A French friend of Charleston takes a close-up look at the rescue of Notre Dame’s treasures
On April 15 of this year, the whole world was shocked to watch Notre-Dame de Paris burn. The fire lasted seven long hours; everyone was wondering how far it would go. Fortunately, the towers and the central core are still standing.
It took almost two hundred years to build Notre-Dame de Paris —1163-1345 — a magnificent example of Gothic art. Since then, especially during the French revolution (1789), the building has often been poorly attended. At the end of the 19th century, interest grew in restoring the building. Some people attribute this to Victor Hugo and his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) won the restoration project in 1858, which consisted of consolidating all the damaged stones, the sides (west and south) and the roof. He then designed a new spire; surrounding the spire, he added 16 sculptures — the twelve apostles and the four evangelists.
But what a miracle! These sculptures designed by Viollet-le-Duc, modeled by the sculptor Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume and produced by the Atelier Monduit in Paris, were saved from April’s inferno. How were those sculptures, placed in 1861 and never moved from the roof since then, saved when the whole roof and the spire fell?
In 2017, the Atelier Socra, located in the southwest of France, was selected (among others) to restore the sculptures. In March 2019, Socra carefully “decapitated” the sculptures and, on April 11 — a mere four days before the fire — they were taken down with a crane. A cable was put inside the body of each sculpture, which was then lifted and taken down, to be driven to the Atelier Socra for restoration, a project due to be finished by 2022.
Another miracle happened: The rooster that Viollet-le-Duc installed at the top of the spire, standing 90 meters (almost 300 feet) above ground, was found nearly intact two days later on the terrace of a building near the cathedral.
Of course, as everyone saw the spire in flames and finally falling, many thought that, with the heat, the rooster would have melted. Indeed, five tons of lead were found on the ground inside the cathedral building after the fire.
Inside the rooster was a tube that contained three relics that were placed there in 1935 — a thorn from Jesus’ crown of thorns, a piece of bone of St. Denis and another piece of bone, that of St. Geneviève, patron saint and guardian of Paris. St. Denis was martyred in the second century on the Mount in Paris (now called Montmartre) and, according to legend, he carried his head for six kilometers (four miles) and finally collapsed and died. At this spot, now stands the Cathedral of St.-Denis, designed by the Abbot Charles Suger and completed in the 13th century. St. Denis is the cathedral where many French kings were buried. The relics are now safely placed in the palace of the archbishop of Paris.
This summer, Mr. Patrick Palem, president of the Atelier Socra, welcomed my husband Frederick and me and gave us a private tour of the Atelier. Mr. Palem studied architecture at the University of Bordeaux 40 years ago, then joined L’Atelier Socra and never left. He purchased the company many years ago. His team includes 45 specialized artisans, who all studied to be a compagnon (a trained and certified artisanal craftsman); they are restoring the patrimoine (objects of French heritage).(The American College of the Building Arts in Charleston is the closest American example of this sort of establishment.)
L’Atelier Socra has a very impressive list of restorations to its credit — among them the Archangel at the top of the Mont Saint-Michel; the Hall of Mirrors and the Chapel at Versailles; the candelabras on the Place de la Concorde in Paris; parts of the Frank Gehry Louis Vuitton Foundation; and the mosaics of the Ak Saray Palace (14th century) in Uzbekistan.
It was an exceptional moment to be standing next to those grand sculptures, 3.5 meters high (11 feet, six inches), weighing 150 kilos (330 lbs.) each. They are made of iron, covered by a millimeter (0.039 inch) of regrowth copper. Being so close, you could only be amazed by the expressions on the faces of the apostles. Viollet-le-Duc chose to have the image of his own head on Saint Thomas, the patron of architects. He also decided to be the only one looking up towards the spire. For the design of the bodies, Viollet-le-Duc chose four different models, which means that four groups of three apostles have the same figure.
Miracles from the recovery were plentiful: Inside Notre Dame were 14 candelabras in the side bays; only one was totally destroyed and the others can be restored. The stained-glass windows and the carpets will be cleaned. The golden cross, made by the contemporary artist Marc Couturier in 1994 is still standing and shining. The organ, created by the specialist Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and inaugurated on March 6, 1869, when Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck, Charles-Marie Widor and others performed, will be heard again when the building is restored. And then, there is a beautiful Virgin Mary and Child (Notre-Dame du Pilier) made of stone and placed on a column — still standing.
But there is yet another miracle — no one was hurt. We must thank the firemen who performed an exceptional and delicate task.
The excellent and definitive tome, La Grâce d’une Cathédrale: Notre-Dame de Paris, was published in 2012 by La Nuée bleue and reprinted after the fire. Even if you do not read French, the photos and drawings are outstanding.
Finally, I would like to thank all the American people who have and who are contributing to the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris. It will take more than five years to be rebuilt.
Should you be in Paris between the 24 and 27 of October, do not miss the Salon du Patrimoine in the Carrousel du Louvre, where 380 specialized artisans and craftsmen will show their skills and art in restoring antique objects and sites of international heritage.
Martine P. Dulles lives in Tours, in the Loire valley of France. She was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston where she and her husband lived for 11 years. She now organizes bespoke guided tours in France and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.