Architectural expert says the catastrophic fire that engulfed the upper reaches of Paris’ soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations, is a lost not only for the city, but for Catholics who came on pilgrimages there. (April 15)
PARIS – Some of the Notre Dame Cathedral’s most priceless treasures, including a relic known as the Crown of Thorns many believe was worn by Jesus Christ, have been saved from the massive fire that ripped through the world-famous church, French authorities said early Tuesday.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said in a tweet that historically significant artifacts and sacred items have been recovered, apparently without damage. French police also confirmed the items are safe.
“Thanks to the @PompiersParis, the police and the municipal agents, the Crown of Thorns, the Tunic of Saint Louis and several other major works are now in a safe place,” Hidalgo tweeted, along with a photo showing many of the artifacts carefully preserved in storage.
It’s unclear where the Crown of Thorns, considered by some to be the French equivalent of Britain’s Crown Jewels, was stored in the heavily damaged church. Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told reporters that several of the church’s prized items were stored in a vault that he believed would be safe from the fire’s ravages.
The Crown of Thorns, presented to believers during Lent and on the first Friday of each month, is originally from Jerusalem and its authenticity has never been proven with certainty. But historians say it has been verified to be at least 1,600 years old.
Saint Louis’ tunic is a relic made of linen that belonged to King Louis IX, the king of France from 1226 until 1270. He carried the Crown of Thorns into Paris in 1239 while possibly wearing the tunic.
The recovery of the artifacts is the latest bit of optimism for French officials and Notre Dame aficionados around the globe, who have been watching intently since Monday’s fire laid waste to large swaths of the church’s heavy timber construction.
Initial reports from French leaders painted a dour picture of the 12th-century Cathedral’s chances for survival. More than 400 firefighters battled unusual and grueling conditions that defied modern-day firefighting techniques, experts said.
Some of the factors that made Notre Dame a must-see for visitors to Paris — its age, sweeping size and French Gothic design featuring masonry walls and tree trunk-sized wooden beams — also made it a tinderbox and a difficult place to fight a fire, said U.S. Fire Administrator G. Keith Bryant.
Bryant and others say the combination of a structure that’s more than eight centuries old, built with thick, bone-dry wood beams amid soaring open spaces, and a lack of fire-protection systems left firefighters with few options.
“Very often when you’re confronted with something like this, there’s not much you can do,” said Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College.
The blaze collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its rectangular towers. But Paris Fire Chief Jean-Claude Gallet said the church’s main structure had been saved after firefighters prevented the flames from spreading to the northern belfry. Gallet said the emergency response had evolved into a monitoring and clean-up operation.
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The first photos from inside Notre Dame, released Monday night, showed heavy smoke, fire and water damage to the cathedral’s venerable altars and other areas.
“The worst has been avoided, although the battle is not yet totally won,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who had rushed to the scene. Macron pledged to rebuild the church and said a national fundraising campaign would be launched Tuesday.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said it was treating the fire as an accident, ruling out arson and possible terror-related motives, at least for now. French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire was “potentially linked” to a $6.8 million renovation project on the church’s spire and its 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of lead.
Despite the dramatic image of the flaming cathedral, no one was killed.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, its architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses. Some 13 million people visit it every year.
Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.
“It’s not one relic, not one piece of glass – it’s the totality,” 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. “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.”
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The renovation project was part of an effort to save the deteriorating building. Weather and pollution have taken their toll on the stone structure.
“Pollution is the biggest culprit,” Philippe Villeneuve, architect in chief of historic monuments in France, told Time magazine in 2017. “We need to replace the ruined stones. We need to replace the joints with traditional materials. This is going to be extensive.”
Construction of the cathedral took more than 100 years to complete. The result is that, although it is predominantly French Gothic, there are areas that reflect the Renaissance and the Naturalism era of construction.
Still, the cathedral is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in the world. The name Notre Dame means “Our Lady” in French and is frequently used in the names of Catholic Church buildings around the world.
Rosman and Hester reported from Paris. James reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London; The Associated Press
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