“Notre-Dame is burning!”
Anyone in Paris on the evening of April 15th must have heard this incredulous statement. In the sky, a thickening plume of smoke made sure there was no mistaking. Its changing colors were odd, so was its origin, seemingly soaring from the very center of the city.
In fact it did. On the south bank of the Île de la Cité, where Parisian history started, the square spreading at the feet of Notre-Dame marks the official point from which all distances from the capital are measured.
When construction started more than 850 ago, the cathedral was to be seen by all – it remained the tallest structure in the French capital until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. To this day, the medieval imagery of Paris features its imposing yet majestic silhouette rising at the end of every street.
Parisian houses and buildings have since gotten taller, and not everyone has the chance – today the dread – to see the cathedral from their window. As to make sure this is really happening, emulating doubting Thomas on an already unsettling Holy week, residents and locals flock to the hills to watch history burn.
A growing crowd assembles atop the Belleville belvedere, just four kilometers northeast of the island. There she stands, her roof and spire engulfed in other-wordly flames. Thought to be timeless, the monument had never appeared so fragile. In a striking paradox, glowing in the heart of Paris, it had also never seemed so tall.
From such a distance, it is impossible to imagine the battle raging on the burning ridges of Notre-Dame. All you can see is the fire, not the hundreds of firefighters trying to save the monument. A helicopter circles above the disaster like a powerless fly.
News reports soon provide more details to the troubled crowd. What witnesses can see burning is the cathedral’s ancient rooftop, made with the equivalent of 2,000 oak trees of wooden frame and 210 tons of lead tiles. Nicknamed “La Forêt” by the very few who ever got to walk under its venerable beams, the structure still included parts of Notre-Dame’s original roofing, including trees planted in the 8th or 9th century.
The cathedral’s iconic spire now stands like a gigantic torch in the heart of Paris. The elegant feature was added in the 1860s during Notre-Dame’s largest renovation program, led by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was 31 years old when he was chosen to lead the monumental revival efforts.
A sudden stupor strikes the dense crowd gathered around the belvedere’s balconies: the wooden spire has fallen, eaten and broken up by raging flames. A cloud of golden smoke rises from the cauldron of the cathedral. A hellish vision for the history books, reminiscent of a time when capitals still vanished in fires and tragedies saw buildings going up in smoke under the bombs.
Petrified, shocked, powerless yet again: witnesses cannot look elsewhere. How far can this go? Will the face of Paris be forever changed tonight? Are we really gonna see the towers of Notre-Dame crumble in the inferno?
Beyond religion, the cathedral has a special place in history. Built over almost two centuries, a timeline spanning generations, it is not the accomplishment of rulers and kings, but the resolute work of the masses.
At the time of its construction, many of Notre-Dame’s architectural features were revolutionary: first and foremost the ingenious flying buttresses, crowning the choir like rays of sunlight, and the vibrant rose windows, then the largest ever conceived. Even with so many churches bearing the same name today, no one needs to precise which one they are talking about when mentioning Paris’ cathedral.
That the building still stands to this day is in itself miraculous. It has survived the many civil wars, invasions, and revolutions that shaped a decidedly wilful French – and Parisian – history. The most visited in Europe (12 to 14 million a year), it is by far the oldest major monument in the city. Can such an architectural icon so suddenly disappear?
As nightfall approaches, the fire slowly dies. The cathedral’s bells may not ring tomorrow within the twin belfrys, but thanks to the efforts of roughly 500 firefighters, they will get to stand another day in the heart of Paris.
Notre-Dame is not destroyed ; she has lost her roof. The buttresses stayed strong. The rose windows still shine. The cathedral still stands.
Photos © ST