Many of Notre Dame Cathedral’s irreplaceable artworks may be gone; some moved just in time

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It could all be gone by morning.

It’s not just the external stone structure of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris that is irreplaceable, it’s also everything inside it, from scores of religious sculptures to ancient stained-glass rose windows, to the chandeliers and organs and church bells, to the church vestments and the holy relics.

“Most immediately, the great tragedy is the structure itself and its fittings,” says Sheila Bonde, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Brown University. “Many people don’t know that the roofs are timber, largely replaced in the 19th century, and they have been totally consumed.

“Masonry will burn and degrade under intense heat, which is clearly what is happening, but we can only wait and see what kind of damage has spread to the church within.”

Wait and see and worry, she says. Especially about the most famous aspect of any Gothic cathedral, especially Notre Dame: the stained-glass windows that bring light and color into the interior.

“Some of (Notre Dame’s) stained-glass windows are original, they’re medieval,” Bonde said. (The cathedral was built between about 1160 and about 1260.) “The massive rose windows are susceptible to heat because they are glass and they are held together by lead, which melts.”

Inside, the wooden parts of the church are almost certainly destroyed after most of the roof caved in. Although the exterior is stone and the interior ceiling vaults are stone, the roof is slate.

But have the flames also consumed sculptures like the 19th-century statute of Joan of Arc by Charles Desvergnes, or the 18th-century Pietà by Nicolas Coustou near the altar?

“It’s not looking good,” reported a grim Camille Serchuk, a professor of art history at Southern Connecticut State University, who happens to be in Paris for meetings this week. She was on a Metro train miles from the cathedral but could still smell the smoke. And it was a beautiful day in Paris, she said, a day when a heavy rainstorm might have helped put out the fire sooner.

“The combination of heat, smoke and fire, it’s very unlikely that any paintings inside survived but we will have a better sense tomorrow,” Serchuk said.

So far, there are no reports of any deaths as a result of the fire. The cathedral, immortalized by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” is one of the world’s leading tourist destinations, attracting tens of thousands of visitors a day. And this week is Holy Week, one of the most important times in the Roman Catholic calendar.

French-born Laurent Ferri, curator of the pre-1800 Collections in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University and the former heritage conservator at the French National Archives, said Notre Dame is filled with sculptures, paintings, stained glass and liturgical art.

“I particularly admire the 14th-century wooden panels depicting the life of Christ, and the 78 choir stalls in carved wood added in the 18th century,” Ferri said. “Now I am afraid they might all disappear in the fire. We all need to hope and pray for the building, because it is part of the world cultural heritage.”

At least some of the artworks from the exterior of the building have been saved, having been moved only last week. Sixteen green copper statues representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists were taken from the cathedral for the first time in more than a century as part of a $6.8 million restoration project. (The fire is believed to be accidental but investigators are examining whether it may be linked to the renovation project, according to the Paris fire brigade.)

The copper statues, which ordinarily watch over Paris from the 315-foot peak of the cathedral, were lowered by crane, loaded onto a truck and taken for restoration in southwestern France, according to the Associated Press.

But this may be small consolation for the people of Paris who spent Monday watching in horror as one of the emblems of their city – indeed, one of the most important religious buildings of Western civilization – burned, leaving an acrid mixture of smoke and ash as a blanket of sorrow over the City of Lights.

Artists and historians of art and architecture around the world also watched as the 850-year-old cathedral, a jewel of Gothic architecture at the heart of Paris, began going up in fierce flames, hundreds of feet above the city and the reach of modern fire-fighting equipment.

When the 19th century-era spire of wood and lead toppled over into the flames, there were audible groans from watching crowds in Paris. One could imagine hearing the lamentations around the world.

“The spire also contained relics of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris,” says Ferri. “They were placed at the summit of the church in 1935 by the archbishop of Paris, to protect the building. If so, they are now likely reduced to ashes.

“It is a great loss for Catholics and for art lovers worldwide, but the cathedral had a particular meaning for the French, as a lieu de memoire, meaning a symbolic element in the memorial heritage of my old country,” Ferri said.

Late Monday, the French government said firefighters were able to save the main structure of Notre Dame, a cathedral surrounded by the waters of the Seine River.

“I can say that there is certainly a great deal of art in all sections of the cathedral, and in many forms,” said Ed Triplett, a professor of art history at Duke University, in a mournful email to USA TODAY. “It really depends on where the fire has spread. … Just writing that sentence is very difficult.”

Bonde wondered if the fire spread to the west, threatening the crypt where an archaeological museum opened in the 1960s deep under the square in front of the west façade, telling the story of the foundations of the cathedral and the urban Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine where the cathedral sits.

Even beyond the artworks, there are the relics in the cathedral treasury that Roman Catholics venerate as sacred: A Crown of Thorns thought to be Jesus’ and a piece of wood said to be from the cross on which he was crucified. Since the end of the 19th century the crown, a braided circle of canes that, according to the New Testament, was placed on the head of Jesus before his crucifixion, has been kept in a crystal and gold tube depicting a branch of the shrub used for circlet.

Late Monday, the French media reported the relics are believed to be safe.

The remarkable thing about Notre Dame is that this is the first major fire to wreak such damage in its history, despite its building materials and despite its location in a dense urban area of Paris. Other Gothic cathedrals in France have been damaged by fire, for instance Chartres Cathedral, 50 miles southwest of Paris.

Notre Dame was most damaged during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, by violence at human hands, and it subsequently became a property of the state (although it is still operated by the Catholic Church). As a result, many of the original artworks inside were moved to museums and other locations, Serchuk said.

But another characteristic of Gothic cathedrals is that some of the interior decoration can’t even be seen by people on the floor of the building – because that’s not what it was for.

“There are sculptures so far above they can’t be seen, but there was this desire to cover the whole church” in decoration, Serchuk said. “It was built for the glory of God, not for what people could see.”

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