Well, to paraphrase, since this is a PG-rated blog, “nagdabbit!” Followed by, boy I hope this was not arson. Then, medieval churches’ greatest enemy strikes again. Then I cried.
I’ve only seen the outside of Notre Dame. The line was so long, and the day so hot, that I opted to go to the Roman site under the church rather than stand in line for two hours in the sun. I’ve seen a number of other Gothic cathedrals, and didn’t feel the need to get heat-stress just to view this one along with thousands of strangers. (I got heat stress the next day, after going back to the Louvre. It was near 100 F on the city streets, with a hot wind and dust swirling from the park near the museum.)
One of the single greatest causes of, ahm, unplanned urban renewal in the pre-modern era was fire. Without pumps that could move water and apply constant pressure to it, the only thing to do was 1. bucket-brigade, 2. tear down buildings closest to the fire to keep it from spreading, 3. pray, 4. all of the above. Some of the earliest building requirements, such as a tile or slate roof, or covering the facade with plaster to cover and protect beams, or “cover fire hours,” (curfews) came from those fires. Multi-storey houses often kept ladders under the eves of the first floor, along with buckets, in case the fire tocsin rang in the night. Certain church bells would be designated as the fire bell, and when that note sounded, everyone stopped what they were doing and hurried to fight the fire.
Those who have read McCaulay’s Cathedral or Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, among other books, know that fire and cathedrals were not strangers. Lightning did in a number of cathedrals, since they happened to be the tallest things around in many places. Ringing the bells and appealing to St. Barbara to ward off the storms didn’t always work (and on occasion opened up positions for new bell ringers…).
You notice the wooden frame above the vaulting? That holds the roof up. The roof was usually covered with lead. Notre Dame still had the lead. Other places have switched to copper (is it green? Copper) or tile (Stephfansdom, Vienna) or even in a few cases slate or a slate-looking tile.
The vaults that we see from inside, and often marvel at, are not the roof. Instead, a wooden framework was constructed over the stone to protect it from rain and snow and ice. Lead or copper, less often slate or tile, then covered the wood. Water ran off the roof and out through drains on the sides, occasionally tipped with gargoyles. Some are monsters, others are just mildly obscene, or insulting to someone who irked the stone mason.
The vaulted ceiling is not meant to carry additional weight. This is one of the major concerns at Notre Dame at the moment—the weight of the burned timbers and water resting on top of the surviving vaults. That needs to be removed post-haste, carefully, and some cover draped over the top. Sort of a gigantic tarp. [Imagines gothic cathedral with bright blue “FEMA” tarp. Snickers.] Ahem, or other suitable, rain resistant protective layer. The weight of the vaults travels down the columns and the flying buttresses, thence to the ground. I suspect they will use cranes and very, very careful sequencing to lift off the remaining timbers and debris.
Another concern after fire is the status of the stones that were exposed to the flames and then quenched. Heating then rapid cooling can fracture stone, shattering some and “just” weakening other kinds. Expert masons will have to look at the structure stone by stone and decide which can be reused and which have to be replaced, in what order, and how.
In some ways, they will have to reverse the original builders steps, creating a wooden scaffolding under the arches, then removing the stones, and replacing them. Ditto the walls, the facade, and other damaged places.
The window lead will have to be checked to see if it softened and deformed. If so, out come the windows and they will be cleaned and then reassembled. Any lead that melted, dripped into the nave, transept, and choir will be located, removed, and the entire inside cleaned once the structure is stabilized.
Then comes the controversial part: how do you restore it? To what it was on April 14, 2019? To what it was before the crossing tower was “improved” with the neo-Gothic spire? Some have suggested that it should be “modernized” in some way. I have a feeling the donors will insist on going back to April 14, 2019’s structure and interior. If not, the Yellow Vest riots may seem like peaceful prayer meetings in contrast to what the tourists and other do.
Not everyone is in favor of restoring Notre Dame. Some see it as in need of change, turning into something that better fits modern, secular, increasingly minority France. Cultural critics point out that it has played a number of roles in history, and that it has changed over the thousands of years churches stood on that site. Since that is the case, should it be updated to reflect the beliefs of people in Paris today?
I know my thoughts on that, having seen some of the “updates and improvements” done to things like the Louvre and Reichstag. A loud, firm, and resounding “NO”, to start with.
As I type this on Thursday, Maundy Thursday for the Western church, the word is that an electrical short-circuit started the blaze. Why the smoke detectors didn’t go off earlier puzzles me, although I would not be surprised if it turns out that some detectors had been deactivated because of the ongoing restoration of the crossing spire. That’s not uncommon, because sawdust, welding smoke, and other things can cause false alarms.
Another questions is: what will become of the churches that are attacked, desecrated, and vandalized every day in Europe? Some of the other great cathedrals have had people set fire to them, and smear them with foul substances, or attack the altars and priests and parishioners. Will this draw attention to them? Or will the relief (“It’s not terror. Oh good!”) and efforts at rebuilding be allowed to overshadow all the other losses, until a Chartres, or Cologne, or Sienna is attacked?
I do know that a lot of people are meeting to look at emergency procedure plans, fire suppression options and system upgrades, and so on. A number of phones are going to start ringing, asking about misting systems, sprinklers, water tanks, and the like. So good will come out of this in other places, I firmly believe.
Some are wondering if this is a warning to the Western Church, to come back to G-d before all is lost. Others see it as a punishment for failures. Perhaps it is both, sort of the swift kick in the rump that leads to a step in the right direction. Christians in western Europe might reevaluate their faith and lack of worship attendance, and Protestants in particular reconsider how watered down and ugly* some of their worship ways have become. One can hope.
All honor to the firefighters who did so much. Major credit to the men and women who risked going into Notre Dame to carry out treasures even as parts of the vaults fell in. And a salute to those who prayed, sang hymns, and waged spiritual warfare on behalf of the church and the fire crews.
*This is an interesting, and in some ways gut-wrenching, piece about how a church failed a seeker and sent him to Islam. I sympathize about the lack of beauty in some modern, up-to-date worship spaces and services. I strongly disagree with some of his understanding of Islam and its place in the West, but his disappointment with the church – and the Church – rings very true.