Saving the Notre-Dame

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Saving the Notre-Dame

In April 2019, an enormous fire broke out in the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The event shocked all of France and left many people emotional.[1] In the city itself, citizens gathered around the burning building. A viral video shows a crowd of French citizens emotionally singing a hymn as they watch the cathedral burn.[2] President Emmanuel Macron summarised the building’s sentimental significance in a tweet: “Our Lady of Paris in flames. It is emotional for a whole nation. Thoughts for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”[3]

The world in tears
The news quickly spread across the globe and shocked millions. According to Michel Aupetit, Archbishop of Paris: “Notre-Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying.” The world collectively reacted to the fire, showing the importance of the building to people across the globe. The Vatican also responded in shock, calling the building a “symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.” Leaders from many European countries expressed their sadness. The tragedy of Notre-Dame also sparked responses beyond Europe, especially in the United States. For instance, former President Barack Obama tweeted: “Notre-Dame is one of the world’s great treasures, and we’re thinking of the people of France in your time of grief.”

As a result of worldwide publicity, donations were received from all around the world. For example, the charity Friends of the Notre-Dame de Paris and the French embassy in Washington, DC, organised fundraising concerts in several cities in the United States.[4] In fact, both the Friends of the Notre-Dame de Paris and another charity, the French Heritage Society, received 95% of their donations from the United States. Americans tend to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral as an icon of Christianity, as the building is present in many books and films, such as Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’. Moreover, they tend to be fascinated by Paris and have a romanticised perception of the city.[5] This helps explain why Americans have donated so much to help a cathedral on the other side of the ocean.

Even as the fire was still burning, donations were beginning to be made towards the reconstruction of the Notre-Dame. In total, over 922 million euros in donations for restoration were promised.[6]

“The worst has been avoided”
The day after the devastating fire, the damage could be assessed. The fire had destroyed most part of the roof and large parts of the interior. Moreover, the building’s 93-metre spire had collapsed. However, fortunately, the structure of the Cathedral seemed to be preserved. The two well-known towers with bells were still standing, and many treasures were saved.[7] For example, the Crown of Thorns, that Jesus is believed to have worn during the crucifixion, was saved from the fire.[8] According to President Macron, firefighters have made sure that “the worst has been avoided.”[9]

Jean-Louis Georgelin oversees the reconstruction of the Cathedral. In January 2020, he stated that the building “is not saved yet.” This call for caution was made earlier by Monseigneur Patrick Chauvet, the Cathedral’s rector, who claimed that there is only a 50% chance of saving the building.[10] As was quickly clear after the fire had been put out, the roof of the building was destroyed. Therefore, the ceiling vaults are now crucial to stabilise the Cathedral. However, when the fire broke out, restoration was going on. Because of this, there is still scaffolding in the building. This scaffolding has to be removed to assess the damage done to the ceiling vaults. According to Chauvet, there is a chance that, while removing this scaffolding, it will fall on the three ceiling vaults and damage them. This shows how vulnerable the building still is, months after the fire. Safely removing the scaffolding is seen as the hardest part of the conservation of the building. If this is done successfully, restoration can start.[11]

Restoration is not expected to start before 2021. According to Chauvet, it may take up to three years of restoration before the building can be opened to the public again. Complete restoration will take even longer.[12]

Key religious and political leaders have spent months discussing how the building should be restored. Patrick Chauvet made clear he hoped to restore the building exactly the way it was before. Others, such as priest Charles Delhez from Belgium, believes that the Cathedral should be rebuilt in a modest way. This means that not too much money should be spent. Delhez argues that there are more urgent problems around the world to be solved.[13] Alternatively, there have been calls to modernise the building during the restoration.[14] Some architects propose to build the spire of steel and glass bricks, or adding a frosted glass element to “represent the ghost of what used to be there.”[15] In July 2020, however, it was decided that the spire and the rest of the Notre-Dame will be restored to its original design. Nevertheless, sustainable materials will be used to achieve this goal.[16]

President Macron has set a five-year target for the restoration work to be completed.[17] This is partially influenced by the fact that Paris will host the 2024 Olympics. Macron hopes the works will be completed by then.[18] However, restoration experts have argued that restoration may take ten to fifteen years.[19]

Rebuilding the nation
Much of the discussion at the moment is focused on the practical task of rebuilding the Cathedral. However, the restoration of the Cathedral is symbolically viewed as an opportunity to rebuild the nation. Many see the incident as a turning point in French society. For instance, whereas religious groups are usually rather separated, Muslims supported the Christian community right after the fire. As a result, both Christian and Islamic leaders pointed towards strengthened religious ties.[20] President Macron also called for national unity the day after the fire, and stated: “I believe very deeply that we can transform this catastrophe into an occasion to come together.”[21]

Anne Clerx

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[1] Notre-Dame de Paris, des musulmans manifestent leur fraternité
[2] Stunning video shows people singing hymn to honor Notre Dame as it burned
[3] Notre Dame cathedral fire emotional reaction: ‘I had a scream of horror’ – photo gallery
[4] Small donors are rebuilding Notre-Dame as French billionaires delay
[5] Why have Americans given so much money to restore Notre-Dame?
[6] Eight months later, Notre-Dame cathedral still broken
[7] Notre-Dame de Paris: From searing emotion to the future rebirth of a World Heritage Site
[8] How centuries of priceless treasures were saved at Notre Dame
[9] Notre Dame fire: World reacts as cathedral in Paris, France goes up in flames
[10] Notre Dame Cathedral ‘not saved yet’ and still at risk of collapse
[11] ’50 procent kans dat Notre-Dame niet gered kan worden’
[12] ’50 procent kans dat Notre-Dame niet gered kan worden’
[13] Notre-Dame Cathedral restoration begins amid disagreements
[14] France says Notre Dame must be restored exactly the way it was
[15] Inside the Fight Over How to Rebuild Notre Dame After Fire | Time
[16] Macron wil toch traditionele torenspits Notre-Dame
[17] Eight months later, Notre-Dame cathedral still broken|[18]De Notre-Dame zal in 2024 weer blinken, zegt Macron
[19] France announces competition to rebuild Notre Dame’s spire
[20] Notre-Dame de Paris, des musulmans manifestent leur fraternité
[21] Inside the Fight Over How to Rebuild Notre Dame After Fire | Time