback) in 1966, hot off the presses called, “An Outline of European Architecture” by the German/British architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner.  You can still buy it on Amazon for $1.99.  There I learned about “flying buttresses” used in the first gothic cathedrals such as Notre-Dame.  These arched exterior supports were not incorporated into the initial architecture of the Notre-Dame but were added when stress fractures began to appear in the thin upper walls as they cracked under the weight of the vault. 

When I first saw a CNN notice that smoke was seen coming from Notre-Dame, I did not think much about it and went to lunch.  When I came back an hour later the news showed the horrendous photos of shooting flames and billowing smoke coming from the Cathedral.  I was surprised at how emotionally upsetting the sight was.  I am not even Catholic and have not been inside the Cathedral all that often. It was just always there when I was regularly in Paris.  It felt a bit like being told that a close friend was deathly ill, and they did not know if she would survive.  Then the rumors started.  I saw notices on line that the Cathedral would not be standing by the following morning and it seemed totally believable from some of the images.  

Later reports said that much of the wonderful stained glass and works of art were left unharmed. This was a miracle in itself considering the heat of the fire and that lead held the pieces of stained glass in place.

Photo by Christophe Petit Tesson

Many of the priceless artifacts in the cathedral were saved, such as the “Crown of Thorns”, because they were taken out before recent restoration work had begun or some brave folk rescued them at the start of the fire.  Speaking of miracles, the most amazing save was the Coq Gaulois (the Gallic Rooster), a symbol of France, which was above the steeple and when it went down with the ceiling below it. The coq was still in one piece though it was made of copper, a metal with a low melting point!  Of course, there is water damage as well from the firefighters who by all accounts had acted heroically.

The French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy said of this tragedy, “a treasure of civilization, for those who believe in heaven and for those who don’t”—a symbol of “the Europe of civilization … of grandeur and softness.”  With all the bad news we have been receiving lately from all over the world and particularly at home, this was a moment when the world seemed to come together to mourn.  Aside from the well wishers internationally, President Macron rushed to the scene of the blaze and he and the mayor of Paris promised restoration of the damage.  Macron estimated the cost at 1 billion dollars and a 5-year repair time.  French billionaires and major art collectors. the Pinaults and the Arnaults, immediately pledged $340 million towards restoration.  Contributors large and small from around the world have joined them.

What price do you put on Notre-Dame?

“The French Institute Alliance Française” (FIAF) has created the  FIAF Notre-Dame Restoration Fund” to collect funds on behalf of donors.  If you would like to join the  effort, you can reach out to Maia Plantevin, Development Coordinator, to make a tax-deductible donation at or 646-388-6604. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to Notre-Dame restoration efforts. 

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