The bells, the bells

  • Themes: Culture

The resurrection of Notre-Dame de Paris continues apace. Its symbolic new bells are close to completion.

The reconstruction of Notre Dame de Paris.
The reconstruction of Notre Dame de Paris. Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

No matter how early you must get up, how high you must climb, or how far you must travel, following the restoration of Notre-Dame cathedral is a joy like no other, the kind that makes you forget everything else in life, at least for a day. Anyone who has been documenting its reconstruction and been lucky enough to go on a Tour de France of the many artisans attending to her every injury will probably feel melancholic when works end later this year.

In French, a cathedral is feminine and, as far as Notre-Dame de Paris is concerned, I cannot bring myself to write ‘it’. For She is a living being, an 861-year-old creature who has worn her injuries with panache. As Victor Hugo wrote in 1831: ‘On the face of this old queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle you will find a scar.’ For Hugo, and for many of us, Notre-Dame is half queen, half chimera. Sorceress, too. On 15 April 2019 we were reminded that she wasn’t immortal after all. Our stupefaction was such that we promised ourselves to care for her. And what extraordinary care the compagnons du devoir (companions of duty), France’s expert artisans, have provided her since the fire.

On Friday 4 May, we, the lucky few, arriving from Japan, America, Germany, and Britain, met at dawn at Paris Gare Montparnasse to hop on the Paris-Granville train, a very slow train by French standards. It took us to the green and hilly Normand bocage in three hours. Our first stop was at a village where Fer Art Forge, a small wrought-iron workshop of only four artisans, had just finished restoring the only piece of the cathedral roof that survived: the ornamental cross of the apse, designed by Viollet-Le-Duc in the 1860s. During the fire, the cross fell 15 metres and was found the next morning, battered, twisted but undefeated. A thousand hours of careful restoration later, this flowery cross with a constellation of small gold spheres, measuring 13 metres and weighing two tons, will find its original place at the end of May, right above the apse where the trusses meet. A crane will lift the cross. Then ‘it will have to fit like a glove’, commented Vincent Combes, the cross-project manager: ‘It is a question of millimetres.’ Combes looked confident.

Some of the wrought-iron foliage adorning the cross, as well the wyvern eating its tail at the bottom, had to be recast following Viollet-Le-Duc’s beautiful drawings. That and a few gargoyles which will be guarding the cross. Seeing those beasts close up feels like an encounter of the third kind. The original designs are very detailed, but there is always an element of interpretation. ‘Our first attempt was deemed too pleasant-looking by the architect-in-chief’, confides Vincent Combes with a smile. In other words, ‘too Disney-like’. ‘Our second attempt was considered far too scary and disquieting. The third try was the right one, frightening, but not the stuff of nightmares’.

After a lunch of black pudding, camembert fondue, apple flan and café goutte (café with a drop of calvados), offered by the Normand artisans, our band of Gothic fanatics headed towards Villedieu-Les-Poêles, the international capital of bells. The Cornille-Havard bell foundry, heir to medieval bell-making that was originally an itinerant craft, settled there in 1865, the year the Paris-Granville railway line started operating.

When the fire was spotted in the North Belfry on the night of 15 April 2019, General Gallet, head of the Paris firemen, knew he had to make a swift decision. If the fire destroyed the wood structure supporting its eight bells, the belfry would come crashing on the south belfry, itself sheltering the three older, larger and heavier bells of Notre-Dame, and then the whole edifice would collapse like a house of cards. A vanguard of 50 firemen, risking their lives, rushed to the north belfry and fought the fire in a close combat. They saved Notre-Dame.

Last week, as I passed the cathedral, I was intrigued by a ‘Z’-shaped oak beam being lifted in the air towards the North belfry. I learnt later that this joint, called the Jupiter joint because of its lightning-like shape, was an oak graft which replaced a weakened piece of medieval wood structure that was irremediably damaged by the fire. While this was being done, the North belfry’s eight bells, deposed last July, were sent back home in Normandy to be repaired, cleaned, dusted, sanded, pounced in, before being finally tuned to their former self by one of two of France’s campanologists.

Paul Bergamo, the head of the foundry, was moved to see them coming home. ‘When we bade them farewell back in 2013, we never thought we would see them again.’ Those eight bells had been cast in 2013 thanks to a public subscription for the 850th anniversary of the cathedral. I remember when, on 31 January 2013, they had arrived by special convoy, escorted by the gendarmes. This is what I wrote then:

Quietly aligned and expertly strapped onto an open double-truck crane trailer, the resplendent bronze bells left their foundry at Villedieu-les-Poêles in Normandy at dawn, travelling for four hours on the motorway before reaching the French capital. During their journey, French drivers hooted their horns in appreciation. From Paris’ main western gate, Porte Maillot, Monsignor Patrick Jacquin, the cathedral’s rector, perched on an open-top double-decker bus, and a police squadron on motorbikes escorted them to their final destination. The bells slowly rolled down the Champs-Élysées, passing the Louvre en route to Notre-Dame, applauded along the way by cheering, smiling crowds.

Those new bells were long overdue. Unknown to most of us, they would finally end 244 years of Notre-Dame singing off tune. The last time Notre-Dame’s voice had a perfect timbre was in 1769. Since then, the use of poor quality bells, as well as the removal of some of them to be melted and made into cannons during the Revolution, had left her with a decidedly hoarse voice. Strangely, and probably for lack of funds, Viollet-Le-Duc’s restoration in the 1840s did not include her vocal cords.

After a tour of the foundry, mostly unchanged since the 1860s, Bergamo called them by their names: Marie and Maurice, both G sharp, Gabriel and Jean-Marie, both A sharp, Anne- Geneviève and her B, C sharp Denis, D sharp Marcel, F sharp Benoît-Joseph and Étienne and his F. He then brought Etienne forward and invited the architect-in-chief Philippe Villeneveuve and the president of the reconstruction Phillipe Jost to strike Etienne’s robe with a ‘light’ 200kg portable clapper. Recording the scene for posterity on our mobile phones, the note reverberated through the village. Even the birds fell quiet for a moment.


Agnès Poirier