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Notre-Dame in Flames: What Happened, What’s Next

“We will rebuild it,” vowed French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday, after people around the world collectively gasped at the horrific sight of Notre-Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames. The sickening collapse of its spire was captured on video—an image almost as nightmarish as the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers but, mercifully, without the catastrophic the loss of life: One fireman was reportedly injured yesterday, but there were no reports of fatalities.

French corporations and US-based Apple have announced that they will make major contributions to the rebuilding effort. For others who want to help, this page on the Friends of Notre-Dame’s website provides a way to make donations that are tax deductible in the US through the The Friends of Notre-Dame, a 501c3 public charity.

Interestingly, an exact digital 3D mapping (as reported by MIT Technology Review) of the entire interior and exterior of the cathedral, overseen in 2015 by the late architectural historian Andrew Tallon, could provide a detailed guide for the restoration.

Here’s a screenshot of a laser scan, as shown in a 2015 National Geographic video in which Tallon described his study of Notre Dame:

As reported here by the Guardian (which has been running a helpful live feed of breaking events in this sad saga), “the structure of Notre Dame is still ‘sound,'” and large paintings inside the cathedral “are believed to have sustained some smoke damage but are largely intact.” Those were expected to be transferred to the Louvre for safekeeping.

The NY Times has published an account of the status of Notre-Dame’s important artworks and Christian relics, based, in part, on comments by Franck Riester, France’s culture minister.

Franck Riester, French Minister of Culture, discussing the aftermath of the Notre-Dame fire
Screenshot from Twitter feed of France Inter (French public radio)

How have American museums reacted?

The Getty Museum, Cleveland Museum, Philadelphia Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Arts, among others, tweeted their sympathy. along with images of Notre-Dame Cathedral from their collections. The Metropolitan Museum was less self-referential and more pragmatic, making this explicit offer of help:

Unmentioned by the Met is that one of its most relevant “resources” resides in its own collection—the damaged “Head of King David,” exhibited in its Medieval Europe Gallery, which came from the decapitated figure on the righthand portal of Notre-Dame’s west façade:

Head of King David, ca. 1145, Metropolitan Museum

On its collection website, the Met says this about the limestone sculpture that had once been a part of Paris’ now scorched cathedral:

Because it was thought they represented the ancient rulers of France, all of the monumental kings decorating the portals of the famed Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris were decapitated and presumably destroyed during the French Revolution. Until recently, this head of King David was the only known surviving head from this rich decorative program.

Perhaps one way—both concrete and symbolic—for the Met to “send all of our support and strength to the people of Paris” (as vowed in its tweet) would be for it to return this head to France for eventual installation at the building for which it was intended.

French firemen labored yesterday to rescue the cathedral’s artworks, some of which—statues representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists—were fortuitously already off-premises, having been removed last Thursday in connection with the ill-fated restoration of the now destroyed spire.

Why did this calamity happen? Here’s what Paris officials are saying, as reported by Lori Hinnant, Samuel Petrequin and Elaine Ganley of the Associated Press:

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it was treating the fire as an accident, ruling out arson and possible terror-related motives, at least for now. French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire was “potentially linked” to a $6.8 million renovation project on the church’s spire and its 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of lead….

Paris fire chief Jean-Claude Gallet said the church’s structure had been saved after firefighters managed to stop the fire spreading to the northern belfry. Gallet said “two-thirds of the roofing has been ravaged.”

Here’s why renovation was desperately needed, as described on the cathedral’s website:

Serious deterioration today (fall of gargoyles, ruin of pinnacles) are the result of a slow process that spares no part of the cathedral. The state of Notre-Dame Cathedral has actually reached a stage where its structures will soon no longer play their role and threaten the very stability of the monument, not to mention the permanent loss of carved decorations.

In the same way, the movable elements (paintings, sculptures, treasure, bells, organ), which constitute a unique and precious whole and which for some have kept an intensive liturgical use, must be maintained and periodically restored by highly qualified specialists [emphasis added].

Now those “highly qualified specialists” will have much more to do than they could ever have imagined.

an ArtsJournal blog