New Notre-Dame Exhibit Takes You Behind the Scenes—and Beneath the Cathedral—During Its Renovation
Another new exhibit at the Trocadéro gives visitors an up close view of the 19th-century statues that were removed from the cathedral’s spire for restoration work four days prior to the fire.
Thirteenth-century wood, charred to a crisp in the infamous fire. The cockerel, once perched at the summit of the spire, pulled intact from the rubble. The copper statues of the apostles, so close you could reach out and touch them. These are some of the extraordinary objects displayed at two new exhibits that take you inside what’s been called the “chantier du siècle” (construction project of the century).
Lording over the Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, Notre-Dame de Paris has been witness to historical drama: the ceremonial arrival of the Crown of Thorns in France, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s coronation as emperor. But none of these events was as devastating as the fire of April 15, 2019. The spire toppled, the roof collapsed, some vaults crumbled, but—thanks to the heroic efforts of the Paris pompiers—the edifice remained standing. There was an unprecedented response: 340,000 people from 150 different countries donated €846 million to rebuild the masterpiece of Gothic architecture that’s deeply loved around the world.
The restoration project is colossal and won’t be completed until the end of 2024. Consider the raw materials: 1,000 cubic meters of stone, 2,000 oak trees sourced from French forests, 3,000 square meters of stained glass. Then there’s the army of artisans. From specialist art restorers and carpenters to stone masons and roofers, a total of 1,000 workers are currently laboring both on-site and in workshops across France. These specialists are following in the footsteps of the great cathedral builders who employed new construction techniques in the Middle Ages to wow the world. With their expertise, today’s artisans are perpetuating an ancestral savoir-faire and centuries-old tradition of craftsmanship.
A new cultural space beneath Notre-Dame
Even when it’s closed, Notre-Dame de Paris has a magnetic effect. It’s not just visitors snapping selfies in front of the facade. Locals stop to buy espresso from the bicycle cart. Musicians entertain with songs. Tourists watch Europe’s tallest crane (262 feet) from the stadium-style seating set up on the parvis, or city square in front of the cathedral. And as of March 2023, there’s a new addition to this scene—just follow the intriguing set of stairs descending underground to a new cultural venue near the rue d’Arcole.
Formerly a parking garage, this subterranean space now houses Eternal Notre-Dame, a virtual reality experience, and a free exhibit called Notre-Dame de Paris: In the Heart of the Restoration.
“With 12 million visitors, Notre-Dame was Europe’s most visited monument before the fire,” explained Lisa Bergugnat, the culture and program director for Rebâtir Notre-Dame de Paris, the public establishment dedicated to the conservation and restoration of Notre-Dame. “Our goal with this exhibit is to create a connection with the public who are frustrated they can’t go inside the cathedral, while also explaining the restoration project and the trades involved . . . some of which date to antiquity. These are the trades that are hiring and need a workforce. The Notre-Dame restoration is an occasion to put them in the spotlight and valorize their work.”
Take carpentry, for example. An individual display shows the intricate steps involved to reconstruct the cathedral’s medieval charpente, or timber framing: from the forestry expert’s selection of an oak tree (some soaring 65 feet tall) to the sawmill (50 were engaged across France) to the master carpenter’s workshop (located in eastern France). Designing the lace-like spire requires serious technical prowess—the complexity only heightened by its assemblage 315 feet above the ground.
To rebuild the vaults and sculpted elements, the project started in the quarries of the Oise and Aisne to source stone similar to the original. Quarried blocks were cut and hewn by masons in their workshops, then assembled on-site to replace and reinforce the vaults.
The restoration of the grand organ—the biggest in France with 8,000 pipes, 19 wind chests, and 115 organ stops—is equally astonishing in its complexity. Not damaged in the fire, the organ was covered in lead dust. It was completely dismantled and cleaned by the so-called facteurs d’orgue, or specialist organ artisans, in three different workshops across France. “Once the organ is reinstalled in the cathedral, it will take six months to tune,” said Bergugnat. “They will work at night because it has to be completely quiet to do the job.”
The most stunning piece on display? “[The sculpted angel head] that fell 33 meters when the spire crumbled,” said Bergugnat. “It won’t be put back because it was damaged, but looking at it, beautifully lit like this, you wouldn’t think it made such a dramatic fall.”
The exhibit also showcases a model replica of Notre-Dame and a film that provides an overview of the construction. That charred piece of wood? Interestingly, the restoration has included the safeguarding of every single vestige—no matter how damaged—to be studied by scientists. In this way, archaeologists have made new discoveries, such as the iron reinforcements found within the original stone construction, making Notre-Dame the world’s first Gothic cathedral to use such building methods.
Viollet-le-Duc’s homage to French heritage
It’s this original construction—followed by the extensive 19th-century restoration—that takes center stage across town at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine with Notre-Dame de Paris: From Builders to Restorers. The museum’s setting inside the Palais de Chaillot atop the Trocadéro couldn’t be more sublime. Views of the Eiffel Tower are framed through huge windows as you walk through the permanent collection, a gallery of plaster casts showcasing a millennium of French architectural heritage. In fact, the museum was founded by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century architect responsible for saving some of France’s most famous medieval monuments (Carcassonne, Mont-Saint-Michel). The gargoyles and spire that adorned Notre-Dame were embellishments added by Viollet-le-Duc when he oversaw the cathedral’s rescue after years of damage and neglect.
“We wanted to work with the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine on this exhibit because its mission, like ours, is to celebrate French heritage, and because of the connection with Viollet-le-Duc,” said Bergugnat. “Also, the museum’s first director was Geoffroy-Dechaume, who sculpted the statues on the spire.”
Indeed, it’s these remarkable statues of the apostles and the evangelists—made from hammered copper leaf in 1857—that are the exhibit showstopper. Miraculously, the statues had been removed for restoration work four days prior to the fire—thereby escaping catastrophe. The details are extraordinary. A bearded Saint Philip shoulders a cross, Saint Peter grips a key, and the martyr Saint Bartholomew, flayed alive and beheaded by pagans, is holding a knife. And Saint Thomas, the patron saint of architects, wears the visage of Viollet-le-Duc himself, his staff engraved with the architect’s name.
Soon the statues will be returned to their sentry atop the spire high above the city. “You will never again have the chance to see them up close like this,” said Bergugnat.
How to visit each exhibit
Notre-Dame de Paris: In the Heart of the Restoration is showing in a new cultural space beneath the cathedral until the end of 2024, when Notre-Dame reopens. Free entry.
Notre-Dame de Paris: From Builders to Restorers runs through April 29, 2024, at the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine (1, place du Trocadéro et du 11 Novembre). Open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. The full-price ticket is €9.