View of cathedral on far side of river, with large crane
Architecture,  Paris

Rising from the ashes: Notre Dame in 2021

Television has brought our world together, never more so than at times of great historical significance, and times of great tragedy. Together we watched as Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon. Together we watched Live Aid. Together we watched the planes fly into the twin towers on nine/eleven. Together we watched the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And together we watched Notre Dame burn.

I wasn’t in Paris at the time but like so many others I followed the events on TV. The first news of the fire; the burning timbers; the collapse of the spire and the great timbers of the roof; and the survival of the glorious 13th century rose windows.

Cathedral on fire

Photo de Notre-Dame de Paris le 15 avril 2019 à 19h17 prise du Quai de Montebello
Wandrille de Préville <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Cathedral on fire

Notre-Dame_en_feu,_20h06
GodefroyParis, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently I watched a fascinating BBC documentary about the fire, The Night Notre Dame Burned (viewable only in the UK I believe). In it, the events of that night are seen through the eyes of several people who were closely involved in different ways.

Cathedral employees who first responded to the alarm and discovered the fire. A rector who watched the fire start from his seat at a café table, where he’d stopped for a glass of wine on his way home after the day’s work. Marie-Ange, a young firefighter very new to the job, fighting her first fire; what a one this was to start with! The commander of the fire brigade faced with the enormous task of managing the huge team working inside and outside the cathedral. The mayor of Paris; and an architect of historic monuments, drawn to travel to the city from his home in La Rochelle to witness this event and offer his help. Plus the teams forming human chains to rescue precious artefacts and relics from the building; the bystanders watching horrified from the banks of the Seine, moved to sing hymns in prayer for the cathedral’s survival.

And survive she did – just. Had the roof fully collapsed, the walls would surely have followed, pushed inwards by the flying buttresses designed to press back against the weight of that roof. And had the huge bells fallen from the North Tower as the timbers that held them burned, they could have brought down the tower and with it the whole cathedral. But when the fire was finally under control at around 21.45 (almost three hours after it started), amazingly much of the structure still stood.

The West Front, photographed on our 2017 visit to Paris, and in September 2021

Within days plans were underway for reconstruction, and a public appeal launched to help fund it. There was talk of a striking modern replacement for the spire, which might have been interesting. But in the end it was decided that like-for-like restoration was more appropriate for such a significant and meaningful building.

Notre Dame today

When we visited Paris in September 2021, two and a half years after the fire, work was well underway. The first phase, making the structure safe, was just about finished (in fact its completion was announced just 12 days after our visit) and the great task of reconstruction was about to start.

It was sad to see Notre Dame so badly hurt; but at the same time both interesting and inspiring to see what was being done to help her recover. Scaffolding shrouded much of the cathedral, but the West Front was clear and still looking stunning. A giant crane loomed over her, removing damaged wood I think. Ancient gargoyles jutted through the scaffolding.

And along the northern edge a fascinating series of information boards described the work being done and highlighted the many roles of those involved in it. There are scaffolders, art restorers, crane operators, architects, carpenters, historians, archaeologists, scientists, engineers and many more.

So I thought it would interest any of you who love Paris and Notre Dame, any of you who like me watched the horror of that night unfold, to see some current views of the work in progress. As always, please click on any image to see it, and all the others, in a full-screen slide show.

I visit Paris regularly; most of these photos were taken in September 2021, unless otherwise indicated

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