“Luminous and Beautiful”: News from Notre Dame de Paris

Developments at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris aren’t on anyone’s list of top stories at the moment, including mine.

That being said, given what it is that I do, and why you’re probably here, it’s a subject that I’m interested in, and have been following and commenting on as warranted. So if you’ll allow me to share a couple of pieces of news that would otherwise (probably quite rightly) slip beneath your radar, I’ll try to bring you up to date with some of the latest information. As you might expect, given the lockdown in Paris due to the Coronavirus pandemic, reconstruction and cleanup efforts at Notre Dame have been temporarily halted, but news about the project hasn’t stopped.

The big project that was underway before the shutdown was the effort to try to remove all of the melted and twisted scaffolding inside the Cathedral, which is both a gargantuan task and a bit of a two-edged sword. While the work needs to be finished, no one knows what may happen when these supports are taken away. Will the Basilica remain standing, or will the walls and vaults collapse? If the site remains closed for many more weeks or months without intervention, will it suddenly just come down in a heap?

As you might also expect, sadly, some people are looking to take advantage of the present situation. As ARTNews reports, a couple of would-be thieves broke into the job site, and attempted to steal some of the medieval stonework from the Cathedral, presumably for sale on the black market; fortunately they were apprehended. In a larger context however, it does raise the question of whether, with so many historic sites closed in France and elsewhere around the world, we’re going to be seeing more of this sort of thing in the near future. I expect that we will, sadly, and in some cases the losses will not even be noticed until these places are finally able to reopen, whenever that is.

On a more positive note, there’s a new, absolutely fascinating, lengthy article on what’s been discovered so far during the restoration.

Science magazine recently published a piece on some of the more interesting finds and data that was coming out of the Notre Dame project prior to the work shutdown. It reveals, among other things, that the fire was likely the result of an electrical short, and not from a discarded cigarette as had been previously reported in some news outlets; all 113 stained glass windows survived the fire, in part because firefighters were deliberately instructed NOT to get them wet; and a number of the stone fragments currently being studied by experts were retrieved by robots rather than by people. There’s also eventually going to be an effort to test for how much lead pollution got into the Seine as a result of the fire, as scientists will be able to track the unique chemical signature of Notre Dame’s lead for many miles downstream.

Among the many factors that those of us who don’t work in construction might not have considered, with regard to saving the building, is the importance of the fact that much of it is built of limestone. Limestone is highly porous, and the amount of water that firefighters had to pour onto the roof in order to contain the fire got soaked up by the stones like a sponge. No one likes water weight, but this particular version of it is very worrisome: even nearly a year after the fire, stones recovered from the site that are being studied in the lab are still leeching water that they absorbed during the battle against the conflagration.

Conditions for the cleanup crews, engineers, scientists, and others on the site are very dangerous, and rather draconian measures are in place to try to keep workers as healthy as possible:

People entering the cathedral must strip naked and put on disposable paper underwear and safety suits before passing through to contaminated areas, where they put on €900 protective masks with breathing assistance. After a maximum of 150 minutes’ exposure, they peel off the paper clothes and hit the showers, scrubbing their bodies from head to toe. “We’re taking five showers a day,” Zimmer says, adding that getting through the showers can be “like the Métro at rush hour.”

Clearly these people are aware of the risks, but believe that the work they’re doing is more important.

Again, this is a long read, but really worth your time, with information on all kinds of tricky problems faced by those tasked with saving the building, as well as many fascinating discoveries made to date. There’s the fallen sculpture which suddenly revealed the signature of the artist who made it, study of the ancient, charred timbers of the roof beams, and questions about where the stone used to build the Cathedral actually came from – which was probably not, as tour guides usually state, the hills of Montmartre. There’s also the tantalizing prospect of using lidar to take a look at what archaeological ruins lie beneath the present Basilica, since it’s reasonable to assume that, like most very old European cathedrals, the present church was built on top of earlier churches, which themselves were often built on top of demolished pagan temples.

The article closes with a touching recognition of the importance of Notre Dame, and how its near-destruction has caused a great deal of sorrow to many people. It’s something that the scientists themselves are very conscious of, as they go about their work. While no one knows when they will be able to return to that work, it’s reassuring to learn that the men and women risking their lives to try to save this building really do care about it, and want it to be “more luminous and beautiful than before.”

Here’s hoping that they’ll be able to resume that effort soon.


4 Comments on ““Luminous and Beautiful”: News from Notre Dame de Paris

  1. Great summary of developments. What an amazing feat to leave every stained glass window intact. Given the scale of the project, I’m sure that plenty more about the cathedral and the site will be discovered. I know you’ll keep us informed. Stay safe.


  2. I find it fascinating that they now know the name of the artisan of one (or more) of the sculptures. Hooray for the previously anonymous craftsman!


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