Notre Dame rises again

Three years after a devastating fire, the iconic Paris cathedral’s restoration honours its medieval roots—and the once vilified architect who saved the church in the 1800s.

By Robert Kunzig
Published 17 Feb 2022, 12:05 GMT, Updated 20 Feb 2022, 18:29 GMT
In the aftermath of the fire, some wanted Notre Dame to be reborn with a new look, a contemporary one that would put the stamp of our age—and of the fire itself—on the cathedral. Others, those closest to the monument, just wanted it made whole again. The fire “was an accident,” conservator Marie-Hélène Didier says. “You forget. You try to forget.”
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

The fire in 1831 spared the Cathedral of Notre Dame itself. The rioters scrambled up the roof and toppled a giant iron cross; they shattered stained glass, took axes to a statue of Jesus, smashed one of the Virgin Mary. But they were really after the archbishop of Paris, who wasn’t there—and so they sacked his palace, which stood south of the church, facing the Seine River. Then they set fire to it. The palace is gone now. A 250-foot-tall construction crane stands on that spot.

There’s a drawing of the scene that night, February 14, 1831, viewed from the Quai de Montebello, across the Seine. It was made by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc—the man who, 13 years later, would undertake a 20-year restoration of the cathedral. Viollet-le-Duc was only 17 when he witnessed the mob attack. In his hasty pencil sketch, agitated stick figures swarm the palace, hurling furniture and other valuables out the windows and into the river. Behind all that stands Notre Dame, then six centuries old.

The jagged wound torn in Notre Dame’s heart by the April 2019 fire that destroyed its spire and roof is seen from above. The cathedral’s towering spire fell through the stone vaulting, crushed a modern altar, and left a hole fringed by charred roof timbers.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

In 1980, also at age 17, Philippe Villeneuve saw an exhibit about Viollet-le-Duc at the Grand Palais. He knew he wanted to be an architect—he was already building an elaborate model of Notre Dame—but he didn’t know you could specialise in historic buildings. Today he’s one of 35 “chief architects of historic monuments” in France, a profession most famously embodied by Viollet-le-Duc. Villeneuve has directed restoration work at Notre Dame since 2013, and with terrible urgency since the spring of 2019, when a fire ripped the top off the cathedral. The building has been stabilised at last; reconstruction is about to begin. In more ways than one, Villeneuve owes his current mission, the fight of his professional life, to his ingenious predecessor, Viollet-le-Duc.

“He invented the restoration of historic monuments,” Villeneuve said. “That didn’t happen before. Before, people repaired them, and they repaired them in the style of their day.” Or they didn’t repair them, and tore them down.

In 19th-century France, a government first established institutions to grapple systematically with a question that concerns us all: What part of the past is worth preserving and transmitting to posterity? What duty do we owe the creations of our ancestors, what strength and stability do we draw from their presence—and when, on the contrary, do they become a lead weight, preventing us from projecting ourselves into the future, from creating a world of our own? The question is one each of us faces in microcosm, in our work and in our life. Each of us has a service des monuments historiques in our head, struggling to decide what to hold on to and what to toss, which change to resist and which to embrace. It’s just we’re often not very conscious of it. And we’re often not conscious of our stake in the preservation decisions made by governments—of how old buildings touch us. Until they are threatened.

In its day, Notre Dame was revolutionary. It was built in the late 12th and 13th centuries, as France was becoming a nation, and Paris, its capital, the largest city in Europe. Notre Dame was the first grand masterpiece of a new French architecture—one in which pointed arches and flying buttresses allowed the walls to be soaring and thin, the windows to be enormous, and the light to flood in. Jealous Italians named it “Gothic,” by which they meant “barbarian,” but the French style conquered Europe. In the tall light, people felt the presence of God.

It took more than two years after the fire just to remove the burnt timbers and other debris and to shore up the vaults and buttresses against a catastrophic collapse. Now scaffolding fills the cathedral, and the restoration is finally beginning. The first step: cleaning all surfaces of dust and toxic residue from the lead roof, which melted in the fire.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

By the early 19th century, though, Notre Dame was in trouble. Decades of attack and neglect, beginning even before the Revolution of 1789, had left it dangerously dilapidated. Victor Hugo was so incensed, he set an entire novel around the cathedral, folding a polemic on abuse of history into a potboiler about a repressed priest, a hunchbacked bell ringer, and the girl they both desired. Notre-Dame de Paris was published in 1831, the month after the archbishop’s palace was burned down. All over France, ancient church buildings seized during the revolution were being plundered for the stones. Hugo helped start a movement that said, Enough. Viollet-le-Duc was swept up in it.

He saved Notre Dame. He rebuilt buttresses and stained glass, replaced statues demolished by revolutionaries, and added more: The cathedral’s beloved grotesques are his. And when he built a new wooden spire, 50 feet taller than the medieval original, he added larger-than-life copper statues of the Twelve Apostles in steps up its base. Eleven looked outward, watching over the city; the 12th was St. Thomas, the Apostle who doubted. Viollet-le-Duc gave Thomas his own face and had him gaze up at the spire, his masterwork. He was a nonbeliever who saved the queen of French cathedrals.

Now that church, a house of worship for more than 800 years, is being saved again. It’s being saved after a half century in which the practice of Catholicism in France has collapsed, while the number of tourists has exploded. In Villeneuve’s office behind the cathedral, in the second story of a stack of modular containers, the desk faces a print of Viollet-le-Duc’s 1843 drawing of the west front of Notre Dame. A trickle of congealed lead from the roof, melted by the 2019 fire, is wedged into a corner of the frame. Since the night of the fire, it has been Villeneuve’s intention to rebuild the church exactly as Viollet-le-Duc left it, including the lead roof and the “forest” of massive oak timbers that supported it.

“We are restoring the restorer,” he said.

A little before seven on the evening of April 15, 2019, as Villeneuve was racing from his home on the Atlantic coast to catch the last high-speed train for Paris, I was in a taxi crossing the Seine. The traffic was crawling. My wife looked out the window. “Is Notre Dame burning?” she asked. The patch of flickering orange on the roof made no sense. I’m sure they’ll put it out soon, I muttered. Moments later we saw the flames shoot up the wooden spire and engulf it.

Everyone in France remembers where they were when Notre Dame burned that April night—in that way, though no one died, it’s like 9/11. Bernard Hermann, a retired photographer, was in his garret on the Place du Petit Pont, facing the cathedral. A book of his, called Paris, km 00—on French maps, distances are measured from a zero point in front of Notre Dame—consists of photographs taken from his windows. “The drama of Notre Dame was for me the end of the world,” Hermann said. “I was thunderstruck. I closed the curtains.”

Burning roof timbers, large blocks of limestone, and 800-plus tons of oak and lead from the spire all crashed into Notre Dame. And yet no art of historical significance was damaged and very little of the stained glass. “It was a miracle,” says conservator Marie-Hélène Didier. Side chapels like this one—Our Lady of Seven Sorrows—will get a cleaning and restoration, which most needed before the fire.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

Jean-Michel Leniaud, a historian of architecture, was at a reception at the Palace of Versailles. He rushed back to Paris and watched the drama. “People were crying. People were praying. People were kneeling in the street,” he said.

Six miles to the west, Faycal Aït Saïd, who now operates the crane that towers over the wounded cathedral, was finishing his shift on an even taller crane, building a new office tower. Alone in the sky at 425 feet, he saw the giant plume of smoke on the horizon, beginning to drift west.

By the time Marie-Hélène Didier, the culture ministry conservator responsible for Notre Dame, got through the firefighters’ perimeter, most of the precious artefacts had already been extracted and placed in the yard. “It looked like a big flea market,” she said. Late that night, she escorted some of the treasures in a city van to a vault at the Hôtel de Ville. The linen tunic of St. Louis, the 13th-century king and crusader, was on Didier’s lap. Next to her, her boss held the Crown of Thorns.

Scaffolding and a giant crane now mock the cathedral’s aspiration to loftiness; a metal wall topped with razor wire surrounds the site. But the church has recovered from trauma before. In 1831, from this vantage point across the Seine, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc watched a mob attack it. Later he directed the first restoration of Notre Dame, preserving the landmark the world knows today.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

President Emmanuel Macron was at the Élysée Palace, where he had just recorded a televised national address for that evening responding to the “yellow vests”—the protest movement against his government. He cancelled the speech and rushed to the cathedral. Notre Dame is “our history, our literature, our imagination … the epicentre of our life,” he said, speaking into the TV cameras. “This cathedral, we will rebuild it, all of us together.”

Dorothée Chaoui-Derieux, a conservator who oversees archaeological digs in Paris, read the news on Twitter as she made dinner for her three children. She’d never taken them to Notre Dame, she realised. It didn’t occur to her that she’d be spending nearly every day for the next two years in the empty cathedral, sifting through debris—what she calls vestiges—that Notre Dame itself would become an archaeological site.

As the church was still burning, TV networks offered talking heads. “Stupidly, I stayed in front of the TV, even though I live in Paris and should have gone to see it,” said Philippe Gourmain, a forestry expert. With rising fury, he heard pundits opine that the timber framework in Notre Dame’s attic would never be rebuilt—that France lacked the oak trees and the savoir faire. Gourmain manages forests all over the country. By 11 p.m. he was on the phone with a friend at the National Forest Office, hatching a plan to collect the needed wood through donations.

Charles Barbero of Carpenters Without Borders puts a finishing touch on a replica of one of Notre Dame’s roof trusses. The volunteer group built the truss in a week using only medieval tools, hewing each beam from a single oak log. The oak framework destroyed in the fire is to be restored as it was—with an assist from sawmills.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

Around that time, Villeneuve reached the parvis, the square in front of the cathedral; he’d been on the train and off-line when Viollet-le-Duc’s spire collapsed. The next day, climbing the north tower to inspect the damage, he spotted the copper rooster that had perched on top of the spire. Sailing free, it had landed on a side roof. A photo in Le Parisien showed the beaming architect clutching the crumpled bird to his chest.

“When I arrived on the parvis, I was dead. Now I’m in a coma,” he told me. “In rebuilding the cathedral, I’m rebuilding myself. I’ll be better when it’s finished.” In September, with the reconstruction soon to begin, Villeneuve had a drawing of the spire tattooed onto his left arm, from the elbow to the wrist.

In the summer of 1998, a Columbia University art historian named Stephen Murray took me into the attic at Notre Dame. It was gloomy even in bright daytime. As we walked through the lattice of roughly hewn oak beams, the curved tops of the church’s soaring limestone vaults spread like grey elephant backs beneath our feet. Dust pooled in the hollows. From below, inside the church, I’d never imagined this backstage world—the world of the cathedral builders. At the crossing of the transept and nave, I looked up into the intricate wood skeleton of the spire.

Last summer I stood once again at the same location. But this time I was on scaffolding, looking down into the giant hole the spire made when it crashed through the stone vaults. The top of it punched a second hole in the nave; a third formed at the north end of the transept. As the fire raged through the forest, triangular trusses of oak, 32 feet high, toppled like dominoes onto the vaults, and debris fell through the holes. At the crossing, charred wood and stone were piled around four feet high on the cathedral floor.

Hovering over the heart of Paris, workers are carried away from the cathedral’s damaged roof in a hydraulic lift.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic
A worker erects scaffolding beneath custom-fit wooden braces constructed to support Notre Dame’s fire-damaged flying buttresses and soaring stone vaults at a demonstration held during a European heritage festival.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

Within days of the fire, even as Macron was promising that Notre Dame would reopen in time for the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024, Chaoui-Derieux and her colleagues had decided that the debris couldn’t simply be carted away. It was legally protected heritage material that would have to be sorted by professionals. Soon dozens of them descended on the church. The Research Laboratory for Historical Monuments sent the bulk of its 34-member staff, deputy director Thierry Zimmer told me.

Because the damaged vaults were still in danger of collapsing, the scientists used remote-controlled robots to collect the debris. Wearing respirators to keep out the lead dust, they sorted through the material in a side aisle, picking out anything that might inform the reconstruction or be of historical interest. Tree rings in the larger pieces of wood, for example, offer clues to the detailed construction sequence of the church.

“All that stuff we’d never gotten our hands on before,” Zimmer said. “Now, unfortunately, it was in our hands.” A small silver lining will be increased knowledge of the cathedral and the period in which it was built.

It took two years to get all the debris sorted and removed to a warehouse near Charles de Gaulle Airport. The stuff sprawls there over 25,000 square feet, on 20-foot-high shelving. The bits of wood too small to be studied, the tiny chunks of stone, the dust and ash—even that has been saved, for now, in hundreds of storage bags. It was gruelling work, Chaoui-Derieux said—but exhilarating, a “human adventure” she doesn’t expect to experience again.

Wearing respirators to shield themselves from lead dust, rope technicians prepare to use plaster to secure loose stones in the vaults along the central hole left by the spire. The fire, which got as hot as 1400°F, ate into the tops of some vaults and into the two-foot-thick limestone walls above them, peeling off inches of stone and creating internal fissures. Some stones will need to be replaced.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

While the floor of Notre Dame was being cleared, the walls and vaults had to be secured against caving in. An engineering study had found that without the lead roof and timbers weighing on them and tying them together, the walls were frighteningly vulnerable to wind; a mere 56-mile-an-hour gust could have toppled them. From 2019 through the summer of 2021, carpenters shored up flying buttresses and some of the vaults, nestling custom-fit, multi-ton wood braces under each one. Meanwhile, rope technicians were dismantling, one steel tube at a time, the old scaffolding—Villeneuve had been about to renovate the spire when the fire struck. A sagging, tangled mess, it threatened to fall and further damage the church.

COVID shut the site down for two months in spring 2020. The pervasive lead dust had already shut it down for six weeks in 2019, after workplace inspectors decided that initial safety precautions were inadequate. Since then, a line of showers in the container that serves as a locker room has divided the site into dirty and clean domains. Workers repeatedly negotiate that border every day, stripping naked and changing into protective clothing to go to work, then doing the reverse—and showering and washing their hair—each time they leave, even for lunch. Visitors follow the same procedure. Disposable underwear and jumpsuits are provided.

Even Emmanuel Macron has submitted to this. I have that on good authority—that of the five-star general whom the president called out of retirement the day after the fire, asking him to manage the cathedral’s reconstruction.

Jean-Louis Georgelin had come up through the infantry. He’d been chief military adviser to one president and chairman of the joint chiefs to another. Macron entrusted him with Notre Dame for two reasons, Georgelin said: The general is a devout Catholic, one who knows his psalms in Latin—he recited one for me—and he has the political savvy and authority to get the cathedral reopened by 2024. That will require navigating French bureaucracy. Georgelin presides over an établissement public, a public entity set up specifically to restore Notre Dame, using 840 million Euros in donations.

Restoration projects normally are managed by the culture ministry. Some people from that milieu consider the general’s involvement peculiar and the 2024 deadline unrealistic. Is it? I asked Georgelin. He cheerfully batted away the question.

“I see, monsieur, you have been contaminated by those who believe the president of the republic should not be interfering in the reconstruction of Notre Dame,” he boomed. “You have been contaminated by the party of slowness.” Georgelin is a good-humoured alpha type, a man who, as he talks over you in a parade-ground voice and hazes you with satirical formalities, does it all with a self-aware grin.

The damage to the church, Georgelin said, is severe but contained. I’d been struck by that myself—by how untouched much of it seemed, when you looked past the scaffolding that now fills most of it. Marie-Hélène Didier was surprised too when she walked through on the day after the fire, running her finger over the walls to check for soot. “Nothing was destroyed!” she exclaimed, meaning none of the treasures or valuable artworks. The modern altar at the crossing was crushed, but the iconic Virgin of Paris, a 14th-century stone statue, still stood a few feet away, dusty but unharmed, with rubble at her feet. At the monuments lab, Claudine Loisel, the stained-glass specialist, told me that just a few pieces of glass on three small panels had been knocked out by the tip of the spire. The rest were fine.

In all, the church lost its spire, its roof and rafters, and a few of its stone vaults. That’s plenty—but not too much to be fixed by 2024, Georgelin said.

Unlike most people I spoke to, he sometimes attended Mass at Notre Dame before the fire. On that dreadful evening, the general was at home in Paris, watching on TV and crying, “like everyone.” He heard people saying they wouldn’t live to see Notre Dame restored. That’s why the president’s promise to the nation was necessary, Georgelin said—and as for the five-year deadline, if Macron hadn’t set it, architects and other arty types would have stretched the work to 15. The general turned his eyes to the ceiling and emitted a tuneless whistle, to illustrate what head-in-the-clouds time-wasting looks like.

Technician Thomas Pagès restores a copper statue of St. Philip at Socra, a restoration company in Périgueux. Statues of the Twelve Apostles that once flanked the spire were fortunately removed from the roof of Notre Dame four days before the fire.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic
The larger-than-life statues of the Apostles were an addition by Viollet-le-Duc, who gave St. Thomas, patron saint of architects, a face made in his own likeness—and an architect’s ruler. The heads of the Apostles were taken off during their removal from the cathedral roof, which involved securing cables inside their interior structure.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

“As for the chief architect of historic monuments … I have already explained to him multiple times, and I will tell him again … that he should shut his trap.” That was Georgelin speaking about Philippe Villeneuve to a committee of the French National Assembly in November 2019.

The two men were probably doomed to clash. Georgelin is used to not taking guff as he gets things done. As a chief architect, Villeneuve is used to a lot of latitude. Georgelin wears suits and double-breasted blazers that conceal, one assumes, no tattoos. Villeneuve is an intellectual in jeans, rumpled jacket, and granny glasses. He’s an emotive man who personalises the crisis and wears his heart on his sleeve, almost literally. He has good reason to feel the situation at Notre Dame intensely.

It’s not his first brush with such a disaster. “My career has been marked by fire,” he told me. On the day of his promotion to chief architect of historic monuments, in 1998, Villeneuve learned that a medieval church in his department, the Charente-Maritime, had been set ablaze by lightning. It became his first commission. On the day fire found Notre Dame, he’d been working at his other main project, the 15th-century town hall of La Rochelle—which also had been devastated earlier by fire, also as Villeneuve was restoring it. That happened in 2013, shortly before he got picked for Notre Dame.

No evidence has emerged connecting either fire to the restoration work. The Paris police have not released results of their investigation at Notre Dame; an electrical short circuit is a prime suspect. But Villeneuve still feels the burden of having to redeem the tragedy.

Painting restorers led by Marie Parant-Andaloro (right) touch up details in the chapel of St. Ferdinand. Decorative murals added to the cathedral’s side chapels by Viollet-le-Duc were already in need of restoration before the fire—except in the nave, where his paintings had been chiseled away by an earlier generation of restorers. “In the 1970s, people detested the 19th century,” Parant-Andaloro said.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic
The quiet chapel of St. Ferdinand is transformed into a busy workshop as experts give its 19th-century murals a 21st-century cleaning, removing smoke and lead particles and stabilizing surfaces that are further imperiled by an increase in humidity levels inside the cathedral after the fire. Walls, sculptures, paintings are all being restored at once, Parant-Andaloro said—“thanks to the fire.”
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

“He has risen to the occasion,” said Jacques Moulin, the chief architect who’s restoring the nearby Basilica of Saint-Denis. “He has been able to transcend himself. That’s a rare ability.” But it put him at cross-purposes with the president.

After the fire, Macron publicly encouraged something architecturally new at Notre Dame—a “contemporary gesture,” he called it. “We should have confidence in the builders of today,” he said, “and we should have confidence in ourselves.” Builders responded gleefully: Suggestions for glass roofs and crystal spires and spires of light poured in from all over the world. One architectural studio proposed a greenhouse on the roof. Another suggested replacing the roof with an open-air swimming pool.

Villeneuve wanted desperately to nip all this in the bud. He would not participate in building a modern spire, he said. That’s when Georgelin tried, a little clumsily, to shut him up. But the wacky proposals helped make Villeneuve’s case; everyone could agree the cathedral shouldn’t become an aboveground pool. By the summer of 2020 the general, the president, and the national heritage commission had all approved Villeneuve’s plan. Notre Dame is to be rebuilt as it was, in its “last known state”—the state it was left in by Viollet-le-Duc.

It was a triumph of orthodoxy: Rebuilding to the last known state is what French restorers generally do. The Venice Charter, created in 1964 at an international conference of specialists, codifies that approach, in which the goal of historical restoration is not the most beautiful building but the most “authentic” one—the one that preserves all its layers of history. The impulse sounds academic, but it’s also emotional. Rebuilding identically, especially after a disaster, is “a powerful symbolic act; it’s a cathartic act,” said Leniaud, the historian. “It’s the only way to grieve. It’s very important to grieve.”

The copper cladding that covered Viollet-le-Duc’s Apostle statues was as thin as cigarette paper in some spots, says Socra technician Olivier Baumgartner. In restoring each statue, he and his colleagues avoided making the cladding too smooth, so as to leave traces of their handiwork: “It must exude authenticity.”
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

The irony is that Viollet-le-Duc, who had watched Notre Dame be attacked, showed no such restraint (especially after the death of his partner, Jean-Baptiste Lassus, left him alone in charge). His goal was not to rebuild Notre Dame exactly as it was but to build the ideal cathedral. He completely redid some walls around the crossing because he didn’t like the way they’d been altered in the 13th century. He demolished the 18th-century sacristy and replaced it with a neo-Gothic one. He honoured Gothic architects by trying to become one—and with the spire, the consensus is, he outdid himself. With some other liberties he took, not so much.

For a century after his death, Viollet-le-Duc was vilified by the monuments establishment he himself had helped establish. “When I was a kid at architecture school, a restoration by Viollet-le-Duc meant a total mess,” Moulin said. At Notre Dame, Viollet-le-Duc painted decorative murals in all 24 side chapels; in the 1970s, the 12 chapels of the nave were scraped back to bare stone. But by then, the rehabilitation of the great man’s reputation was just about to begin—and the exhibition that 17-year-old Villeneuve saw in 1980 was a turning point. “All at once we went from a diabolical Viollet-le-Duc to a Viollet-le-Duc who is practically a saint,” Moulin said.

Today most French restorers wouldn’t think of undoing anything Viollet-le-Duc did. Moulin thinks that’s a shame. He believes in preserving history too—but trying to fix a building once and for all in its “last known state,” he said, amounts to declaring that history has ended for that building: “It’s the definition of death.” And it may not be what’s best for preservation. If the roof of your cathedral has just burned off, Moulin argued, it doesn’t make sense to rebuild the rafters out of wood.

That argument was heard—and dismissed—at Notre Dame. The forest and the spire will indeed be built of wood, though with more fireproofing and with fire-suppressing misters. The details are still being worked out.

By 2024, if all goes according to plan, a drone in this position would be hovering just above the tip of Notre Dame’s new spire—a faithful reproduction in oak and lead of the one built by Viollet-le-Duc, which was destroyed in the fire. The new spire will be erected piece by piece through the hole in the stone vaulting left by the old one. Meanwhile, white canopies block the rain.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

In 2019, the fire raging through the oak timbers got so hot—almost certainly more than 760 degrees Celsius —that it ate into the adjacent limestone walls and into the tops of some vaults. Two stone specialists at the monuments lab, geologist Lise Cadot-Leroux and conservation scientist Jean-Didier Mertz, trained as rope technicians so they could inspect the damage. Mertz showed me some foot-long cores they extracted from the two-foot-thick stones. The surface of some stones turned to powder, and fissures formed inside, causing as much as four inches to peel off. But most of the blocks appear to have remained thick enough to do their job, Mertz said. He and his colleagues developed a technique for sealing the fissures by injecting a lime slurry. For the stones that need replacing, scientists are searching for good matches north of Paris; the city has grown over the medieval quarries, which were then on its outskirts.

Most of the 507 tons of lead in the roof and spire simply melted and rained into the church, but the heat was intense enough to launch lead particles into the smoke. The danger from inhaling lead that night, unless you were standing right by the fire, was “negligible,” said Jérôme Langrand, a doctor and toxicologist who directs the Paris poison centre at the Lariboisière–Fernand-Widal hospital. The real danger with lead is that it will be ingested accidentally over time, especially by children, via contaminated dirt in parks or playgrounds or dust that settles inside homes. Alexander van Geen, a Columbia University scientist who walked around Paris spooning dirt samples into paper bags, estimated that about a ton of lead had fallen within a kilometre of the church.

But there’s no evidence it caused significant poisoning, Langrand said. He and his colleagues analysed blood from 1,200 children in the affected area. They found concentrations above the “level of concern” in a little over one percent—about the same as in the French population at large (and much less than in the U.S., for instance). In every case, moreover, an investigation revealed that the children routinely were exposed to other sources of lead. Many Paris balconies, for example, have lead floors.

Still, no amount of lead in the blood is considered safe, and lead roofs pollute the environment whenever they’re worked or rained on. In February 2021, a science advisory board to the health ministry, of which Langrand was a member, recommended that France ban lead in new roofs and that alternatives to its use in historical restoration be found. The Paris city council by then had voted to demand that Notre Dame not be reroofed in lead.

None of this has diminished Villeneuve’s determination. To be endangered by a lead roof on Notre Dame, both he and Georgelin insisted, children would have to climb onto it and lick it.

“Lead is an absolutely essential element in the construction,” Villeneuve argued. Sure, the Cathedral of Chartres has a copper roof—but copper turns green, and Paris roofs are grey. Most are zinc, but only lead could reproduce the spire and the sculpted ornamentation of Notre Dame’s roof. Lead already covers the Panthéon, the Invalides, and other monuments, Villeneuve said; why should the cathedral be the only victim of “the madness of these lead fundamentalists”? Rainwater running off the new roof will be captured and filtered.

People working on the restoration will tell you: It’s the project of a lifetime. The pandemic slowed things down, and lead-safety procedures are aggravating. But sometimes “there were just five or six of us in the cathedral,” says archaeologist Dorothée Chaoui-Derieux. “That will never happen to us again.” For the next three years Notre Dame will be buzzing with workers, and then worshippers and tourists will return.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve, National Geographic

Villeneuve also plans to rebuild the timber framework exactly as it was. It had two distinct parts. When Viollet-le-Duc rebuilt the spire, he replaced the framework of the transept, and not in a medieval way—the beams were cut at industrial sawmills. Villeneuve will do the same. Last winter, Gourmain coordinated the donation of 1,200 oaks from all around France. The largest, oldest ones had been planted just before the French Revolution by royal foresters who were safeguarding the navy’s supply of ship masts. Those trees will serve as the base of the spire.

The attic timbers of the nave and choir were different: They were mostly original, from the 13th century. In September 2020, a group called Carpenters Without Borders reconstructed one of the triangular trusses in front of the cathedral, to demonstrate the feasibility of rebuilding the framework the medieval way. François Calame, an ethnologist and carpenter who founded the group, took me to see that truss where it’s now on display, outside a medieval fortress in Normandy called Château de Crèvecoeur. It consists of a dozen beams—each hand-hewn from a single oak, no more than a foot across.

Medieval carpenters worked their wood green, and so did Carpenters Without Borders. They followed the grain, keeping the heart at the centre. That gave some of the beams a gentle curve, but it made them stronger. The trusses at Notre Dame stood for more than 800 years before their luck ran out.

Calame pulled from the trunk of his car the tool of choice: a doloire, a broadaxe with a head flared like a trumpet. He took a few skillful whacks at a log, then let me have a go. The axe, he warned, was sharp enough to inflict serious injury if aimed poorly, which seemed a distinct possibility. My first blows glanced off the log with an alarming clang, but then I landed a few. Thin wedges of fresh wood flew into the air.

In Calame’s view, historical restoration should be about restoring lost skills as well as damaged buildings—and not just for the benefit of carpenters. The reason Notre Dame’s “forest” left such an impression on people who saw it, he thinks, is that a message was passing across the centuries from the master artisans who made it.

“The framework was 800 years old. It’s gone. But I think that if we rework it the way it was worked, in the same manner and with the same materials, the message can be transmitted,” Calame said. “You’ll be able to feel it.”

Villeneuve was impressed by the demonstration by Carpenters Without Borders. To save time, he said, sawmills will trim the logs for the nave and choir, but the beams will be finished by hand with doloires. Construction of the spire will come first, however. Viollet-le-Duc had to break a hole in the vaults so he could build his spire from the inside. Villeneuve has a head start: The hole is already there.

Maurice de Sully, the bishop of Paris who commissioned Notre Dame in 1163, was the son of peasants. While the spire strained toward heaven, Sully’s aspirations were worldly as well: He was showing off his power to his rivals, as well as the king. The tower on the archbishop’s palace looked like a castle battlement. The cathedral’s west facade was even more massive.

“In the medieval city, it was completely dominant, crushing,” said Bernard Fonquernie, who as chief architect restored the facade in the 1990s, removing decades of car exhaust and pigeon poo. I was living in France then and remember that rebirth—how the walls glowed when the scaffolding came down.

Construction of the cathedral was financed mostly by donations from ordinary people, said art historian Dany Sandron of the Sorbonne. Their experience of the church was not that of Catholic Mass-goers today. Milling about in the chairless nave, they couldn’t see and could barely hear the services held by the resident canons, eight times a day, behind a wall in the choir. In the side chapels, chaplains whispered some 120 Masses a day, but those too weren’t really for the living; they were for the affluent dead, who had endowed Masses in perpetuity in hopes of boosting their souls out of purgatory.

Nevertheless, ordinary people flocked to Notre Dame. They sometimes slept on the floor before an altar, dreaming of miraculous cures for painful diseases. Catholic faith was vital to most French people then. It isn’t now.

“Notre Dame is not a museum,” Patrick Chauvet, the cathedral’s rector, insisted. Before the fire, some 3,000 people came to Mass on Sundays—but 10 to 12 million tourists visited each year. Many had scant knowledge of Christianity. “How can they be touched by the grace of this place?” Chauvet asked. “How can the beauty of this place perhaps at least interrogate them on the meaning of their lives?”

The plan, he said, is to re-curate the visit. When the church reopens, visitors will be ushered in a new loop past redesigned side chapels. Proceeding from north to south—from darkness to light—they’ll encounter first the Old Testament, then the New, so as to “enter progressively into the mystery of God,” Chauvet said.

Will that succeed? Thanks to the huge restoration budget, the cathedral should at least be looking sharp. Work that ordinarily would have stretched over decades is planned for the next three years. The entire inside of the church, including all the chapels and paintings and most of the stained glass, will be cleaned—a sparkling rebirth. If, as Georgelin thinks, “the beauty of Gothic architecture is one of the best proofs of the existence of God,” then God will have risen to fight another day in France. The fire won’t have been for nothing.

That April evening, my wife and I were with old friends on their first trip to Paris. After dinner on the Right Bank, we decided to walk back to where we were staying on the Left. The banks of the Seine were lined with people watching Notre Dame burn. Crossing the Île Saint-Louis, we stepped over a hose the firefighters were laying to pump water from the river. On the Pont de la Tournelle, we stopped near an impromptu choir, softly singing hymns to Our Lady. I’ve admired that view, along the Seine toward the apse of Notre Dame, dozens of times. I can’t imagine what it would be like for it to be gone forever.

“It was beautiful—one must stress the beauty of the fire,” said Leniaud. “It was magnificent. But once it’s beautiful, afterward it’s ugly. There’s only the ruin. At first, there’s only blackness, darkness, death.” Until it comes back to life again, as it must.

Paris-based photographer Tomas van Houtryve used his 19th-century camera to explore the hidden history of the American West in his book Lines and Lineage. Environment editor Robert Kunzig lived in France for 12 years.

This story appears in the February 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The French government has created a special public entity to restore Notre Dame Cathedral. Follow their work on Instagram @rebatirnotredamedeparis.


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