Days Before Notre-Dame Was Ravaged By Fire, A Twist Of Fate Saved 16 Of Its Most Precious Relics

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On April 15, 2019, the world watched in horror as Notre-Dame de Paris burned. Smoke choked the air as flames swallowed parts of the cathedral’s roof and began to lick up the sides of its famous spire. And as emergency responders rushed to the scene, crowds thronged the streets of Paris to witness the historic building’s plight.

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Then, as the fire spread, noxious clouds of yellow fumes poured into the atmosphere, while the centuries-old timber and lead of Notre-Dame’s roof continued to smolder and bubble in the heat. Yet the scaffolding that clung to the edifice’s upper level remained visible even through the discolored smoke – with its outline appearing in silhouette against the fiery blaze.

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Meanwhile, the mass of onlookers who had clustered around Notre-Dame found themselves dusted by pieces of ash. Fiery embers also floated down, and these began to singe hair and irritate eyes. Ultimately, though, emergency workers pushed the cordons back, forcing the hordes present to retreat as flames continued to devour the cathedral.

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Then the French skyline changed forever when Notre-Dame’s spire splintered and gave way. After leaning sickeningly to one side for a second or two, the burning structure toppled completely and crashed to the ground below. But even despite this tragedy, there had been a remarkable stroke of luck. More than a dozen statues that had graced the cathedral’s spire for over 150 years hadn’t plummeted onto the streets of Paris. In fact, they hadn’t even been damaged at all.

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But before we delve into how these priceless figures survived, let’s first take a look at the history of the magnificent building to which they had previously been affixed. Notre-Dame de Paris was first conceived of in 1160 by the Parisian bishop Maurice de Sully, with the freshly appointed clergyman decreeing that a new cathedral would grace the city. This grand structure was to be erected, moreover, in the Île de la Cité – an outcrop of land situated in the river Seine.

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The monumental project didn’t get off the ground for another three years, however. Jean de Saint-Victor, an archivist of the period, wrote in his 14th-century work Memoriale Historiarum that building officially commenced in the spring of 1163. And it was during this period that Notre-Dame’s first stone was apparently put into position, with Pope Alexander III and King Louis VII reportedly watching the symbolic moment firsthand.

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Yet owing to the sheer scale of the endeavor, it would take almost another century for Notre-Dame to be even close to complete. And although construction had mostly drawn to a close by 1260, the place of worship saw some significant damage over the centuries that followed. During the French Revolution, for instance, members of the public defiled many of Notre-Dame’s splendid Christian artworks. But, of course, the cathedral has also provided the backdrop for a variety of more uplifting historical events.

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In 1804, for instance, the famous French military leader Napoleon I was crowned emperor at a lavish ceremony inside Notre-Dame. And over 150 years later, the tightrope walker Philippe Petit inched across a thin line that was tied between each of the cathedral’s iconic bell towers – much to the diversion of the crowd below. That said, Notre-Dame has also served as the site of more somber events, such as a number of funerals for leaders of the French Republic.

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There’s several reasons why Notre-Dame has historically been at the center of many events in Paris, though, and its stunning looks are certainly among them. In fact, the cathedral’s architecture has been recognized as a leading exemplar of France’s unique brand of Gothic design. And thanks to Notre-Dame’s iconic flying buttresses jutting out from the exterior walls, the decorative rib vaulting arching across its ceilings and the characterful gargoyles that act as waterspouts – to name but a few features – it’s easy to see why its style is so revered.

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Then, of course, the cathedral is renowned for its collection of relics. Such religious artifacts are typically the remnants or former possessions of saints or holy persons. These historical objects are then used to honor the souls to whom they once belonged. And Notre-Dame is reportedly home to several exceptionally important relics that are associated with one of the most pivotal moments of the Bible’s New Testament.

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You see, legend has it that Notre-Dame actually houses three remnants of Christ’s crucifixion: a splinter of the cross from which Jesus was suspended, one of the nails that held him in place and the crown of thorns that he wore while dying. And these purportedly holy items have all been kept at Notre-Dame for hundreds of years. The relics were originally acquired for hefty sums by the 13th-century French King Louis IX, in fact, with the monarch subsequently housing them in the cathedral.

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Unsurprisingly, then, Notre-Dame has over time become a symbol of Paris and is a huge draw for tourists visiting the city. The place of worship is the capital’s biggest attraction in terms of footfall, to boot, with around 12 million people flocking there each year. And as you may expect, keeping the building in tiptop shape for visitors is therefore a must.

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The cathedral’s first renovation took place in the early 19th century, and it was actually sparked by a literary phenomenon. At that time, the building was in a sorry state, leading city officials to ponder whether it would be worth pulling the whole thing down. Famed author Victor Hugo, who held Notre-Dame in high regard, seemingly opposed this idea, however. And so in 1831 the writer took up the cathedral’s cause by publishing a new novel entitled The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

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Thankfully, Hugo’s book proved hugely popular, prompting Parisians to take another look at the cathedral where The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’s fictitious events take place. Following this surge in public fascination, then, officials embarked upon an ambitious renovation of Notre-Dame in 1844. And under the direction of acclaimed architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, these building works lasted for two decades.

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But this mammoth restoration was by no means the last. In 1963, for instance, Notre-Dame’s frontage was scoured by cleaners who were tasked with removing the impressive amount of dirt that had accumulated there. And in 1991 experts embarked upon another project – this time focusing on the building’s sanitization and general upkeep – that was completed in 2000. It was the most recent renovation, though, that turned out to have a devastating impact on the cathedral.

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Shortly before darkness fell on April 15, 2019, a fire engulfed the upper portion of Notre-Dame. Parts of the cathedral were alight for approximately 15 hours while onlookers from around the globe watched and mourned. But what was to blame for this tragic event? Well, some have pointed to the restoration program that was taking place at the time as a potential factor.

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Regardless of what had ultimately caused the conflagration, however, the 400 or so French firefighters who were tasked with putting out the flames had difficult jobs ahead of them. Indeed, in April 2019 ex-fireman Gregg Favre was quoted by CNN as saying, “It was pretty evident in the first 20 minutes that it was going to be a bad fire.” So, how did the emergency responders go about dousing the blaze?

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Well, French authorities made sure that the workers had a vast array of firefighting techniques at their disposal. The teams drew river water from the nearby Seine to quench the blaze, for instance, as well as utilizing a robot called Colossus in order to drench Notre-Dame’s super-heated interior with water. This latter measure was taken because the firefighters would have themselves struggled to withstand conditions inside the building.

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The only method that was off the table, it seems, was aerial waterbombing. And the country’s official public security Twitter account, Sécurité Civile Fr?, released a message to that effect, saying, “Hundreds of firemen of the Paris Fire Brigade are doing everything they can to bring the terrible #NotreDame fire under control. All means are being used except for waterbombing aircrafts which, if used, could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral.”

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Yet although the fire was eventually put out, the disastrous event had a devastating impact on the French – and, indeed, on the rest of the world. Patrick Palem, one of Notre-Dame’s expert renovators, opened up about his reaction to The New York Times in April 2019. “For me, it’s like losing a dear friend – like your grandparents have died,” Palem said. “It’s not just because of religion, but because it is such a grand part of our patrimony.”

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And the world has sadly lost a number of treasured pieces of history as a result of the fire. Notre-Dame’s impressive spire was decimated by the blaze, for one, along with much of the cathedral’s roof. The towering structure that had topped Notre-Dame before the conflagration had only stood since the 1800s, with Viollet-le-Duc fashioning a version of the original 13th-century steeple out of oak and lead during the restoration works that had taken place back then.

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However, while much of the rest of the cathedral survived the flames intact, this doesn’t mean that it was completely unscathed. The stone of the Gothic rib-vaulted ceiling, for instance, was pockmarked by the fire. And while the famous 18th-century Great Organ also endured through the blaze, the water damage the instrument incurred means that it probably won’t make sweet music any time soon.

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Another one of Notre-Dame’s most iconic architectural features didn’t get off scot-free, either. The metal cockerel that historically topped the cathedral’s spire also fell to the ground during the fire – although it wasn’t destroyed entirely. In April 2019 a Ministry of Culture representative explained the state of the ornament, revealing, “It is dented but properly restorable.” And the rooster wasn’t the only item to escape a fiery fate.

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Yes, the firefighters had managed to save a number of the cathedral’s important objects. The emergency workers had operated in groups, you see, with some tasked with securing religious artifacts and paintings while other units doused the flames. And in an April 2019 interview with the French current affairs network BFMTV, a spokesperson for Notre-Dame called André Finot spoke of the happy news, saying, “It’s a bit of a miracle; we are very relieved.” So, what exactly made it through the ordeal?

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Well, one of Notre-Dame’s most famous religious artifacts, the crown of thorns, was rescued from the flames. It’s fortunate that this particular relic survived, too, as it’s one of the cathedral’s biggest draws. Yes, despite the crown only being displayed sparingly, as many as 13 million people still come to Notre-Dame to gaze upon the item that Christ allegedly once wore. The tunic that Louis IX was reportedly sporting when he transported the fabled headwear to the cathedral escaped destruction as well.

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And, thankfully, Notre-Dame’s beloved rose windows also remain intact. These intricate stained glass flowers were first installed in the 1200s, and Finot was overjoyed that they had survived – even if more recent additions had potentially been damaged. “[These] stained glass windows [dating back to] the 19th century – it’s much less important [for these to] have been touched [than the] jewels of the 13th century,” he said to BFMTV.

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It appears, too, that another of the cathedral’s remarkable features escaped the worst of the blaze. As the emergency workers managed to stop the fire from spreading to the towers that house the internationally renowned bells, the impressive chimes fortunately remain undamaged. The bells were in such good condition, in fact, that plans were put in place for them to ring just two days after the start of the fire.

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The survival of the statues of the 12 apostles, however, seems to be largely down to serendipity. You see, although the effigies had been attached to Notre-Dame’s spire since the 19th century, they had been taken down as part of the renovation process mere days before the fire broke out. And it’s extremely lucky that the figurines were removed, too, as the spire was completely melted during the blaze. It’s highly unlikely, then, that the statues would have made it through in their original positions.

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The statues had originally come into existence during Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century restoration efforts. And while the copper casts are meant to represent Jesus’ apostles, the architect took liberties with one in particular: the effigy of Saint Thomas, which appears to resemble Viollet-le-Duc himself. In addition, a lion, an eagle, an ox and an angel – signifying the four authors of the Biblical Gospels – complement the figures.

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Interestingly, though, the statues had proved a source of consternation for quite some time, with renovation professionals having feared that all were at risk of falling off the spire. As part of 2019’s restoration efforts, then, it was decided that all 16 figures would be taken down from their respective positions so that any necessary repairs could be carried out. And this was regardless of the fact that lifting each of the 500-pound sculptures off the cathedral’s roof wouldn’t be a simple undertaking.

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Nevertheless, on April 11, 2019, the removal effort began. Specialists arrived at Notre-Dame with cranes in tow and winched the statues down to the ground. Then, once all of the figures had safely descended, they were taken to a storage facility in Dordogne. And it was here that experts would scrub the headless sculptures clean and return them to their proper hues. The process would be a lengthy one, too, as the apostles weren’t projected to return to their positions atop Notre-Dame until 2022.

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Then, once the statues had been safely ensconced in the studio of conservation company SOCRA, specialists took the opportunity to assess the effigies’ various conditions – the first occasion on which anyone had done so since the figures had been erected. And SOCRA’s employees knew what to look out for. After all, they’d been previously involved in renovating other famous French landmarks such as Mont-Saint-Michel’s basilica and the Palace of Versailles.

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What’s more, the experts intended to work on the statues two at a time – not least because each had been significantly affected by pollution and general wear and tear. Yes, as a result of two centuries of inattention, the outer layers of copper on the sculptures had suffered greatly. To remedy this, then, SOCRA workers planned to fuse any splits in the pieces back together and scrape off any discoloration.

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But when the news came that Notre-Dame had gone up in flames, SOCRA’s plans came to an abrupt halt. And in April 2019 Patrick Palem, one of SOCRA’s experienced employees, confirmed to The New York Times that work on the apostles had indeed been paused. You see, the restoration specialists now needed to devote themselves to looking after parts of the cathedral that had not been so lucky. A number of Viollet-le-Duc’s iconic gargoyles had been harmed during the blaze, for instance.

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And Palem discussed this change in direction further. At that time, he said, SOCRA’s top priority had become the “reconstruction and renovation of Notre-Dame – which could take between ten and 20 years [and will] probably cost several hundred million euros.” But the restoration firm has been far from the only authority to speak up about the disaster.

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French president Emmanuel Macron also released a statement about the blaze in which he vowed that the cathedral would be returned to its full glory. The politician set a very tight timeframe for this ambitious project, too, urging that work be completed by 2024. And as part of the effort to restore Notre-Dame, Macron released information about a contest to come up with a sound architectural plan for replacing the building’s damaged roof and spire.

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Prior to the announcement of the details of the competition, however, novel ideas had already started pouring in. One proposition involves filling the upper level of the cathedral with plant life, for instance, while another calls for replacing the traditional spire with a 300-foot-high carbon fiber creation adorned with gold leaf. But it seems that tradition still holds some sway. At the very least, a survey released by French publication Le Figaro in May 2019 suggests that over half of those canvassed would prefer a faithful recreation of Viollet-le-Duc’s spire.

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And people from all over the world have opted to help out in another way: by donating money to help pay for the extensive rebuild. Supporters of the cathedral have poured their funds into the effort, and the cash raised now stands at over one billion euros. People’s generosity has been so impressive, in fact, that some believe the amount amassed may actually be in excess of that needed to restore Notre-Dame.

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However, some experts have appeared unwilling to speculate about how much will be spent on rebuilding the iconic cathedral. When talking to the BBC in April 2019, restoration specialist Richard Woolf said, for example, “How do you price the unpriceable?” Architect Alan Davies also remarked to the broadcaster, “It costs whatever it costs… there can’t be any cutting corners.”

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But whatever the final cost of repairs actually comes to, the results will likely be seen as well worth it. And even though the calamitous Notre-Dame fire led to the loss of some items of huge historic value, the happy fate of the apostles and their animal counterparts is surely something to be celebrated.

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