Notre-Dame’s resurrection

The reconstruction of Notre-Dame, scheduled to be completed in a year's time, is a frequent source of wonder for Parisians.

The restoration of Notre Dame continues.
The restoration of Notre Dame continues. Credit: David Bordes

On Friday 24 November, I saw a pale-looking armless Jesus Christ flying over the River Seine in a turquoise blue fishnet. He wasn’t flying unaided. A gigantic crane lifted the restored limestone Saviour from the ground and deposited him on the 49-metre-high South transept of Notre-Dame of Paris. Up there, to welcome this distinguished figure, more than eight feet high, were architect-in-chief Philippe Villeneuve and the reconstruction site supremo Phillipe Jost. Once fixed on the south transept, Jesus was given back both the arms that had been lost in the fire which devastated the cathedral on 15 April 2019. Philippe Villeneuve had the privilege of making sure the new arms were positioned at the right angle. Jesus is the first of a series of restored statues and gargoyles that will soon be adorning the heights of Notre-Dame once more, ahead of its reopening on 8 December next year, to both the public and to worship.

Four days later, Parisians witnessed another extraordinary event. This time, the spire’s needle was seen almost levitating above the 320-feet-high scaffolding structure. The perilous operation was performed without a glitch and at dusk, the wooden spire, now fully completed and assembled, could be seen through its 600-ton metallic corset against the backdrop of a pale blue sky. Passersby on both banks of the river could be seen reaching en masse for their camera-phones to immortalise the moment.

In just eight months, the new spire of Notre-Dame has been carved from oak trees, assembled, and erected above the four pillars at the crossing of the transept of the cathedral. There have been many different stages, because the 19th century architect of genius and erudite scholar of the Middle-Ages, Viollet-le-Duc, conceived and designed it in five parts: first, the base of the spire also called the stool (tabouret), then the stump (souche), the cask (fût), the hemstitched floor (étage ajouré) and, finally, the needle (aiguille). The ensemble, also known as la flèche, is now awaiting its coat of lead and the return of its apostles, the original ones, which had miraculously been dismounted and sent for restoration two days before the fire.

As impressive are the wooden trusses which form the cross-shaped roof run the length of the nave and the transept. They are almost complete. Made of a thousand oak trees, this ‘forest’, as it used to be called, has replaced the 13th century old roof structure which burnt down in April 2019. Fifty-two-feet-wide and 40-feet-high, each truss weighs seven and a half tons. And they have all been arriving by special barges, just as in the Middle Ages. Watching them gliding along the Seine and being lifted in the air has been a recurrent wonder for Parisians over the last few months. The last truss will soon make its final journey.

Last week, on 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, President Macron and his wife, Brigitte, visited the cathedral and walked up to the top of the spire: ‘the stuff of dreams’, said an envious onlooker trying to spot the French president from the bridge of the Archevêché below. That day, Macron launched the countdown to the reopening of Notre-Dame, with 365 days left. He also witnessed the carving of a special name in the wood of the needle, that of General Jean-Louis Georgelin, the five-star general who had supervised the reconstruction site until his accidental death last Summer.

Back in June, when visiting the workshop of Notre-Dame’s carpenters near Saumur, he had talked, as he often did, of his pride in supervising an army of such talented artisans. Just before leaving, he had walked up on an improvised stage and declared ‘when one is convinced that the reputation of our country is more important than our own miserable lives; when one understands the symbol that Notre-Dame represents for humanity and for our country’s history, then there is no reason why we can’t achieve the impossible. We will achieve the reconstruction thanks to you all. Vive la France!’ Two months later, General Georgelin fell to his death while hiking in his beloved Pyrenees.

Carrying his resolve, his team of a thousand artisans, craftsmen and women, engineers, and architects will do their utmost to keep to schedule. Like a young Bonaparte, Macron has even invited the Pope to the reopening. Notre-Dame’s gates had better open on time. The celebratory Te Deum mass will start at 11.30 am on 8 December, General Georgelin had been promised. Parisians have the feeling it will all happen precisely as he had planned.


Agnès Poirier