It survived the French Revolution and two world wars. The landmark is part of Paris’ soul, embodying the city’s history and partially shaping its identity through its religious and architectural significance. The Notre Dame de Paris, a jewel in the French crown, and a marvel of civil engineering, has suffered extensive damage due to fire.
The stunning monument has stood for over 850 years, which made watching it go up in flames so quickly on live television all the more devastating. It has seen much of Paris’ story unfold; the coronations of both Henry IV of England in 1431 and Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 took place within these walls. Famous French author Victor Hugo set his 1831 classic “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” here — the book is one of the reasons the cathedral got its much needed renovations in the nineteenth century.
Work began on the Notre Dame in 1163, when Pope Alexander III laid the foundation on the ruins of past churches. The structure was not completed until 1345. During that time, the structure underwent four stages of construction. The last sections to be built were the iconic gallery and two towers.
However, the spire that fell during the blaze was not a part of the original medieval work, but instead a result of the nineteenth century restorations. At the same time, the façade we’re all so familiar with was created — 50 years earlier the original exterior was heavily defaced during the French Revolution.
In the current day, it is the most visited monument in the French capital, with 13 million people flocking to see it every year. It is also home to centuries-old relics and artwork.
The conflagration occurred on Monday the 15th of April, shortly after the cathedral had closed for the day. While the official cause is not yet known, experts have speculated the current renovations could be responsible.
The spire, which was the main focus of the US $6.8 million renovation, was ravaged by flames. Contained inside it were relics from the patron saints of Paris; Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve. Two-thirds of the roof and the interior’s wooden structure were also significantly damaged.
Amazingly, French Culture Minister Franck Riester said the significant artworks stored within the cathedral were saved, including the organ, the crown of thorns said to be worn by Jesus, and Saint Louis’ tunic.
Copper sculptures of the Twelve Apostles and four New Testament evangelists had been removed from the spire merely days before the blaze for restoration works. This means they remain unscathed.
The cathedral’s spokesman Andre Finot confirmed the irreplaceable stained-glass rose windows were still intact.
"It's a bit of a miracle. We're very relieved," he told BFMTV.
The famous gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral were a significant feature of the structure. In fact, they were created to drain water of the roof to protect the stone from damage. While they have suffered some damaged, they are believed salvageable.
While standing in front of the still-burning monument, French president Emmanuell Macron told reporters, “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicenter of our lives.
“Let's be proud, because we built this cathedral more than 800 years ago, we've built it and, throughout the centuries, let it grow and improved it. So I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together."
He has since pledged to rebuild the cathedral within five years. However, architectural conservation experts have said it could take triple that time.
Prominent French conservation architect Pierluigi Pericolo said it could take between two and five years just to ensure the structure is stable.
"It's a fundamental step, and very complex, because it's difficult to send workers into a monument whose vaulted ceilings are swollen with water," Pericolo told France-Info.
"The stone can deteriorate when it is exposed to high temperatures and change its mineral composition and fracture inside."