Making Notre Dame Cathedral great again | WORLD
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Making Notre Dame great again

TRENDING | Calls to keep the cathedral’s makeover culturally conservative have for the most part prevailed

Reconstruction continues on Notre Dame. Xavier Francolon / SIPA via AP

Making Notre Dame great again
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ON THE EVENING OF APRIL 15, 2019, sirens blared and thick smoke rose along the River Seine in Paris. Thousands of onlookers watched as Notre Dame Cathedral’s spire toppled and pierced the main structure. Some screamed, others wept quietly as flames engulfed much of the roof and burned until the next morning. Only two days later, President Emmanuel Macron promised the mourning citizens of Paris the cathedral would reopen in five years. Despite a brief halt due to the pandemic, the project appears on schedule for a Dec. 8 opening.

Still, repairing the 861-year-old monument has come with controversy. A 2021 article from The Telegraph warned that Notre Dame’s makeover would look like a “woke Disney revamp,” complete with a visitor’s “discovery trail” and “emotional spaces.” But even though rebuilding plans call for some tweaks, most of the controversial changes were rejected. Visitors will find the renovated Notre Dame mostly restored to its former glory.

As a point of serious national pride, the rebuilding of Notre Dame is a sensitive subject. When architects proposed a glass spire as “a contemporary architectural gesture,” a public outcry prompted the National Commission for Heritage and Architecture to scrap the idea. Plans for a rooftop garden met the same fate. Authorities also canceled plans for devoting chapels to various continents and for the discovery trail that would have led visitors on a visual tour of the Old Testament.

The cathedral’s central place in France’s history and national consciousness kept such changes at bay. “All the great events in France in some way or another took place here in the cathedral,” the late Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, formerly in charge of overseeing the project, told 60 Minutes. It’s the site where King Henry VI of England was crowned in 1431 and where Napoleon crowned himself emperor nearly 400 years later. The 420-­foot-long structure housed artifacts like the Crown of Thorns, fabled to be the very same that Christ wore during His crucifixion. Yearly, some 13 million tourists visit the Catholic cathedral.

The 2019 fire is not the first catastrophe the building has endured. Revolutionaries nearly tore down Notre Dame during the Reign of Terror, destroying all but one of the cathedral’s original bells. They left the Emmanuel bell, likely because the mammoth instrument weighs about 13 tons. That same year, mobs decapitated dozens of Notre Dame’s statues. By the 1800s, Notre Dame was in disrepair. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (published in 1831) brought attention to the building’s shabbiness and became a catalyst for a massive renovation ­project. Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc helped lead the restoration and designed the iconic spire.

Smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of Notre Dame in 2019.

Smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of Notre Dame in 2019. Fabien Barrau/AFP via Getty Images

A reconstruction project to fix weather damage was underway before the 2019 fire broke out. But renovations after the fire have been the most comprehensive to date, costing around $760 million. A nonprofit called Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris raised $928 million in donations for the project.

Even though the structure remained mostly intact and the fire didn’t consume a single window pane, it took a while to get the project underway. The interior of the building had to be decontaminated, thanks to the remains of molten lead.

Once crews removed the charred planks, lead fragments, and 400,000 pounds of scorched scaffolding, renovations began. Some 250 companies have participated in the project, including over 2,000 workers. Carpenters rebuilt the spire according to Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century sketches and used about 1,000 trees to refashion it. To achieve the architecture’s original finish, carpenters and stonemasons hewed wood and stone with hand tools. To fix the spire, builders used roughly 600 tons of scaffolding.

Alongside the repairs, workers had to clean the ancient monument, including about 450,000 square feet of stone surfaces. Each of the great organ’s 8,000 pipes had to be aired out, and caretakers used Q-tips to swab away dust from medieval-era paintings. About 40 stained glass windows were gingerly removed and washed, some sent all the way to Germany’s Cologne Cathedral for a touch-up.

Those hoping for a conservative makeover for Notre Dame may have lost the battle of the stained glass, but they seem to be winning the war.

All of this was done to make the rebuilt cathedral as faithful as possible to its former self. France’s National Heritage Commission did approve several updates, mostly by way of lighting and reorganization. Some pieces of furniture will be rearranged to make space for visitors. Artists have carved new “liturgical furnishings” including 1,500 chairs, but those look plain, no ornate cushions. The most controversial change involves Macron’s commissioning of six replacement stained glass windows. The plan elicited complaints of “vandalism” from over 100,000 petitioners, especially since the glass being replaced wasn’t damaged by the fire.

Those hoping for a conservative makeover for Notre Dame may have lost the battle of the stained glass, but they seem to be winning the war. The attitude of chief architect Phillipe Villeneueve—who has a tattoo of the cathedral on his forearm—is winning out. “An historic monument, a cathedral, is not something to be played with,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview.

Bekah McCallum

Bekah is a reviewer, reporter, and editorial assistant at WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Anderson University.


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