The fire at famed Parisian Cathedral Notre Dame began at 6.50pm on Monday 15 April 2019, even as 400 firefighters converged on Île de la Cité, one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine on which the cathedral stands to control the blaze, it was announced by Fire chief Jean-Claude Gallet at 9.05pm that it was unclear if Notre Dame de Paris could be saved. Even under threat of losing their lives from falling debris and the encroaching inferno, rescue and fire fighting officials formed a human chain to save the artworks housed within the hallowed grounds, carrying out irreplaceable, invaluable artefacts like the Mays of Notre Dame paintings. Meanwhile, as if divinely ordained, Father Fournier (his name is also amazingly providential – translated to English, it means “Fire Tender”), chaplain of the Paris Firefighters no less, is credited in saving relics of Christendom, one of the greatest of all – the crown of thorns, believed by French king Louis IX to be the crown worn by Lord Jesus during his passion and crucifixion.
“We’ll rebuild Notre-Dame together. I am solemnly telling you tonight: this cathedral will be rebuilt by all of us together. We will rebuild Notre Dame because that is what the French expect, because that is what our history deserves, because it is our destiny.” – French President Macron
As of Tuesday 8.30 am, the worst was over. And now the arduous task of rebuilding one of the world’s most significant monuments to Gothic Architecture and Christianity begins in earnest. Bernard Arnault, the world’s third richest man and owner of LVMH group, has pledged €200 million to the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral, following Kering Group owner Francois-Henri Pinault’s own pledge of €100 million. They are joined by the Bettencourt Meyers family, which owns one third of the L’Oreal cosmetics empire, French Oil corporation Total and KKR private equity group co-founder with donations o €200 million, €100 million and €10 million respectively, bringing the total Notre Dame rebuilding fund to €600 million.
As much of a priceless monument and symbol of French artistry and engineering the Notre Dame was, the lives of the parishioners (and visiting tourists) were paramount, they were saved first. Next, came the art, after that, the altar, and then the furniture and some of the furnishings within the cathedral. The Grand Old Dame was last. Simply because some things can be rebuilt but others would be lost forever. Built as one of the greatest beacons of Christianity in 1160 under Bishop Maurice de Sully and largely complete a 100 years later, the procedure for rescue and recovery has been a codified process for the Paris Fire Department since the French Revolution when Notre Dame was sacked and damaged in the 1790s. In fact, 160 years ago, French officials had already planned for the repair and replacement of the Oak beams within the cathedral that they planted trees in Versailles for that sole purpose.
Even then, you can have the money (complete restoration of Notre Dame cathedral is projected to be in the multi-billion dollar range) and the materials, but most importantly, if you don’t have the blueprints, one wouldn’t know where or how to start. Notre Dame took two centuries to build, and in less than an hour, its roof, spire and some of its interior was destroyed. In its entirety, Notre Dame cathedral possesses some of the most intricate architectural and furnishing details in history thanks to its Gothic artistry.
Gothic architectural style first appeared at Saint-Denis, near Paris, in 1140, and within a century it had pioneered cathedral design throughout Western Europe. Gothic architects radically transformed the interior to make it an immense visual experience. Evolved out of Romanesque art, Gothic architects were the masters of detail – if you ever felt overwhelmed or overcome whenever you visit a Gothic cathedral in Europe, the perspective of vaulted high ceilings, ornate pillars and over-the-top facades all enhance architectural dramatism. These were meant to be the most awe-inspiring expressions of architecture.
But details, revisions and renovations come at a price. It was desecrated in 1790s during the French Revolution, neglected to the point of being condemned in 1820s, rejuvenated between 1844 to 1864 thanks to the popularity of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even the spire which burned down two evenings ago, isn’t its original. It was added between 1844 and 1864, supervised by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who added the cathedral’s iconic spire. Hence, there lacks a certain rigour in tracking the architectural plans and changes throughout the cathedral’s over 800 years history.
God’s Angel – Art Historian Dr. Andrew Tallon
Business Insider reported that digital information chronicled during the creation of the Assassin’s Creed Unity computer game set in Paris could be used to re-create the iconic cathedral because its creators had catalogued Notre Dame right down to its bricks for perfect virtual replication. However, there’s a more rigorous and academic option – A tech-savvy art historian named Dr. Andrew Tallon had used lasers to “scan” Notre Dame cathedral right down to the millimetre in an effort to understand how medieval builders constructed their architectural masterpieces.
It was only in the last five years that the technology had advanced enough that Dr. Tallon was able to use the latest VR technology – a combination of laser plotting devices and panoramic 3D cameras. By placing these set ups in over 50 locations throughout Notre Dame’s entirety, he has created a virtual replica accurate down to the millimetre.
In a story for National Geographic, Dr. Tallon says it best, “”Every building moves. It heaves itself out of shape when foundations move, when the sun heats up on one side.” Yes, contrary to popular belief, buildings appear static but environments change its original design, the ground shifts, the buildings move, walls expand and contract with the weather, some, because of the imprecise ratio of building elements, more so than others and recover even less than others. His laser scans also revealed that as with all human endeavours, humans take shortcuts. When things couldn’t be fixed, the workmen took shortcuts or built around the errors and what results is that some of the columns don’t really line up nor do some of the aisles (what would really bake your noodle later as Tallon discovered and now you will too, is that some of these “errors and imperfections” were actually incorporated by design. Some asymmetry in otherwise perfect symmetry is what makes things beautiful, to wit – Cindy Crawford’s mole, but this is another story unto itself).
Indeed, consider the technology available to medieval craftsmen – string, rulers, pencils, weight bobs – each ancient device was not only time-consuming but in the resulting tedium, error prone. Multiply that by hundreds of workmen and labourers, each cumulative error adds up.
Dr. Stephen Murray, Tallon’s Ph.D. adviser at Columbia, tells NatGeo that ” (Tallon is) able to combine that astonishing grasp of technology with the big humanistic vision that one hopes that art historians have.”
Tallon died of brain cancer on 16 November 2018 at his home in Poughkeepsie, New York. His life’s mission complete and his work, likely instrumental in the rebuilding and restoration of Notre Dame de Paris.
The Eiffel Tower may be the most widely recognised symbol of Paris and the French nation but would it surprise you to learn that at 13 million visitors per annum, Notre Dame de Paris is the most toured monument, almost double of the Eiffel’s 7 million visitors per annum.
Special thanks to: Image credit: European Medieval Heritage/Getty, Knowledge leads – Developer & Technopreneur Michael Slavitch and Entrepreneur & Futurist, Roger James Hamilton