April 23, 2019

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Notre-Dame: Fate of Priceless Cultural Treasures Uncertain

Notre-Dame: Fate of Priceless Cultural Treasures Uncertain
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The fire that destroyed two-thirds of the roof of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on Monday did more than damage a beloved historic landmark: It also endangered the vast collection of Christian relics and artworks housed in the building and on its grounds.

The relics are safe, the French government announced. “Notre Dame’s treasury, which included, for example, the crown of thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis, is safe in Paris City Hall,” said Franck Riester, France’s culture minister, on French radio on Tuesday morning.

But other historically important items have suffered. The cathedral’s main organ “seems to be quite affected,” Mr. Riester said. It is one of the most celebrated in the world, with some pipes dating back over 800 years.

“The large paintings, at first glance, have not been affected by the fire. But, often in these situations, there is water damage,” Mr. Riester added. Speaking at a later news conference, he said they had also been harmed by smoke.

The paintings will be transported to the Louvre on Friday so they can be treated and restored, Mr. Reister said.

One of the cathedral’s most precious treasures — a relic of the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ at the time of his crucifixion — was saved from the flames, according to the rector of the cathedral, Msgr. Patrick Chauvet.

But there it still little news on the condition of many other items of importance — including sculptures and stained glass windows — and how they have been affected by the fire, smoke, water and falling materials like melted lead.

Here are some of the treasures about which scholars and the religious faithful were most concerned.

Among the most prized relics at Notre-Dame was a relic of the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ during the crucifixion. Stephen Murray, a professor emeritus of Gothic architecture and medieval art at Columbia University, said the crown at Notre-Dame purportedly contains fragments of the original artifact.

The cathedral also contained a piece of wood believed to be a piece of the cross and a nail believed to have been used in the crucifixion.

“Most of these great cathedrals become destination points through the treasury, what they hold that you can come and worship or that you can come and see,” said Nora Heimann, a professor of art history at the Catholic University of America.

The cathedral contains three rose windows whose stained-glass panes, shaped like flower petals, each tell a religious story, including scenes from the Old and New Testaments, stories from the lives of the Twelve Apostles, and the resurrection of Christ.

The biggest of the windows is over 42 feet wide and has become a major tourist attraction.

On Monday night, Benoist de Sinety, a bishop of the Archdiocese of Paris, said that high heat had damaged the windows, melting the lead that held their panes in place. But Mr. Riester, speaking at a news conference in Paris at midday Tuesday, gave a more optimistic prognosis. “The large rose windows don’t appear to have suffered catastrophic damage,” he said.

The spire of the cathedral, which collapsed on Monday, contained the relics of St. Denis and St. Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris. Laurent Ferri, a curator in the Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University, said an archbishop placed them there in 1935 to protect the building.

According to legend, St. Denis, a third-century Christian martyr, was decapitated and died later while carrying his own head. St. Genevieve is often credited with saving Paris by using the power of group prayer to divert Attila, king of the Huns, away from the city in 451.

Gregory Bryda, an assistant professor of Western medieval art and architecture at Barnard, said the relics included bones, teeth or hair from both saints.

The cathedral houses an important collection of statues, including imposing stone figures of Old Testament kings that stand above the entrance. It is called the Gallery of the Kings.

The status of those statues was unclear Tuesday morning. But they have been through hard times before.

During the French Revolution, forces hostile to the monarchy mistook the statues for kings of France, not Ancient Judea. In 1793, driven by revolutionary zeal, they dragged the statues into Cathedral Square and beheaded them using a guillotine.

Twenty‐one of those heads, which were sculpted in the 13th century, were discovered in 1977 inside a wall in another neighborhood of Paris, according to a report at the time in The New York Times.

Scholars also pointed to the cathedral’s musical instruments as an endangered artwork. That includes the church bells — the largest of which date to 1681 and survived the French Revolution. It had been rung at important moments in French history, including to mark the end of both world wars.

The Great Organ, the cathedral’s largest, “ dates from the 19th century, but some of its more than 8,000 pipes date to the 1200s and it was seen as the best example of Romantic organs, a specifically French contribution to the organ world. These permit a single musician to generate symphonies of sound.

Bertrand Cattiaux, an organ builder who worked on a major restoration of the instrument in the 1990s, said in a telephone interview that at first glance it looked restorable. A member of the cathedral’s staff had telephoned him on Tuesday morning and said none of the pipes appeared to have collapsed. But given there are so many, that could not be guaranteed Mr. Cattiaux said.

He will visit the cathedral in a few days to assess the damage, he said. “We can just cross our fingers and wait,” he said.





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