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Notre-Dame cathedral: The revered artwork and relics endangered by the fire

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.

By: New York Times |
April 16, 2019 11:43:24 am
The Notre Dame cathedral is seen on sunrise as firefighters operate after the fire in Paris on Tuesday. (Source: AP)

By Liam Stack and Heather Murphy

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 artwork housed both within the building and on its grounds.

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, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet.

But the condition of many of its other treasures — including sculptures, paintings, stained glass windows and liturgical art and relics — remained unclear, Chauvet said. He said the main threats to the artwork were fire, smoke damage and falling material like melted lead.

Bernard Fonquernie, who worked in cathedral administration from 1978 to 2001, said water used to fight the fire could also damage its stonework and whatever wood survived the blaze.

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

The crown of thorns

Among the most prized relics at Notre Dame is 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 contains 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.

Chauvet said Monday that the crown of thorns was in safe hands. He said the tunic of Saint Louis, a religious relic, and a collection of chalices held in the cathedral’s treasury had also been saved.

It was unclear what happened to the piece of wood and the nail some believe to have been used in the crucifixion.

The rose windows

The cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, from whom the church takes its name, which means “Our Lady of Paris,” Heimann said.

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.

“When you’re facing the cathedral, there is a big window devoted to the Virgin Mary, the rose window, and she is in the center of it, enthroned,” Heimann said.

The status of the three windows was unclear Monday, but the prognosis seemed troubling. Benoist de Sinety, a bishop of the Archdiocese of Paris, said high heat had damaged the windows, melting the lead that held their panes in place.

Relics of the patron saints of Paris

The spire of the cathedral, which collapsed 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 Gallery of the Kings

The cathedral houses an important collection of statues, including the 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 Monday night. 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. Driven by revolutionary zeal, they dragged the statues into Cathedral Square and beheaded them using a guillotine in 1793.

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.

The cathedral itself

But a sacred space is more than the sum of its parts. Heimann said “the church itself is its own treasure because it is a place of so much history.”

The grounds were once the site of an Ancient Roman temple that became a church after the Roman Empire embraced Christianity. Construction on the cathedral began in 1163 and was completed in 1345.

“It is a place that single-handedly tells us the story of Paris and of France itself and its evolution,” Heimann said. “I don’t think there is any one thing inside of it that is more valuable than the thing as a whole. And I say that as an art historian that weeps for that lost art.”

Besides the paintings, architecture and statues, 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 — which had been rung at important moments in French history, including the French Revolution and both world wars.

Murray said one of the greatest treasures in the cathedral was a pipe organ known as the Great Organ.

“It was a magnificent instrument,” he said. “I doubt if it survived.”

It was unclear what happened to the bells or the organ Monday. But de Sinety said the fire had badly damaged the organ, too.

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