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Paradise Lost and Found in the Notre-Dame fire

Julia Faiers is an art historian and medievalist, living in south-west France. Here she tells us how significant the fire at Notre-Dame was. 

Believers, atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims. All watched transfixed in horror at the consumption of France’s iconic, historic cathedral Notre Dame.

As Parisians and tourists wept or sang in front of the building, millions were glued to TVs and Twitter streams, willing the firefighters to save whatever they could. I watched with growing horror as flames appeared to lick around the inside of the famous twin towers of the west façade.

A spokesperson for the fire service later reported these smaller fires had been controlled and that the structure of the cathedral was intact and would be saved. It was at this point I burst into tears. Much has been lost, but my sobs were of relief, that this grande dame had essentially survived intact.

As an art historian and medievalist, I scanned every live image of the conflagration in an attempt to analyse what was going up in smoke, what might still be intact or salvageable.

Current photos show how the exterior structure has fared. The main casualty to the Parisian skyline was the cathedral’s spire, which rose 93 metres above the centre of the transept, the area which separates the nave from the choir, and which collapsed just before 8pm.

The spire was originally constructed in the 13th century, removed in the 18th century, then restored in the 19th century by famous architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. What we saw collapse in flames last night was his creation, a wooden structure covered in lead that weighed around 750 tonnes.

Fire brigade spokesman Gabriel Plus said the entire roof had been devastated, including the medieval ‘forest’ of timber within the roof, and that part of the vault had collapsed.

Although unconfirmed, it’s likely that the part of the vault destroyed is below the collapsed spire, in the centre of the transept where the fire was fiercest.

Around 1250, architect Jean de Chelles added a gabled portal to the north transept in the fashionable Rayonnant Gothic style, installing a spectacular rose window. A southern transept in a similar design followed shortly after in the 1260s, with architect Pierre de Montreuil adding an even more dazzling rose window.

Through some miracle, the archbishop of Paris has confirmed that these treasures of medieval artistry have survived the fire. The cathedral’s Great organ, originally installed in the 1450s and which has grown through a series of restorations over the centuries, is another miraculous survivor.

The Holy Crown of Thorns, an irreplaceable medieval relic claimed to contain a piece of the crucifix, a nail from the cross, and the crown of thorns worn by Jesus during the crucifixion, was saved and taken to City Hall. Another precious relic, the tunic worn by Louis IX when he brought the Crown of Thorns to Paris, has been preserved.

And as I write, hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged in what promises to be one of the world’s highest-profile rebuilding campaigns.

President Macron vowed that the French people would rebuild the cathedral together, and French charity Foundation du Patrimoine has launched an international fundraising appeal.

So while we may grieve for the medieval timbers and soaring spire of Notre Dame, remember that much has been saved, and good has already come from this cultural disaster. People have come together in their shock and grief. They’ve put aside the divisions that have been plaguing the country in recent months.

The sight of this beloved building in flames seems to have reminded people of the struggles the nation has survived over the cathedral’s more than 800-year history, that more unites us than divides us.   

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