Rebuilding Notre-Dame is my reason for living. I must give her back to the world – The Irish Times

Posted By on December 5, 2020

Mass will be said in Notre-Dame on April 16th, 2024 five years after a mysterious fire all but destroyed the cathedral. France is not just rebuilding. It is healing a wound

Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, rector of Notre-Dame Cathedral, believes the cathedral is the embodiment of the Virgin Mary. Our Lady is suffering, he says. She is in pain. She saw 35,000 people a day, 14 million visitors a year. Now there is no one.

I think of Notre-Dame more as a faithful companion, perhaps a St Bernard sheepdog, or the Great Sphinx of Giza, hunkered down on her island. Haunches to the east where day breaks, face turned towards the setting sun, she surveys the river and our futile agitation.

Notre-Dame survived the depredations of the revolution, served a brief stint as a Temple of Reason, was neglected for decades and slated for demolition. Victor Hugo saved her with his novel. A secular novel, whose chief villain is a priest.

In the 1830s, as now, France almost lost Notre-Dame before realising how much it loved her. She is the starting point of every journey, the countrys geographic and spiritual kilometre zro from which every distance is measured.

Notre-Dame embodies Frances noble, tragic history, from St Louis trudging on bare feet, holding aloft the crown of thorns, to Napoleons vainglorious coronation and General de Gaulle dodging sniper fire to praise God for the liberation of Paris.

When fire ravaged her on April 15th, 2019, the world, too, discovered how much it loved Notre-Dame. French officials were amazed by the sympathy and money that poured in. She is not Notre-Dame de Paris but Notre-Dame of the World, says Olivier Latry, the cathedrals organist.

These days, the spire of the Sainte Chapelle rises over the le de la Cit, lonely without her big sister. A 74m high crane fills the gap in the skyline, studded with warning lights to fend off wandering aircraft.

Our Lady stretches out below, shrouded in nets and plastic sheeting, propped up with crutches and prostheses, an ancient, ailing patient under anaesthesia. Spotlights illuminate the operating theatre through the night, her deep sleep punctuated by clanking tools and the purr of electrical generators. The artisans in hazmat suits who labour over her 24 hours a day, six days a week, descend from the medieval craftsmen who built her.

The original lead-cladded roof melted away that night of April 15th, coating Notre-Dame and her surroundings in toxic lead powder. The oak timber attic, known as the forest, was incinerated.

Eugne Viollet-le-Ducs 96m-high lead and wooden spire, completed in 1859, flamed like a torch and crashed through the burning roof, piercing the vaulted ceiling in three places.

Yet when they inspected the still smouldering cathedral the following morning, architects, builders and clergy were pleasantly surprised, if pleasant is possible in the face of such disaster.

The vaulted ceiling had fulfilled its intended purpose as a fire barrier, preserving much of the sanctuary. Not one stained glass window was broken. The great organ was nearly unscathed. Fr Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris fire department, had seen to it that the cathedrals greatest treasure, the crown of thorns Louis IX St Louis purchased from a Byzantine emperor in the 13th century, was spirited away to safety.

The cathedrals 1,500 relics and art treasures were passed hand to hand in a human chain and stored across the river in the Htel de Ville and Louvre. The 14th century statue of the Virgin of the Pillar tenderly cradling the infant Christ has found a temporary home in Saint-Germain-lAuxerrois, where French kings prayed when they lived in the Louvre.

By a stroke of good fortune, the 16 copper statues of the apostles and evangelists which Viollet-le-Duc had positioned at the base of his spire were removed for cleaning just four days before the fire.

VICTOR HUGO IMMORTALISED the hunchback Quasimodo, Esmeralda, the beautiful gypsy, and the jealous priest Claude Frollo.

The saga of Notre-Dames reconstruction is dominated by two characters worthy of the great novelist: a cantankerous but endearing retired French army general, and a whimsical architect who fell in love with the cathedral half a century ago, about the time of his first Communion.

General Jean-Louis Georgelin, aged 72, former chief of staff of the French armed forces and former grand chancellor of the Legion of Honour, was chosen by president Emmanuel Macron to head the public establishment for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris. He is an imposing figure with a booming voice, but there is an undercurrent of humour to his brusque manner.

Interviewing Georgelin is a verbal joust in which one risks being skewered on the generals elaborate prose. After I pestered his assistants for three weeks and mobilised other contacts, Georgelin finally agrees to receive me at his headquarters, a renovated stables near Les Invalides. Since I have no military rank, he addresses me emphatically as Maaadame, 32 times in an hour.

Several interviewees had told me the survival of the cathedral and most of its contents was a miracle. Knowing the generals reputation for piety, I consider it a safe question.

He shakes his head for a long moment and mutters: Almighty Lord send me your spirit so that I may reply calmly.

So he thinks my question stupid? No, the general replies. But theres a narrative that has taken over. Overnight, we really thought the cathedral might collapse... But the flames never touched the organ, never threatened the stained glass...

The roooooses, Maaadame, Georgelin continues in his operatic baritone, referring to Notre-Dames three famous rose windows, the masterpieces of this cathedral, are absolutely intact.

It was feared the thermal shock between extreme heat and water would crack the stained glass windows dating back as far as 1250. As melted lead poured around them and flaming beams from the attic crashed through the ceiling, firefighters took care not to spray water on the windows.

One week after the fire, stained glass makers began dismantling the windows of the upper bays, for cleaning and as a precaution during reconstruction. The rose windows have been left in place for the time being.

Though he mocks my question about the miraculous salvation of Notre-Dame, Georgelin nonetheless acknowledges that the fire was the worst blow to the cathedral in its history. Some commentators have seen its devastation as a symptom of something gone awry in the universe, a further tragedy in a run of bad luck that started with jihadist attacks and eventually led to the Covid pandemic.

Some see it that way, Georgelin admits, referring to Robert Sarah, a conservative African cardinal in the Roman Curia. There are multiple interpretations. For instance,Cardinal Sarah considers that the fire in the cathedral was punishment for the sins of Paris, France and Europe, he says.

Georgelin doesnt buy it. Twenty-first century humans are wimps, he seems to be saying. This theory that the world is in trouble... Do you know what happened in 1438? The beginning of the great plague! We westerners just lived through 70 years of peace, and we thought we could enjoy the fruits of the earth in joyous individualism.

It doesnt work that way, Georgelin continues. The history of the world is tragic. The history of man is one of conflict... Millions of people died of the plague. Between 1914 and 1918, a thousand people died every day in France of bullet and shrapnel wounds. That was far worse than what we are living through today.

Does being a military man and a devout Catholic make Georgelin particularly well-suited to rebuilding Notre-Dame. I have answered these questions a thousand times, he sighs, pounding on his desk for effect. It is a sensible thing for a Catholic to restore a Catholic church. I know it surprises some people, in a state that advocates secularism.

SINCE THE 1905 LAW on separation of church and state, the French state has owned the cathedral, Georgelin notes. The archdiocese of Paris is merely an occupant. It is not a bad thing that the interlocutor of the archbishop of Paris should be a Catholic. This criticism makes me smile and saddens me.

The word military implies authority, he continues. The ability to impose ones will, so that things advance. Contrary to what happens in other construction sites for historic monuments, we have a deadline set by President Macron: five years. We must not dither. We must go forward.

It takes authority to get all these people to work, because everyone has an opinion about Notre-Dame, Georgelin says. I am in charge of the construction site... A military operation is planned in detail, with a concrete objective... In military planning, one distinguishes between friendly and enemy modes of action.

Georgelin enumerates enemy modes of action which have complicated his mission. Heat waves during the summer of 2019 saw temperatures as high as 42 degrees. Gale force winds repeatedly threatened the fragile structure. The site was closed from July 25th until August 19th, 2019, while draconian measures were put in place to protect workers from lead poisoning. Work stopped again from March 16th until April 27th, 2020 in the first Covid lockdown.

Georgelin says he considers the reconstruction of Notre-Dame to be a sacred mission... I never thought of it as a retired mans hobby. And, believe me, if I had, the difficulties of the undertaking would have rapidly brought me back to reality.

Macrons initial call for a contemporary gesture to replace Viollet-le-Ducs steeple provoked an outcry. We received dreadful proposals, says Mgr Chauvet. A swimming pool or a skating rink on the roof, a glass spire...

Critics said changes to the cathedral would violate the 1964 Venice Charter for the conservation of historic sites. The French national commission on architectural heritage drew up a 3,000-page report which concluded that Notre-Dame should be restored identical to what it was before the fire. Macron decided to follow their advice.

Philippe Villeneuve, who the ministry of culture appointed chief architect of Notre-Dame in 2013, took a public stand in favour of identical reconstruction.

I already explained to [Villeneuve] several times that he should shut his trap so we can ... serenely make the best choice, Gen Georgelin told the cultural affairs commission of the National Assembly in November 2019.

Georgelin and Villeneuve are such strong characters that it would be surprising if there was not occasional friction between them.

THE IRISH TIMES receives no answer to repeated requests for an interview with Villeneuve. He was asked not to see press people anymore, because he was talking too much, a well-informed source confides. He wasnt supposed to give his opinion. He was supposed to work. Thats what the general asked him to do.

I meet Villeneuve by chance in the high security village of prefabricated buildings adjacent to the cathedral. He grants me an impromptu interview in the stairwell.

Is it true, I ask the architect, that he has a rose window tattooed over his heart? It was before the fire, he says. Since I have Notre-Dame under my skin, I am going to have the spire tattooed on my arm. In this direction, standing up, he laughs, mimicking a defiant gesture. There will be the spire, but other things too: a music score by Louis Vierne [the cathedral organist who died at the keyboard], two or three chimeras [medieval creatures] by Viollet-le-Duc. It will cover my whole arm, like the young guys do. Ive seen beautiful tattoos on the construction site, and I thought I needed the same thing.

Villeneuve, 57, says he became an architect at the age of four, when he was given a Lego set. He was seven or eight when his godmother gave him a book on Notre-Dame and the Sainte Chapelle for his first Communion. As an adolescent, his admiration for cathedral organist Pierre Cochereau was so intense that he made pirate recordings of concerts and learned to play the organ.

Architecture is petrified music, Villeneuve says, quoting Victor Hugo. He was so right. Look at Notre-Dame: the rhythm of the flying buttresses, the way the pinnacles spring forth. Its all horizontals and verticals, lights and shadows. It is music.

At age 16, Villeneuve began a scale model of the cathedral in balsa wood. His mother thought he was studying for his baccalaureate exams, but Villeneuve was making stained glass windows from plexiglass and textile paint, burning incense and listening to Cochereau.

Notre-Dame is a work of genius, Villeneuve says. Medieval builders had perfect mastery of materials, of drafting. They knew if they placed a stone here what effect it would have there. Their architectural vocabulary was columns and capitals, arches, vaults, stained glass and flying buttresses. Each builder advanced based on the previous cathedral.

Notre-Dame has been called the birth certificate of French architecture. Gothic art was born here in the Paris and Saint-Denis region, says Villeneuve. Later, the Renaissance architect and art historian Vasari condemned French medieval style as barbaric and labelled it Gothic, after ancient Germanic tribes.

Vasari brainwashed architects that Gothic architecture was disgusting. No one liked it through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Villeneuve says. In 18th century Paris, they cut the gargoyles off Notre-Dame. Finally, in the 19th century, Victor Hugo glorified it, as did Ruskin in Britain.

THE 19TH-CENTURY RESURRECTION of Notre-Dame was a direct result of Hugos novel. Eugne Viollet-le-Duc was hired by an older architect, Jean-Baptiste Lassus, to help restore the cathedral. When Lassus died, Viollet-le-Duc completed the project. Believing in unity of style, he removed 14th-18th century additions and designed medieval monsters to replace those that had been destroyed, including the famous Stryge, the winged, horned creature that sits on a corner of the north bell tower, head in hands, contemplating Paris.

Before Viollet-le-Duc, one repaired monuments, says Villeneuve. Since Viollet-le-Duc, one restores them.

Villeneuve will use Viollet-le-Ducs original plans to restore his restoration, he says. Rebuilding Notre-Dame is my reason for getting up in the morning, my reason for living. I must give her back to the world. That is my only objective.

Villeneuve was overseeing restoration of the spire before the fire. Not only was his beloved cathedral devastated, but he was treated with suspicion when, without evidence, some commentators linked Villeneuves construction site to the fire.

The fire started inside the attic, Villeneuve says in his own defence. We were putting up scaffolding outside. At no time did we use blow torches or soldering irons. You dont need power tools to put up scaffolding. There was no electricity on our site. We had only battery-powered tools and low-tension, 12-volt led lights. I dont think 12 volts could set fire to the roof frame.

When he falls asleep each night, Villeneuve says, the thing that hurts most is that we may never know what caused the fire. For the rest of my life I will carry this doubt and incomprehension.

Georgelin and Chauvet quote Paris prosecutor Rmy Heitz, who said investigators found no evidence of a criminal act, and continue to explore the possibility of a short circuit or lighted cigarette.

Whether out of negligence or fear that their installation might create the very risk of fire which they sought to avoid, French officials never equipped the forest with a sprinkler system or fire doors like those that exist in other countries. The flames raced unhindered from their point of origin under the spire, engulfing the entire attic.

Investigative reports by Le Monde and France Inter radio, and a report by the state auditor, have shown how the tangle of responsibility for the cathedral spread between the state, city of Paris and archdiocese meant that no one really took charge of security.

Elytis, the private security company that monitored fire alarm screens, had reduced on-site personnel from two to one. The man on duty on April 15th had been on the job for only two days and misread the initial alarm. A precious half-hour was lost.

Again in the total absence of evidence, rumours of an Islamist plot die hard. I interviewed a Catholic family on the esplanade in front of the cathedral this autumn. Ive read testimony from several architects who said it could not have been an accident, said Cline, a 20-year-old student.

Was she saying it was a terrorist attack? I asked. Of course, Cline replied. They are hiding it from us because theyre afraid of the backlash. Her parents, boyfriend and siblings nodded in agreement.

The fire and reconstruction effort have occurred at a difficult time for the French church. Fr Jacques Hamel, an 80-year-old Catholic priest, died when his throat was slashed as he said Mass near Rouen in July 2016. Three people were murdered in the basilica of Notre-Dame of the Assumption in Nice on October 29th, 2020. In both cases, the killers were Muslim extremists.

Church leaders complained bitterly at the ban on religious services, except funerals, during spring and autumn Covid-19 lockdowns. The bishops conference took its case to the council of state, Frances highest administrative body, to overturn the governments attempt to cap Mass attendance at 30 when the country partially reopened on November 28th.

The state doesnt understand that the Eucharist is vital for us, Mgr Chauvet said. If Catholics no longer have this source of renewal, there will be a lot more people at St Annes [mental hospital]. People are going to take tranquillisers and drink... This shows that France is no longer Christian.

But wasnt France the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church? As Pope Francis says, she is more like the grandmother of the church, Mgr Chauvet laughs wearily. Our church is tired.

Hope, Mgr Chauvet says, is his way of surviving the fire at Notre-Dame, the resurgence in Islamist attacks and the pandemic. The wound of the fire is still inside me, so deep that it makes me cry, so deep that I cannot look at photographs of the fire.

THAT NIGHT OF April 15th, 2019, the cathedral appeared exactly as Victor Hugo prophetically described it in his classic 1831 novel: All eyes were raised to the top of the church, Hugo wrote. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time.

At 7.49pm on April 15th, Viollet-le-Ducs 750-tonne wood and lead spire crashed into the sanctuary in a rain of molten lead. The cathedral shook. Firewoman Myriam Chudzinski was a few metres from where the burning steeple fell.

We heard a terrible, frightening noise, like tonnes of gravel being dumped into a skip, Chudzinski told TF1s documentary The Battle of Notre-Dame.

The crashing spire sucked the air out of the sanctuary, slamming its medieval doors shut. Gen Jean-Claude Gallet, the head of the Paris fire department, had 650 firefighters on site. He feared hed lost a dozen of them when the steeple crashed. The doors were pried open to an apocalyptic scene, but the firefighters were rescued. A robot called Colossus moved in on tank treads, spraying water at burning debris.

Fanned by high wind, the flames ripped through the roof and attic. At 9pm, the wooden beams that support eight bells in the north tower began burning. If the tower collapsed, it would pull down the facade and the entire cathedral with it.

Gen Gallet dispatched a 20-man, all-volunteer commando team into the north tower on what he feared could be a suicide mission. Each firefighter carried 32kg of equipment, including air tanks, on their back. The battle of the belfry lasted nearly two hours, but the firefighters triumphed.

A door was all that separated the cathedrals giant organ from the inferno in the north tower. The organ survived, but was thoroughly contaminated by lead dust.

The lead roof melted into tiny aerosol droplets, explains Christian Lutz, the organologist or musical instruments specialist from the ministry of culture who is overseeing the dismantling and cleaning of the organ. At 600 degrees, the droplets become yellow-coloured lead monoxide.

THE ORGAN IS the biggest in France, comprising five hand keyboards and a keyboard for the feet, 7,952 pipes ranging in size from a few centimetres to 10m tall, and 115 stops. By comparison, most French organs have 15-20 stops.

Just as Notre-Dame is a living summary of the history of France, its giant organ is a palimpsest of organ-making. Parts of it date back to the early 15th century. The organ case was built in 1733. Frances best organ makers added pipes over subsequent centuries.

Decontamination of the organ began on August 3rd, 2020, when its 500kg console, holding the keyboards, pedals and stops, was carefully lowered to the floor of the cathedral. Organ pipes are given a preliminary cleansing with a dry cloth before transport to a warehouse north of Paris where they will be washed with soap and water.

This is the first time an organ has been decontaminated, Lutz says. It must be reassembled in the cathedral by the autumn of 2023, because it will take six months to tune before Mass on April 16th, 2024.

Olivier Latry became an official organist at Notre Dame 35 years ago, at age 23. He misses climbing the winding staircase in the south tower to reach the organ loft. The organ is like a house. There is a staircase inside it, enabling one to reach all four floors of the instrument, he says. The organ case is 14m high and 13m wide.

Latry often walked the short distance from his home on the Ile Saint-Louis to practice and compose at night. Its too noisy in the daytime, he explains. At night, it is absolutely magical. Theres an incredible joy to being alone in the cathedral. One hears things but doesnt see them. One guesses at its secrets.

Is Notre-Dame haunted? No, Latry replies. It is inhabited... as if every prayer of every believer incrusted itself in the walls of the cathedral.

WHEN HE ENTERED the cathedral the morning after the fire, it looked like a battlefield, at least the way battlefields look in the movies, says Didier Cuiset, director of Europe Echafaudage, the scaffolding company that is playing a major role in the reconstruction effort. Light flooded in through gaping holes in the ceiling. The unusual silence made the scene more eerie.

Xavier Rodriguez is chief executive of Jarnias, the company whose rope access technicians perform many of the most difficult tasks in securing the wounded cathedral.

Right after the fire, there was a lot of rubble and charred wood, and a very strong smell of burning. The cathedral was gutted, and in the midst of that you saw perfect statues standing upright, says Rodriguez. Those are the things I remember: the smell, and the untouched statues.

Workers on the site are referred to as compagnons or companions, the name used for artisans in medieval guilds. Their skills have been handed down since the 12th century. Scaffolding was made of wood, not steel then. Instead of cherry-pickers, medieval rope technicians stood in large leather bags, which were hoisted up by ropes and pulleys.

We must take advantage of this tragedy to transmit this knowledge to young stone-cutters, carpenters, roofers, metal-workers, sculptors and stained glass makers, says Mgr Chauvet. These professions have been passed on in a continuous chain. We must preserve them.

The first priority after the fire was to protect the ruined cathedral from water. Rodriguezsquirrels stretched plastic tarpaulins over the burnt-out roof. They also hung nets in the nave, to catch stones falling from the damaged ceiling.

Before the fire, there was a perfect balance of forces between Notre Dames 28 flying buttresses and the roof. But with the roof and 20 per cent of the vaulted ceiling gone, the buttresses risked pushing the cathedral walls inward. It took six months to build eight-tonne braces that were lifted by cranes and fitted beneath the buttress arches to stabilise them.

In coming months, scaffolding will be erected throughout the interior of the cathedral so that similar wooden supports can be placed beneath the vaulted ceilings while they are repaired.

The pre-fire scaffolding at the base of the spire proved a blessing and a curse. A blessing because after the fire the tangle of twisted metal helped shore up the roofless cathedral. A curse because the damaged scaffolding was unstable. If it collapsed, it could have brought the cathedral down with it.

I looked at the scaffolding from underneath and my first reaction was: Wow. How the heck am I going to remove that? Cuiset recalls. It was like having a huge wart in the middle of your face, and you dont know if you can operate on it or not.

The compagnons installed hundreds of sensors on the scaffolding and throughout the cathedral to detect any movement. They encircled the bottom, middle and top of the ruined scaffolding with bands of steel, then built brand new scaffolding around the melted, twisted pre-fire structure.

It took five months to dismantle the old scaffolding, a process completed on November 24th, 2020.

Suspended from ropes attached to rails on the underside of a purpose-built floor, Rodrigueztechnicians have finished clearing scorched wood and debris from the upper side of the fragile vaulted ceilings. They now use the same procedure to vacuum up toxic lead dust.

More than 20 months after the fire, the process of securing the cathedral is still not complete. Early in 2021, Gen Georgelins public establishment will issues bids for tender. It will take another six months for actual reconstruction to begin.

IT IS TESTIMONY to Notre-Dames universal appeal that I meet young Moroccan women, a Hungarian Jewish family and an Orthodox Romanian student on the esplanade in front of the cathedral one recent afternoon, despite the pandemic.

But the man with the most interesting story is Salim Jalouf, 38, a Catholic Syrian from Aleppo who runs the cathedrals souvenir shop.

Jalouf arrived as a refugee in 2017. Like Esmeralda in Victor Hugos novel, he found a form of asylum at Notre-Dame. The cathedral gave me my first home, my first job, my first friends in France, Jalouf says, adding that the fire saddened him more than the destruction of his native Aleppo.

Before the fire, Notre-Dame could barely be maintained on the 6 million pittance the state dedicated to her annual upkeep. Now she will be done up proper. Money is no longer a problem.

Officials at the French foreign ministry were stunned by the response to the fire. They realised the cathedral was not just a religious symbol, but a symbol of France, says Stanislas de Laboulaye, a former ambassador to Moscow and the Vatican who was brought out of retirement to act as ambassador for international mobilisation. His objective is not fundraising, but to express French appreciation to foreign donors, and maintain interest in the reconstruction of the cathedral.

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Rebuilding Notre-Dame is my reason for living. I must give her back to the world - The Irish Times

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