As fire ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral, the haunting melody of Ave Maria brought the usual rush hour clamor of Paris to a standstill. Hundreds, if not thousands, of devastated onlookers watched in disbelief as 800 years of history vanished into flames. It was, as many have since lamented, a national disaster.
Yet despite the magnitude of the inferno, Notre Dame will live to see another day. Though the fire ravaged much of the roof and the cathedral’s 295-foot spire, it stopped just short of taking down the iconic bell towers and stained glass windows. And that’s thanks in part to Notre Dame’s robust stone architecture. Keep reading to find out more.
Conceived as a lavish monument to the Virgin Mary, plans for Notre Dame were first unveiled in 1160 by Maurice de Sully, the bishop of Paris. His vision: to show off the capital’s newfound economic, religious and political status. No wonder this ambitious project took nearly two centuries to complete.
The first stone was laid in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III and King Louis VII. Throughout the construction process, several renowned French architects, including Jean de Chelles, Pierre de Montreuil and Jean le Bouteiller, took turns in overseeing the project. Notre Dame was finally completed in 1345, and quickly became an important backdrop to some of the country’s most significant historical events; the most notable being the coronations of Henry VI of England and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Throughout its long history, the cathedral has undergone multiple phases of renovation to save it from disrepair. During the 1600s, repairs were led by Louis XIII and architect Robert de Cotte, and resulted in the addition of the cathedral’s now famous 8,000 pipe organ. Further renovations took place in the mid-19th century following the success of Victor Hugo’s 1829 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. This time, construction fell to architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, under the guidance of King Louis Philippe I.
Despite these changes, at least one aspect of the original cathedral remained the same: its stone vault structure.
Gothic Stone Architecture
Raised ceilings are a must for any self-respecting Gothic building – the higher the better in order to be closer to God and the heavens. Increasing the height of buildings further allowed architects to install bigger windows for more light.
To achieve this, stone vaulting, a technique which dates back to Roman times, became the order of the day. In the aftermath of the recent fire, it appears Notre Dame’s stone architecture may have been critical to its survival. Allow me to explain.
While stone vaults are strong and robust, it seems they do not hold up well when exposed to the elements. To counteract this, medieval architects would attach a wooden roof covered with lead sheets over these vaults. In Notre Dame, this roof structure was so vast and intricate, it was nicknamed ‘the forest’.
As such, the body of Notre Dame was made up of two independent structures which sat on top of each other. Because of this separation, the stone vault structure could, and did, remain relatively intact, even when the roof was in flames. What’s more, though the stone walls suffered from considerable smoke and water damage, the physical integrity of stone ultimately meant that by and large, they did not collapse.
Water damage will be the first port of call, though this in itself could take months, even years to ensure the building is completely dry. Next, a thorough assessment of Notre Dame’s remaining structure to determine the extent of damage. Only then will we have a clearer time frame for restoration. The final step in this arduous process will be the task of designing a new roof and spire. For the spire, France have launched a global contest which has drawn participation from architecture firm Fosters + Partners and Belgian artist Wim Delvoye.
So far, donations totaling more than US$1 billion have been pledged for the reconstruction of Notre Dame. Although French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to rebuild the cathedral within a time frame of five years, experts warn that it may take a decade or two before it is fully repaired. The road to recovery may well be underway, yet there’s still a long way to go before Notre Dame can rise to glory once again.
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