Notre-Dame et ses Œuvres: the fire plus 2
16 avril 2021… I began this day with vigour, eager to get back out to enjoy my beloved city, this time sans enfants. Confinement version 3.2, I shall call it, has taken its toll on this mother of two young children, with schools being closed and holidays brought forward; fortunately, a friend is occupying my girls so that I can kick off the first of what I hope is an interesting new series of ‘Weekday Wanderings in Paris’.
Weekday Wanderings are just that, and in particular, it is an example of MyFrenchLife members helping other members. A few Paris-based members are sharing their city and favourite haunts for those who are yearning to be here. I’m the first member involved and helping launch ‘Weekday Wanderings in Paris’ along with Judy MacMahon, Fondatrice MyFrenchLife.org. You can join us too but only if you’re a member of our Private MyFrenchLife Community Group on Facebook. I look forward to you joining us soon.
As a lifelong Francophile and very lucky to call Paris home, I love nothing more than strolling around, soaking in the sights and sounds, revelling in those iconic locations that tourists usually flock to. Nowadays, mid-pandemic, with very few visitors, no friends or family expected in the foreseeable future, I’m kind of missing playing amateur tour guide.
Most importantly, however, for one’s own mental wellbeing, a daily dose of iconic Paris is essential to justify why I moved here from the other side of the world in the first place. Il faut profiter… I have to make the most of being here. So today, with a few hours to myself, I wanted to share a small part of my Paris with our My French Life – Ma Vie Francaise family… and I thought that Notre-Dame was a great place to start.
Two years ago today, we woke, still in shock, from the previous night’s events… I had just sat down to apéro with my husband in our apartment in the 14ème when my mother phoned from New Zealand.
Notre Dame has burned down!
I thought this was absolutely absurd, assuring my mother that it must be some kind of fake news.
So humouring her, I googled, and sure enough, the awful truth was revealed.
Outside my windows, the usual Parisian din, nothing out of the ordinary, except for a faint waft of smoke to the north. For my sister-in-law in the 20ème, it was a different story. From her sixth storey apartment, she could see thick black smoke and a growing orange glow from the city centre. Very soon, she had to close her windows as the smoke arrived, laying ash on her balcony. Back at my place, we watched the live news footage in disbelief, interspersed with messages from a friend who was on Ile de la Cité, watching the whole tragic event unfold.
The next morning, I took the bus down to St Michel, got off on the corner facing the Seine (as I have done so often), to find the quai swarming with onlookers, eerily hushed, some sobbing, some in stunned silence, and facing towards the cathedral. From this angle, the view looked almost the same, the two towers of the western façade unchanged. Only an occasional wisp of smoke rising from the still smouldering building gave a hint of the devastation. I made my way through the masses, past tearful tourists and aghast locals, reporters and camera crews, until I was directly across the river from the church, and it was only then that I saw the gaping void where the roof and spire had once been.
The burnt air and bits of sooty debris swirled around, and the reality hit.
The fire, and the aftermath
Since that day, scaffolding has been a permanent feature, as well as the large crane that sticks out awkwardly in all my photos. There had been scaffolding up along the roof for quite some time prior to the fire, as significant restoration work had been underway, including the removal of the statues of the apostles which ordinarily graced the rise of the spire; this meant, fortunately, they had avoided the fire completely. Unfortunately, it was amidst this restoration that a stray spark of some sort was presumed to have started the blaze.
The cathedral is now surrounded by a high fence cordoning off work areas on the parvis to the west and behind the building to the east. Along the narrow street on the northern side, Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame, the cathedral towers against the adjacent buildings; here, are large panels where one can read about the intensely delicate and specialised recovery and restoration work. It is an impressive amalgamation of ground-breaking technological developments, the skilled workmanship of traditional artisans, and the painstaking attention to detail of archaeological experts. It leaves one with the feeling that Notre-Dame de Paris is in safe hands.
Art Exhibition: Dessine-moi Notre-Dame
On the parvis, where once thousands of people would convene each day, we can only view the towers from a distance, though this barrier too, draws the interest of visitors with a bright and evocative art exhibition.
Six months after the fire, an initiative was launched by the Diocese of Paris in partnership with the public establishment responsible for the conservation and restoration Notre-Dame. The Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Michel Aupetit, invited children from France and around the world to create a picture with the theme.
Dessine-moi Notre-Dame: l’église que vous connaissez ou l’église que vous imaginez (Draw me Notre-Dame: the cathedral you know or the cathedral you imagine).
For those familiar with St. Exupéry’s classic Le Petit Prince, and its immortal phrase “S’il vous plait… dessine-moi un mouton”; this theme evokes both the innocence and profound nature of a child’s spirituality. The result was around 6000 drawings from children aged between 4 and 16 years old.
By the following May, part of the parvis in front of the cathedral was reopened to the public and the following month the exhibition was inaugurated (16 June 2020), with 52 of the artworks selected to be displayed here in front of Notre Dame. Archbishop Aupetit was so moved by the beauty and sentiments expressed in the drawings in the collection, he was compelled to choose a further 109 pictures which were displayed in a temporary exhibition at the nave of the Collège des Bernardins (5ème) until 4 July 2020.
Following the fire, there was much discussion about the spiritual, cultural, and financial value of the cathedral, with national and local government, church officials, and historians debating how the rebuild should be handled. This was certainly a testing time, and what it highlighted for me was the desire to simplify the discussion, to ask: what is essential?
And what better way to do this than through the eyes of children. As St. Exupéry wrote,
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de, (1999) Le Petit Prince
Such essential qualities are evident in these pictures.
More than just the striking colours, or the skill beyond their artists’ years, one can see a deep connection to the building and what it represents. To some it is the intricate architecture, alone, with mathematical certitude, or within its surroundings, demonstrating this marvel as part of the natural order, a sort of heaven on earth. To others, it is a place of gathering, protection, or the hand of God itself, showing a direct link to the community and their faith. Some showed the cathedral in flames, perhaps mirroring their own sense of pain, loss, and grief.
Perusing these glorious and emotive works of art, two years to the day following the devastation, I can’t deny it made me pause, lump in throat, tear in eye.
For such young people to produce such heartfelt creations is a testament to the profound significance Notre-Dame has to so many, not just in Paris but globally.
A lot of people are still grieving.
Some are shaken by the surreal nature of having such an enduring feature of the city suddenly shut off.
Me, I am more optimistic. I am amazed and grateful that, from my angle at least, Our Lady is still as beautiful as ever. Yes, she sustained a near-fatal blow, but with the overwhelming support received from all over the world, and the tender loving care of those working to restore her, she will soon be ready to receive her adoring admirers once again.
Do you have any special stories about Notre-Dame to recount? If so please share in the Comments below.
1. All images are copyright Jacqueline Lacquin Edwards with the exception of those named below.
4. The Spire Aflame by LEVRIER Guillaume via wikipedia
5. Feu dans la charpente de Notre Dame by LeLaisserPasserA38 via wikipedia
6. Notre-Dame fire from Pont de la Tournelle by GodefroyParis via Wikipedia
10. Notre-Dame via Wikipedia