As President Emmanuel Macron announced the beginning of lockdown for the whole country on March 16th, Jean-Louis Georgelin, the five-star general in charge of the reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris, knew already that he would have to put the Gothic cathedral to sleep while France and the rest of the world fought coronavirus.
After almost a year racing against time to stabilise and consolidate the 850-year-old medieval structure, chief architect Philippe Villeneuve and his army of workers were only a few days from a crucial and perilous operation when they had to lay down their tools. The cutting of the 500 tonne scaffolding, which melted during the fire of 15 April 2019, would have to wait — probably for a few months.
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For those in charge of the “building site of the century,” as Notre-Dame’s site has been branded by the French media, the weeks and months of inactivity ahead are going to be fraught with anguish. It has always been feared that the giant, metallic lacework of scaffolding could collapse onto the vaults and crash down into the nave. The weather forecast will be scrupulously analysed as storms and high winds could prove particularly damaging.
Still, since dawn broke in pink hues over the Seine on 16 April 2019, the day after the terrible fire, timid hope has prevailed in the heart of Paris as to Notre-Dame’s providential resilience, our ability to eventually mend her injuries and restore her to full glory. So many endearing, almost miraculous, details have contributed to restore our spirit since that day.
It started at 2am, when General Gallet, head of the Paris fire brigade, made another inspection of the cathedral. There were still six contained fires here and there, and it would take a couple of days to extinguish them all. “Inside the nave, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white patch among the charred debris lying on what remains of the altar,” he confided to me. It was in fact a large, beige, leather-bound book, open, its pages covered with thick dust. “As I got closer, intrigued, I could make out a word through the dust: espérance [hope].” The lectionary, a collection of scripture readings, had survived the destruction. It was open to the hope of resurrection, a few days ahead of Easter.
A few hours later, Parisians and the world started hearing how the stained glass windows, dating back to the thirteenth century, had survived the fire; how the bees of Notre-Dame, living on the roof of the sacristy, had been spotted going in and out of their hives; and how the Grand Organ had suffered only minor damage.
What about the famous fourteenth-century Vierge à l’enfant (Virgin with infant), also known as ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’? Was she still standing by the south-west pillar of the transept, in what was now a zone interdite (no-go area)?
Would the Virgin who had personified Notre-Dame de Paris be found as lovely as she had been left — so elegant, with her melancholy, mysterious smile and her child playing with the fold of her coat? Since 1818, the year she was gifted to Notre-Dame, the tilt of her lip has made her stand out among the thirty-seven Virgin Marys represented in the cathedral. “Pretty and yet so bizarre, with her joyous smile on such melancholic lips!” wrote the French decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1898.
“Seen from one side, she smiles at Jesus, almost mockingly [. . .] Seen from another, this smile vanishes. The lips, pursed, may be heralding tears. Perhaps, by achieving opposite feelings in Our Lady, peace and fear, the sculptor meant to express the joy of nativity and the distant pain of the suffering of the cross.”
The chief architect was stunned: the Virgin with Infant, but also every piece of art — every painting, every statue — was intact, slightly dusty but not even blackened with soot. The fall of the spire at the crossing of the transept had created a flue effect, like a chimney, and sucked out most of the smoke. Remarkably, the rest of the vaults had held, as planned by their medieval creators. Vaults were designed very precisely in order to protect a cathedral from fire. Arches, ribs, empty space had admirably played their part.
Of course, Notre-Dame’s regeneration goes far beyond architectural considerations. It presents a formidable opportunity for France to ask itself challenging questions. Big traumas always lead to fundamental questioning and offer renewed opportunities.
And the chance to confront, at last, and resolve problems which have blighted the reputation of Notre-Dame for decades: endless queues of tourists on the parvis blocking Parisians’ passage; inept and time-consuming security checks at the gates; the unattractiveness of cheap souvenir shops inside the cathedral — the list of such unpleasant practicalities is long. What is needed is a complete overhaul, and the possibilities are plentiful.
Why not, for instance, utilise the vacant carpark underneath the parvis to organise an access point to the cathedral for tourists, with shops and facilities? Some of this space could be used for the archaeological crypt, which needs a complete review. Why not create a museum in the partly unoccupied Hôtel-Dieu, the former hospital at the heart of Paris standing right across the parvis — as in Milan, where the museum of the Duomo, situated a few steps away from the cathedral, offers an opportunity to understand and learn about its history? So many of Notre-Dame’s works of art from across the centuries have been scattered around France in different museums for lack of a dedicated space in Paris, about which many historians have been campaigning for decades.
As for the spire, the international competition for a new flèche, launched the day after the fire by the French prime minister, now seems a distant memory, buried in the drawer of ‘good intentions but bad ideas’. The latest thinking is to ask the French people to vote on Notre-Dame’s future spire which, by all accounts, should be rebuilt identically.
There is one moment in particular that many Parisians are looking forward to; it is one that architect Philippe Villeneuve often dreams about. When the spire collapsed on 15 April, the copper rooster perched on its tip fell 96 metres to the ground. Instead of disintegrating like the rest of the spire, made of wood and lead, it just whirled in the air like an incandescent ball and remained in one piece. At dawn, Villeneuve found the battered rooster lying in the gutter of rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. Inside, the relics of Paris’s patron saint Genevieve were intact. He understood then that his work of nursing Notre-Dame back to her former glory would only feel complete when he placed the rooster back on the new spire. Paris awaits.
Agnès Poirier’s book, Notre-Dame: The Soul of France, was published on 2nd April by Oneworld.