After it had become apparent that the fire that engulfed the Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday threatened to bring down the entire building—as the vast amounts of wood in the centuries-old building ignited rapidly and at a height beyond the reach of typical fire fighting measures—Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told French media that first responders had focused some of their attention to saving the priceless art, precious artifacts and other items in the cathedral.
Now it seems, based on reporting from French media, that that effort was largely successful. Hours after the fire started, we are only now getting an idea of what has been saved and what hasn’t. Things are looking slightly better than initially thought for the cathedral, but the devastation was still profound. First the cathedral’s iconic spire fell, then a significant portion of the roof collapsed. (“Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” a Notre Dame spokesman said at one point in the day.) The fire jumped to one of the cathedral’s landmark rectangular towers in what seemed to be an ominous sign, but French authorities later announced that both the iconic towers had been saved and that the fire had been mostly managed. Here’s what we know is saved and what has been lost from one of the world’s greatest architectural treasures.
Those looking for hope can take comfort in knowing the damage isn’t quite as total as authorities at one point feared. While the true extent of the fire’s damage can’t yet be known (some photos from inside the cathedral appear promising), French officials say it appears the facades and bell towers and flying buttresses and much of the rest of the building’s general structure have been saved. That’s great news for obvious reasons. As Meredith Cohen, an art history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles explains, it is the building, rather than anything inside it, that stands as a singular symbol of Paris’ history. “The cathedral is the artwork,” she said. “And all the other works of art attached to church are different details of it.”
According to Cohen, the building, which was built over nearly three centuries starting in 1160 (there have been later additions and renovations), symbolically transformed the city into the center of European culture during the medieval period through its display of the new and innovative Gothic style of architecture and its singular architectural and artistic ambition. “It’s the origin of our concept of Paris as a center of art and culture,” she said.
Statues and paintings
We know a set of important copper statues have been saved, as the Associated Press reported that ones representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists that graced the top of the cathedral were removed last week as part of the $6.8 million renovation project (now believed to be in some way linked to the cause of the fire) to the now-destroyed spire.
We also know firefighters saved a number of valuable pieces of art from inside the cathedral, as confirmed by the cathedral’s rector, but we don’t know yet which of those pieces were saved. But Cohen said she was slightly less nervous about the contents of the church because so many historically significant artistic works had already been destroyed or removed during the French Revolution. “They beheaded sculptures, altars were removed, tombstones were removed,” she said. She noted that a significant choir screen and baroque sculpture above an altar remained. “But compared to what was there, there is little left,” she said.
The bell towers and the bells
It seems likely that most of the bells were saved, given that the two main bell towers were preserved, though that hasn’t officially been confirmed. The cathedral’s main bell, a 15th-century bell called the Emmanuel bell, survived. The Emmanuel bell has marked some of the country’s and the world’s most important moments, such as the end of World War II and the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
French media reported Tuesday that Notre Dame’s famous and awe-inspiring South Rose window, created in 1260, has survived. The cathedral has two other rose windows, also reported safe, and a large number of stained-glass windows of which their status is unknown.
French media also reported Tuesday that the church’s main organ, one of the largest in the world, did not burn but may have suffered some water damage. The Great Organ, replaced and updated many times through the years, is operated by a head organist, a position recognized around the world as highly prestigious.
For the pious, it is likely the relics—items the faithful believe to be physical remains or belongings of a saint or other holy figure—that are more significant in the tally of items saved. In particular many religious Catholics will likely be relieved to hear that the Crown of Thorns, Notre Dame’s most valuable religious item and a relic said to be the braided thorns placed on Jesus’ head before the crucifixion, is thought to be safe.
While NBC News has reported that the Crown of Thorns was housed in the now destroyed spire, a spokesman for the church said the relic had been saved, according to French media. The status of the other prominent relics, which include a fragment of the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified and a nail the Romans used in the crucifixion, is unknown. The crown is only brought out for worshipers on Fridays during Lent and on Good Friday—this upcoming Friday.
The cathedral’s treasury was also saved, according to the cathedral’s rector.
The dramatic and iconic spire, one of the more modern aspects of the cathedral, was built in the 19th century during a wave of enthusiasm for the cathedral’s restoration in the aftermath of Victor Hugo’s success with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Cohen says the public should not take any comfort in that modernity: art historians consider that another extremely valuable window into the techniques and styles of the time, and part of the layered history of the cathedral. “You can copy that, but you’re faking history,” she said.
Joan Holladay, a professor of art history at the University of Texas, added that the many centuries of construction seen in the building are part of what makes it one-of-a-kind. “Using all these buildings together, you can put together a big picture of what gothic architecture was,” she said. It’s not just the individual periods seen in the architecture, but also how they fit together, that make the cathedral so valuable.
The wood roof covering the stone vault, known as “the forest” because of the vast amount of wood needed to build it, was largely destroyed. Part of that roof structure dates to the 13th century, and it primarily was made from trees cut between 1160 and 1170, according to CNN—making it some of the oldest material in the building.
We still don’t know how much damage has been done inside the building. There are wooden pews and doorways, and plenty of other art that could be considered flammable. And we don’t know how the building’s exterior, with the famous Gothic sculpture work (notably, gargoyles), fared. We can assume that when the spire fell and the ceiling collapsed, it did some damage to the vaults and the floor of the cathedral—again, damage to deeply historic masonry and design. Holladay noted that stone does not burn, but it does suffer in the heat, crack, and lose stability. So she worried about the sculptures on the west facade, with its life-size figures of saints, and older carvings in areas around the left portal.
Sculptures and paintings
Some seem hopeful that much of the artwork inside the cathedral has been spared. There are more than 30 sculptures inside the cathedral, including one statue of Madonna and Child that dates back to the 14th century. There’s a 1648 portrait of St. Thomas Aquinas and a 1716 painting called the Visitation—one of six in a series depicting the life of Mary, the remaining of which were moved to the Louvre in the 1860s.
Whatever is ultimately found as authorities attempt to take account of the damage in the days to come, it is already clearly devastating, as a building that has represented Paris—and the center of European art and culture—for 800 years has been hit with a near-fatal blow. But the structure remains. And French President Emmanuel Macron, in an address just before midnight in Paris, has vowed that the cathedral will again be displayed as a symbol of Parisian culture and history. “I tell you solemnly tonight,” he said. “We will rebuild this cathedral.”
Update, April 16, 2019, at 9:10 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect news about the cathedral’s stained glass windows and organs.