By Edwin Benson
Seeing the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris ablaze shocked many people, regardless of the depth of their religious sense. As the long day dragged into the night of April 15, 2019, news cameras of the world were trained on the fire. Many Parisians sang mournfully and prayed.
Reporters discussed the cathedral’s importance as a French landmark, tourist attraction and UNESCO heritage site. Offers of aid poured in from all over the world. Almost immediately, there was a clamor that the cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it appeared before the fire.
The Importance of Notre Dame
For devout Catholics, the partial loss of this treasure was traumatic. Indeed, in the architectural hierarchy of the Church, Notre Dame de Paris ranks with Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Some cathedrals may be older, larger or even more beautiful. However, no cathedral is more recognizable than the great Gothic structure on the Seine. Notre Dame is the towering symbol of the Catholic Faith in France.
The influence of Notre Dame goes far beyond France to the whole Catholic world. Architects in the United States drew inspiration from the French interpretation of the Gothic style. Millions of American Catholics worship in front of altars and windows influenced by those of Notre Dame.
That influence was threatened by the first plans presented for the restoration. Many architects made outlandish modernistic proposals that would have remade the great cathedral in their own image. French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to be considering some of them.
A great outcry erupted throughout France, asking for an “authentique” restoration. The French Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) gathered nearly 144,000 signatures in a short time as part of the reaction against those who would disfigure the structure through an inauthentic restoration. The efforts paid off.
According to the Associated Press, “Macron came around to the traditionalists’ argument, and approved reconstruction plans for the twelfth-century monument that were presented Thursday [July 9, 2020], according to a statement from the state agency overseeing the project…. That means how Notre Dame was on the afternoon of April 15, 2019, before the fire broke out, consumed the roof and threatened the rose-windowed twin towers that keep the cathedral upright.”
A Public Display of Tradition
As a demonstration of the restoration, craftsmen presented a sample oak truss in front of the cathedral on September 19, 2020. As part of European Heritage Days, carpenters displayed one of the twenty-five trusses that will support the new roof in front of the Cathedral.
The truss was made with medieval carpentry techniques. A Catholic News Agency story on the event quoted architect Romain Greif, who attended the event with his family. He spoke for many when he said, “It’s a moment to see ancestral techniques that last. There is the present and the past, and it links us to our roots.”
The original trusses of giant French oak were built during the thirteenth century but replaced during a nineteenth-century restoration. It will be years before this new truss takes its place atop Notre Dame, but the sample proves that the medieval methods can still be replicated.
Delaying an Already Massive Task
The restoration suffered many delays. When COVID-19 struck, all work stopped. According to Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, a full three months was lost.
Another delay was the threat of workers’ exposure to lead. According to a study published in GeoHealth, Notre Dame’s roof contained 460 tons of lead. Researchers found lead dust up to thirty-one miles from the site.
The restoration can only begin after removing massive amounts of scaffolding. When the fire struck, the cathedral was undergoing a restoration process, which required scaffolding. It must now be carefully removed because the fire affected both the metal in the scaffolds and the stone which supports them.
The stone may present a more critical problem. Most of Notre Dame is built of limestone, which can turn to dust at roughly 800-900 degrees Celsius. The heat of the fire was estimated at 800 degrees. The possible effect of the water on the heated stone must also be considered. The possibility of heat and water damage means that the thousands of stones that will support the new roof and spire need to be carefully and individually inspected.
Reasons for Hope
However, medieval builders know what they were doing as Stone Specialist points out.
“The medieval masons who constructed the massive cathedral had put the lead-covered wooden roof structure above a vaulted ceiling constructed of 800m3 of limestone, intended to protect the interior in case the roof ever did catch alight. It was largely successful. Below it, rattan chairs, priceless paintings and stained glass windows were largely undamaged. A gold-plated cross above the altar and the Pietà… were among many priceless works of art that were protected from the effects of the blaze.”
It took about two hundred years to build Notre Dame. If the spirit of those who want to see Notre Dame restored to its pre-fire appearance hold firm, the job will be accomplished in much less time. Generations yet unborn will see its magnificence. The restoration may yet serve to bring the French people back to the Faith, which too many of them ignored.
Let us pray that it be so!