Exposition on Notre Dame Paris, Part III

Portrait of Queen Marie Therese and Notre Dame
17th century portrait of Queen Marie Thérèse, patron of Notre-Dame

On April 15, 2019, an electrical short is believed to have sparked the fire that nearly destroyed the 850-year old Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Within days, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the famous monument within 5 years. One year later, clean-up is still underway and many experts predict that the church won’t re-open to the public until long after the originally targeted timeframe. Fortunately, a new online exposition, curated by Paris Musées, lets devotees and admirers visit the cathedral’s past. Presenting more than 100 historical works of art, the exposition tells us much about the building’s history and its influence on France’s culture and people.

A Long Road to Recovery

This is the third part of a series of blog posts that summarize portions of the online exhibit in English. Before I return to the exposition, however, I want to tell you a little bit about current restoration efforts. One of the problems that is slowing progress is the presence of lead throughout the site. Notre Dame’s roof was covered with 460 tons of lead tiles. During the fire, much of that lead melted, pouring into gutters and forming stalactites that still hang from the vaults. In areas where temperatures exceeded 600 degrees celsius, however, the lead oxidized and went airborne. When the roof collapsed, a cloud of lead-laced dust shot into the air. Much of this settled in and around the church.

Scientists have tested residue samples from inside the cathedral containing lead levels that exceed 70 times the allowed limit. Workers and scientists that enter the building, don tightly sealed safety suits and masks that provide breathing assistance. They can only stay at the site for 150 minutes at a time before having to shower and then re-suit themselves. Unfortunately, the restoration process can’t begin until the building is decontaminated. Yet, scientists have not fully determined the most effective ways of cleaning the variety of materials inside the church.

North Rose Window of Notre Dame
North Rose Window of Notre Dame

For example, all of the cathedral’s 113 stained glass windows survived the fire but like all other surfaces, they are now coated with a fine layer of lead. Even before the fire, the windows were blackened with soot and dust. Small-scale testing showed that vacuuming the windows, then cleaning them with cotton pads, moistened with distilled water, safely removes the lead without harming the tinted glass. But this kind of painstaking work will take years. The main rose window, alone, has a diameter that is four-stories in length. The good news is that such efforts will render Notre Dame’s stained glass even more dazzling than before.

Witness to a Revolution

Engraving of First Mayor of Paris
19th Century Engraving of First Mayor of Paris in Front of Notre Dame

Over the centuries, Notre Dame has witnessed countless historical events, some earth-shattering, others routine. In 1789, at the start of the French revolution, the city of Paris became the seat of the National Assembly and elected its first mayor, Jean-Sylvain Bailly. To mark the occasion, the newly-elected mayor and other officials marched arm-in-arm with their constituents, members of the national guard, the Bishop of Paris, and militia soldiers, to Notre Dame. This would be one of the last celebrations that the church would see for many years to come.

During the 1790s, a radical group of revolutionaries seized control. They viewed the Catholic church’s ties to the monarchy as nefarious and sought to destroy it. Angry mobs looted the medieval cathedral, destroying and dispersing many of its possessions. One of the most egregious casualties was a series of 28 statues representing the Kings of Judah. Looters mistakenly thought that the statues memorialized various kings of France and in a symbolic act of violent rebellion, publicly decapitated them. The statues, believed to have been destroyed, went missing until 1977 when workers found 21 of the decapitated heads hidden in a Parisian mansion. They are now on display at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

Engraving of Louis Pasteur's Funeral
20th Century Engraving of Louis Pasteur’s Funeral

Despite all efforts to eliminate the Catholic church’s hold on power, most French people remained Catholic. After the revolution, Napoleon chose Notre Dame as the site to host his 1804 coronation as emperor. During his reign, he restored the church to its former stature. Throughout the 19th century, Notre Dame once again became a favored site for important national ceremonies, marriages, and baptisms. In 1895, funeral services for Louis Pasteur were held there.

Survivor of Modern Warfare

During World War I, German troops threatened to invade Paris. Sandbags were piled against Notre Dame’s front entrance doors in an effort to protect the church. Fortunately, the Germans didn’t enter the city but the gothic cathedral did suffer damage from aerial bombing.

Crowds Await the Arrival of General De Gaulle
Crowd at Notre Dame Awaiting General De Gaulle, August 1944

During World War II, Parisians were not as lucky. Germany occupied the city from June 14, 1940, until August 25, 1944. Some of the first footage of liberated Paris shows members of the French resistance firing rifles through an open window. The revered church dominates the outdoor scene that lies beyond their crouching silhouettes. On August 26, 1944, General De Gaulle arrived in Paris to lay a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. From there he walked amidst cheering crowds along the Champs-Elysées, arriving eventually at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s Timeless Beauty

Streetlight cleaners in front of Notre Dame
Streetlight cleaners in front of Notre Dame, 1865 photograph by Louis Vert

The 19th and 20th centuries brought countless inventions as the speed of innovation accelerated. France was at the forefront of this wave of modernization, often seeking to extend the benefits of new technologies to all of its citizens. Paris was one of the first cities in Europe to provide widespread gas street lighting. By 1870, the City of Lights was peppered with 21,000 gas-powered street lamps. While the Parisian landscape was constantly evolving, city planners, starting with Baron Haussman under Napolean III, worked to preserve and emphasize Notre Dame’s striking medieval architecture.

Metro construction near Notre Dame
Construction of metro line junction close to Notre Dame, 1909

At the end of the 19th century, renowned French civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe unveiled his plan for a new kind of transportation. The first Parisian metro line opened in 1900. Between 1905 and 1907, Notre Dame stood witness to work on line 4, which connected the left and right banks of the Seine via a tunnel that ran beneath the river. Again the contrast between ancient and modern was heralded rather than erased.

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Photo credit: Julie Anne Workman / CC BY-SA
Art credit: Charles Beaubrun / Public domain

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

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