As art world mourns, firefighters manage to save some of Notre Dame’s treasures

Beyond keeping the architectural gem from being engulfed, some 400 firefighters protected the area where most precious relics, like the Crown of Thorns, were kept

Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Notre Dame, a survivor of wars and revolutions, has stood for centuries as not merely the greatest of the Gothic cathedrals and a towering jewel of Western architecture.

It has stood, in the words of one shell-shocked art expert, as “one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”

And so it was that across the globe Monday, a stunned and helpless art world wept alongside the people of France as a massive fire ravaged the beloved cathedral.

As they watched, around 400 French firefighters raced to contain the blaze, appearing to have prevented the complete destruction of the cathedral and managing to rescue some of its priceless artifacts by rushing inside, officials said.

Smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15, 2019, in the French capital Paris. (Fabien Barrau / AFP)

Dozens of fire engines and at least 18 high-pressure aerial hoses were used to contain the blaze which broke out at the Gothic masterpiece at around 6 p.m. on Monday evening.

“Civilization is just so fragile,” said Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval Cloisters branch in New York, her voice shaking as she tried to put into words what the cathedral meant. “This great hulking monument of stone has been there since 1163. It’s come through so many trials.”

“It’s not one relic, not one piece of glass — it’s the totality,” she said, struggling to find words expansive enough to describe the cathedral’s significance. “It’s the very soul of Paris, but it’s not just for French people. For all humanity, it’s one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”

Boehm spoke shortly before the Paris fire chief announced that firefighters had been able to finally save the structure, including its two main towers. Much of the roof was destroyed.

Flames and smoke rise from the interior of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019, after a fire engulfed the building. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER / POOL / AFP)

“It spread extremely quickly on the roof,” Paris deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told the BFM news channel.

Wooden roof beams dating from the 12th century were to blame, but the first-responders had made “saving as many artworks as possible” a priority, Gregoire explained.

Some teams had managed to salvage an unknown quantity of its cultural treasures, he and the head of the Paris fire service said.

The Holy Crown of Thorns and a sacred tunic worn by 13th-century French king Louis, two irreplaceable artifacts, had been rescued, the cathedral rector Patrick Chauvet said.

A crown of thorns which was believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ and which was bought by King Louis IX in 1239 is presented at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Friday March 21, 2014. (AP/Remy de la Mauviniere)

As the steeple and roof collapsed in the early evening, operations had focused on containing the inferno and preventing it spreading to the two 13th-century stone towers on the western facade.

Firefighters also worked to protect the rear of the building “where the most precious artifacts are located,” the head of the Paris fire service Jean-Claude Gallet told reporters at the scene.

He said they had been “safeguarded” without giving further details.

A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP /Francois Mori)

President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to the efforts of the fire service as he visited the scene, sending the “thanks on behalf of the whole nation.”

He praised their “extreme courage, their great professionalism and lots of determination by their commanders.”

‘Fear the worst’

More treasures may have been lost, though, and assessing the damage is expected to take days.

Crowds look on as flames and smoke billow from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. (ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP)

“Obviously we fear the worst in terms of damage given the scale of the fire,” Gregoire said.

The cathedral has several items of religious and historic significant, said Julio Bermudez, professor at the school of architecture and planning at Catholic University in Washington, DC.

“One of course is the crown of thorns … the faithful believe this is the crown that the Savior put on his head. It’s kept in a very safe place. But you know the fire is tremendously damaging.” He also expressed concern about the beautiful stained-glass windows, which he called “really irreplaceable.”

Smoke rises in front of the altar cross at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019, after a fire engulfed the building. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER / POOL / AFP)

The exact cause of the blaze wasn’t known, but French media quoted the fire brigade as saying it was “potentially linked” to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris Prosecutor’s office, which was investigating, said it was treating it as an accident.

Construction on Notre Dame — French for “Our Lady” — began in the 12th century and continued for nearly 200 years. It sustained damage and fell into neglect during the French Revolution, but received renewed attention following the 1831 publication of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” This led to two decades of restorations, including the cathedral’s famous flying buttresses and a reconstructed spire.

While most kings were crowned elsewhere, Napoleon Bonaparte made sure he was crowned there in 1804, and married there in 1810.

Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Joséphine kneeling before Napoleon during his coronation at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Behind Napoleon sits pope Pius VII. (Wikipedia/public domain)

Experts note that Notre Dame is an aesthetically smooth synthesis of different centuries. “It all blends together so harmoniously,” said Nancy Wu, a medieval architecture expert and educator at the Met Cloisters. She said she was struck by delicacy of the structure, as well as that in the three stunning stained-glass rose windows, and the elegant exterior carvings.

“There are a lot of details that remind one of intricate lace,” she said, “even though it’s a building of cold hard stone.”

Pope Benedict XVI addresses the crowd after a vespers service at Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, Friday, Sept. 12, 2008. Pope Benedict XVI is in France for a four-day visit that will take him from Paris to the shrine in Lourdes. (AP/Michel Euler, Pool)

Those worried about the cathedral’s durability could, perhaps, take solace in one of Notre Dame’s more fascinating survival stories. In 1977, workers demolishing a wall in another part of Paris discovered 21 heads belonging to 13th-century statues from the cathedral.

The kings of Judea, which were a prime example of Gothic art, had been taken from Notre Dame during the French Revolution and guillotined by antiroyalists who mistakenly thought they represented French kings.

The heads, which were thought to be lost, are now displayed in the capital’s Cluny Museum.

View of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris with its new interior lighting presented Tuesday March 11, 2014. (AP/Remy de la Mauviniere)

The mourning was not limited to the art world. Religious leaders, too, expressed deep sorrow over the devastation.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying for Notre Dame, which he called “second maybe to St. Peter’s Basilica, (in) … the ability of a church to lift our minds and hearts back to the Lord.”

“For the French, my God, for the world, Notre Dame Cathedral represents what’s most notable, what’s most uplifting, what’s most inspirational about the human project,” he said.

Boehm, at the Cloisters, found herself thinking about how the cathedral is at once of the past, and of the present — a living, vibrant building, despite its age.

“When you step inside it, you have at once the sense of everything that came before, and everything that’s still current,” she said.

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