Fire raged for more than 12 hours devastating one of the most iconic buildings of the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France on April 15. It is the most visited monument in Europe with more than 15 million people visiting it annually.
Revered by Christians all over the world, it holds relics such as the Crown of Thorns thought to be placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion; a fragment of the True Cross, believed to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified; and one of the Holy Nails, believed to be used in the crucifixion.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the 850-year-old Notre Dame is one of the greatest examples of French Gothic architecture and took more than 200 years to complete. Consecrated to Virgin Mary, work on the Cathedral was started by King Louis VII in 1163 after Pope Alexander III laid the cornerstone for the new cathedral, which was completed around 1345.
Notre Dame sits on the island Ile de la Cite in the middle of Seine river. The Cathedral is part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage site “Paris, Banks of the Seine”, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1991. The site includes bridges, quays and the banks of the River Seine, along the historical part of its course, between the Sully and Iéna bridges, the Ile de la Cité and the Ile St Louis.
A US $ 6.8 million renovation work was on in the Cathedral when on the evening of April 15, around 7 p.m. (local time) the fire broke out and soon engulfed large portions of the building. The cause of the blaze is still unclear.
As 400 firemen battled the blaze, thousands of citizens, tourists, gathered all around to witness Paris’s historic landmark go up in flames. President Emmanuel Macron along with Prime Minister Édouard Charles Philippe came and stood alongside the shocked citizens many of them in tears. Macron promised the people we will “rebuild it together”.
Pope Francis has said that the disaster “has also affected a national symbol dear to the hearts of Parisians and French people, in the diversity of their convictions.” He called Notre Dame “an architectural jewel of a collective memory” and said it was “the location of many great events and a testimony to the faith and prayer of the city’s Catholics.”
British PM Theresa May has described images of Notre Dame “truly heart-rending” and pledged support of British expertise to re-build the portions destroyed
Russian President Putin has offered to send “the best Russian experts with experience in restoring monuments of cultural heritage” He said, “The Notre Dame is a historical symbol of France, a priceless treasure of European and world culture, one of the most important Christian relics. The tragedy that happened last night in Paris, resounded with pain in Russians’ hearts.”
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay is supposed to have visited the site and declared, “We are all heart-broken. Notre Dame represents a historically, architecturally and spiritually, outstanding universal heritage. It is also a monument of literary heritage, a place that is unique in our collective imagination. It is the heritage of the French but also of humanity as a whole. This drama reminds us of the power of heritage that connects us to one another. We are receiving messages of support from all over the world.”
She announced that a rapid damage assessment would be carried out as soon as possible. “UNESCO stands by France in safeguarding and rehabilitating this invaluable heritage.”
As thousands watched with tears in their eyes, the fierce flames of the fire led to the wooden roof of the Cathedral to collapse as well as the well-known Spire, which was part of the Paris skyline.
However the religious relics and other treasures were brought to safety before being completely gutted. Though severely damaged and completely blackened, the strong stone walls and core structure of the Cathedral including the 69-metre high twin bell towers withstood ravages of the fire with the help of French firemen.
The South Tower houses the 15 tonn enormous bell ‘Emmanuel’ the Cathedral’s biggest and oldest bell cast in 1631. The bell tolls on important dates and events.
The famous 18th century organ of Notre Dame with around 7,800 pipes and played on five keyboards and pedals has also survived the fire.
As France looked to the international community to aid its efforts in re-building the Cathedral, many individuals have already pledged huge sums of money, including billionaire François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of the Kering group that owns the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent fashion brands and French oil company Total pledging 100 million Euros each, and Bernard Arnault’s family (owners of Louis Vuitton and Sephora) and Bettencourt family (L’Oreal company) pledging 200 million Euros each.
The Cathedral is considered to be the finest example of French Gothic architecture, with an innovative use of rib vaults and buttresses, stained glass rosettes and sculpted ornaments.
The word Gothic architecture was a style that first appeared in France during the second half of the 12th century.
Its distinction being, vertical tall high towers depicting an aspiration to reach closer to God. Gothic walls became lighter due to their composition of stone columns and large windows or stained glass. These elements allowed for open, illuminated spaces in the interior.
Notre Dame’s beautiful 10-metre wide West Rose window dates from about back to 1220 and retains most of its beautiful original glass and tracery. The main theme is human life, featuring symbolic scenes such as the Zodiacs and Labors of the months. The statue of the Virgin and Child accompanied by angels is in front of the window.
The south rose window is even wider 12.9 metre with 84 panes of glass and takes themes from the New Testament.
Pointed archs are again typically French Gothic and can be seen used in doorways, windows, arcades, and galleries increasing the sense of upliftment. The vaulted ceilings are cross-ribbed. Another typical Gothic feature is the use of flying buttress or support structures, as also the use of Gargoyles or monsters, which were actually for draining out rainwater.
The three west portals of Notre Dame have beautifully sculpted statues depicting scenes from the life of Virgin Mary, the Last Judgment and scenes from the life of St. Anne.
The historic Cathedral has been witness to major events. On December 16 , 1431, Henry VI of England was crowned King of France, on April 24,1558, Mary, Queen of Scots was married to the Dauphin Francis (later Francis II of France), son of King Henry II of France. It also witnessed the coronation of Napoleon I and his wife Joséphine, in the presence of Pope Pius VII on December 2, 1804.
Interestingly, after the French Revolution, the same venue was used on November 10, 1793 to hold the Festival of Reason when the Christian altar was dismantled and an altar to Liberty was installed.
On May 16, 1920, Joan of Arc was cannonised there. When Paris was liberated on August 26, 1944, a Mass took place there in the presence of General DeGaulle.
It is at Notre Dame that the funeral services of leaders like General De Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, François Mitterrand, have also taken place.
Interestingly, President Trump’s tweet advice that flying water tankers be used to douse the flames quickly was rebutted discreetly by the French pointing out that it would lead to collapse of the whole Cathedral.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame is virtually the protagonist of world famous French writer Victor Hugo’s classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.
Following the fire, the sale of Hugo’s masterpiece has really soared. Hugo, perturbed by the dilapidated state of the Cathedral wrote extensively on the Gothic architecture in his book leading to a movement for the preservation of Notre Dame and other such buildings.
Hugo had already published a paper entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (War to the Demolishers) specifically aimed at saving Paris’ medieval architecture.
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