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The Art and Relics Threatened By The Notre-Dame Fire

Hearts are breaking all over the world in the wake of Monday’s untimely fire that set the iconic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris ablaze, threatening centuries of history. The cause of the fire is speculated to be a result of the renovations currently undergoing, and as is the case in many early European structures, had a framework held by wooden beams.

Built on the ruins of earlier churches, construction of the Early Gothic cathedral located in the center of Paris began in 1163, and was completed in 1345––though has undergone reconstructions and has been expanded with further additions to its structure over the centuries. Needless to say, it was the site of several significant events in French history, and housed a number of Christian artifacts, artworks, and relics with fragments believed to date back to Jesus Christ’s time. Dubbed a “cultural tragedy,” art and history buffs everywhere worry about the damage possibly inflicted on the priceless objects inside.


Objects from the crucifixion

Found in the cathedral are sacred relics including the Crown of Thorns, believed to be the one Jesus Christ wore; a fragment of the wooden True Cross Jesus was nailed to; and one of the Holy Nails used to pin him to the cross. Usually, these relics are on display for the public on Good Friday.

The Crown of Thorns


Tunic of St. Louis

The garment was said to have been worn by King Louis IX when he brought the Crown of Thorns to Paris in 1238. Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo tweeted that thanks to a human chain, both the crown and the tunic, as well as several other relics were successfully rescued and placed in safekeeping.


Rose windows

The trio of stained-glass windows preceding over the cathedral’s three main portals are some of the most treasured features of the landmark. The history of these windows date back to the 13th century, but none of the original glass remains due to the heavy damage they suffered through the years, particularly during the French Revolution in 1830. The windows depict scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, and its original style became a model for rose windows in cathedrals around Europe. Unfortunately, one of the upper rose windows has reportedly melted.

The South Rose window


The spire

One of the most heartbreaking images from the fire was the collapse of the 295-foot-tall spire that towered over the structure, which was added in the 19th century under the direction of architect, Eugène Viollet-le-duc during reparations following the French Revolution. The structure is said to house relics of St. Denis and St. Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris, and supposedly included bones, teeth, or hair from the saints. The rooster atop the spire is said to contain a parcel of the Crown of Thorns. Luckily, the sixteen copper statues of the Apostles and the Evangelists that circled the spire’s exterior were removed to be cleaned and repaired just days prior to the fire.


The sculptures

While a large number sculptures were carved onto the façade and adorn the landmark’s exterior, several statues depicting different religious figures stood inside. Unfortunately, the future looks bleak for the 14th century wooden panels depicting biblical scenes along the closing of the choir, as well as for the 78 choir stalls that were carved in wood in the 18th century. Of the 37 depictions of the Virgin Mary, the Notre Dame de Paris created in the 14th century is one of the most iconic statues within the cathedral. Also within the edifice lies the Mausoleum of Count Henry d’Harcourt, lieutenant-general in the king’s army, with white marble statues by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, made in 1776, just a few years after the lieutenant’s death. At the front of the cathedral’s nave stands a representation of the Pietà carved in marble by Nicolas Coustou in 1723; early images of the damaged interiors reveal that the sculpture and the cross behind the altar remain intact, with many calling it a “miracle.”

Mausoleum of Count Harcourt (1776) by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle

Choir organ and stalls


The paintings

The interior walls of the structure are largely adorned with religious art. The two major paintings were on display inside the cathedral: a portrait of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fountain of Wisdom by Antoine Nicolas from 1648; and The Visitation, one in a series of six paintings (the other five were moved to the Louvre in the 19th century), depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, by Jean Jouvenet from 1716. Fifty of the large-scale “Mays” paintings, commissioned every May from 1630 to 1707 were also on display at the time of the fire.

The Visitation (1767) by Jean Jouvenet


Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fountain of Wisdom (1648) by Antoine Nicolas


The Great Organ

One of the world’s most famous instruments and the largest organ in France dates back to the medieval times and still contained pipes from the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the status of the organ after the fire seems unpromising.


The bells

Of the ten bronze bells housed in the structure, the oldest bell, Emmanuel, has been inside the cathedral since 1681, and was rung during historic occasions, including the end of both World Wars and the French Revolution. In Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo was the cathedral’s bell-ringer. Luckily, the bell towers were reportedly spared by the flames.


The Emmanuel Bell


Photos from Notre-Dame de Paris website