The Apse of Nôtre-Dame, Paris, 1854, Charles Meryon, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain Mark

A national symbol with a dramatic past

Since the construction of Notre-Dame de Paris began almost a thousand years ago, the cathedral has been a fixture of the Parisian landscape and a symbol of the French nation. Its history is a microcosm of French history - it has borne witness to revolution and political turmoil, it has been desecrated, restored and remodelled many times over. The fire which devastated Notre-Dame’s roof, spire and upper walls on 15 April 2019 was just the latest dramatic episode in its long history.

The early and topographically precise depiction of medieval Paris shown here includes the cathedral of Notre-Dame. It’s from the Hours of Étienne Chevalier, one of the most famous and lavishly illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century. It was painted by Jean Fouquet, court artist to kings Charles VII and Louis XI, for the treasurer of France.

In the landscape on this page, Notre-Dame stands out amongst the Île de la Cité’s other recognisable monuments such as the spire of Saint-Chapelle and the Pont Saint-Michel.

Even before the cathedral of Notre-Dame had been completed, around 1350, it was used as the place of celebration of great national events. As early as 1214, the Capetian king Philippe Auguste celebrated military victory against John Lackland, Duke of Aquitaine, Normandy and King of England, with a Te Deum service at Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame’s size and capacity for crowds made it well-suited to hosting prestigious events such as funeral masses and princely baptisms.

The advent of the French Revolution and the declaration that Catholicism was no longer France’s state religion wreaked havoc on Notre-Dame. Many of its statues were destroyed, its fittings and fixtures were plundered and the building fell into a period of decay and neglect.

The 1801 concordat signed by Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII redefined Catholicism as the religion of the majority of French people (though not the State religion), and marked a turning point in the fortunes of Notre-Dame. A Te Deum was celebrated at Notre-Dame on 10 April 1802 for the concordat proclamation and Bonaparte himself chose to be crowned Emperor there in 1804, as depicted in David’s famous painting (above).

Assuredly, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Paris is, to this day, a majestic and sublime edifice. But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man. Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831. Victor Marie Hugo (1802–1885)

A 19th century renovation controversy

Under the July Monarchy (1830-1848), cultural policy in France was transformed. Ancien Régime buildings and monuments such as the Palace of Versailles and the Louvre were selected for repair and conservation. In 1830, the post of Inspector General of Historical Monuments was created, charged with classifying and assessing building renovations.

Plan for the Renovation of a Chapel in the Nave of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris,1843, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0
Plan for the Renovation of a Chapel in the Nave of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris,1843, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0

In 1844, the young architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus won a competition for the restoration of Notre-Dame. The work lasted 25 years (Lassus died in 1857) and the interventionist restoration – which included rebuilding the spire and sacristy, and the manufacture of new sculptures, stained glass windows and bells – based on contemporary notions of medieval craftsmanship, remains controversial today.

Restoration. Both the word and the thing are modern. To restore an edifice is not to maintain it, repair it or remake it, it is to re-establish it in a complete state that perhaps never existed at any time. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, ‘Restauration’, in Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, Paris, B. Bance, 1866, t.VIII, pp. 14-34.
Sculpture of Virgin and Child, Notre-Dame, Paris,1853–1854, Auguste Mestral, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0
Sculpture of Virgin and Child, Notre-Dame, Paris,1853–1854, Auguste Mestral, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0

The new statuary commissioned under Viollet le Duc included the Virgin and Child sculpture by Adolphe Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume depicted in this beautiful photograph by Auguste Mestral.

Held in the Geoffroy-Dechaume archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is described and placed in context thus by one of its curators:

‘The mid-nineteenth-century's renewed interest in France's medieval past resulted in the restoration - sometimes heavy handed, sometimes imaginative - of many of the nation's most important monuments.

In Mestral's photograph, which comes from the Geoffroy-Dechaume archives, the heavenly figures remain earthbound on the construction site; shortly after, they would be lifted to a central position on the west façade, above the main portal and in front of the rose window.’

A dark day for Notre-Dame

Since the restoration overseen by Viollet-le-Duc, Notre-Dame has been in a near-constant state of restoration, preservation and cleaning. Since the turn of this century, the cathedral has been threatened by terrorism and erosion caused by atmospheric pollution and rainwater. As recently as 2017, an extensive restoration programme for Notre-Dame was costed at 150 million euros – before the fire that ravaged it on 15 April 2019.

The blaze (the cause of which remains uncertain) broke out under the roof of Notre-Dame and spread rapidly, destroying wooden interior fixtures and stained glass windows. By the time the fire was extinguished nine hours later, it had consumed the cathedral’s spire and a large part of its roof.

In the aftermath of the fire, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to restore Notre-Dame and launched an international fundraising campaign. At the time of writing, it is estimated that restoration may take 20 years or more.

Fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, April 15 2019, LeLaisserPasserA38, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, April 15 2019, LeLaisserPasserA38, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

A Notre-Dame for the 21st century

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe recently announced an architectural competition to design a replacement spire for Notre-Dame, calling for a new design ‘adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era’.

Inspired by the challenge of remaking Notre-Dame, architects, designers and restoration experts are deploying new technologies and ideas. The Dutch firm CONCR3DE has made an innovative proposal to combine old materials and new techniques in the rebuilding of Notre-Dame. They want to use a combination of limestone and ash to directly 3D-print elements like statues.

This example shows how new technologies can help overcome resource and capacity issues relating to skilled labour and scarce raw materials.

In the case of Notre-Dame, huge benefit will be gained from the work of the late Vassar Associate Professor of Art Andrew Tallon, who pioneered the use of laser technology and advanced imaging techniques. Tallon digitally scanned Notre-Dame from 2015 until his death in November 2018, using drone-borne 360-degree spherical cameras. Eventually generating over a billion data points, Tallon’s work at Notre-Dame leaves us with a detailed picture of the cathedral before the fire.

3D model of Notre-Dame, Andrew Tallon, Vassar College, Columbia University, In Copyright
3D model of Notre-Dame, Andrew Tallon, Vassar College, Columbia University, In Copyright

3D technologies have many practical applications in cultural heritage, from online engagement to academic research, preservation and conservation, and further innovation lies ahead. For example, the Time Machine project aims to use digital technologies to make 3D presentations of monuments and entire cities, as well as allowing people to browse the history of these places over time.

Cultural heritage organisations are joining forces and adopting new technologies to preserve and share information about our fragile shared heritage. By digitising their valuable collections and making the data available to conservation experts, museums, libraries and archives help to safeguard our fragile heritage sites. In the face of today’s complex challenges, the task seems more urgent than ever.

Learn more about the sites featured in this exhibition by exploring this interactive map: