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Notre-Dame: the wounded beauty is recovering well

Élodie Maurot - La Croix International - Sat, Jul 27th 2019

Our Lady is bruised but remains beautiful even in her sleep.

Time seems to have suspended itself at Notre-Dame. If you enter it through the small entrance on the Seine side, near the sacristy rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc, you will encounter loads of candles surrounded by paper corollas.

These candles, usually distributed during the Easter Vigil and then lit to celebrate the Resurrection, are still waiting for the faithful, among other objects of a daily life that is for the time being interrupted.

What we found striking inside the wounded cathedral is the absence of believers and tourists and the abnormal silence in which the monument is plunged. Notre-Dame is immersed in an atypical calm. Instead, it is nestled in a light, just as exceptional.

The wide gaps in the vault, caused by the collapse of the spire in the fire, allow nature's abundant day to penetrate. We could have seen the sky had a huge white protective tarpaulin not been placed. The light, filtered by the temporary obstacle, accentuates the majestic serenity of the place.

Our Lady is bruised but remains beautiful. Paradoxically, it is not her injuries that are obvious but her resilience. Her wounds are obvious, but the cathedral is standing.

She seems just asleep, while those who have the heavy responsibility of waking her up are busy at her bedside, about 60 professionals, architects, archeologists, engineers and technicians of all kinds.

Notre-Dame's resistance wows Philippe Villeneuve, chief architect of historic monuments, who is leading the July 17 visit in the presence of Minister of Culture Franck Riester.

"The medieval designers invented the vault to protect the cathedral and it has stood up remarkably well. Without it, the monument would have collapsed on itself," he says.

His work now consists solely of preserving this vault by placing the 28 buttresses of the choir and nave under hangers. It is a question of laying, inside the arches, like a wooden lining. A crane lifts them up perfectly upright, says Villeneuve, to slide them under the buttress.

The site, which now operates during the daytime only, allows one hanger to be installed per day, four days a week.

"It's our [leisurely] pace but we've been confronted by gales that have prevented us from laying," says Villeneuve.

Breathing apparatus

Meanwhile, inside, the clearing of rubble continues. Two robots are picking up rubble near the choir under the watchful eye of the angel musicians. The vault is not secure, so the entire area below — underneath huge nets — remains closed.

"We still have a quarter of the rubble to evacuate," says Villeneuve.

In the aisles, teams from the Research Laboratory of Historic Monuments and the Drac, under coveralls and masks with breathing apparatus due to lead pollution, receive charred stones and wood.

"Each piece is identified, numbered, photographed and then stored in the square," says Karine Duquesnoy, the Drac's regional director.

The security phase is far from over.

"It will be next spring, if everything goes well, with the installation of the large umbrella that will protect the building," says Villeneuve, who forecasts that an updated diagnosis will likely only be established at the end of 2020.

For the time being, the architect is quite confident. "So far we have not had any collapses or unpleasant surprises," he says.

As for the five-year restoration deadline set by the French president, Villeneuve is careful not to be too categorical.

"It's a direction and for the moment everything is perfectly possible. It depends on what you want to do. For me, the most important thing is to make the cathedral open for worship as soon as possible," he says.

In other words, the work could quietly continue upward while the interior is reopened to its prayers and admirers.

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