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24 Apr 2019 6:10
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  •   Home > News > International

    Notre Dame was a 'treasure trove' of art and relics — but how many survived?

    First responders scrambled to remove the many centuries-old religious relics and artworks housed at Notre Dame cathedral, but not everything could be saved.

    Short of its religious, historical and architectural significance, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is also home to many centuries-old religious relics and artworks — which first responders scrambled to save as fire gutted the building.

    While many of the most important pieces housed at the cathedral were removed in time, others have been destroyed in the blaze.

    It is a tragedy for art historians, with Professor Robert Aldrich from the University of Sydney likening the 13th-century Gothic cathedral to a museum collection.

    "Notre Dame is a treasure trove of historic and religious objects," he said.

    "Among the religious relics are what some people think is the crown of thorns of Jesus Christ, as well as the tunic of Saint Louis."

    Both the crown of thorns and the tunic are reportedly safe and sound, after police and firefighters formed a "human chain" to protect and retrieve the precious items from the fires, according to the city's Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

    "The crown of thorns, the tunic of Saint Louis and several other major works are now in a safe place," Ms Hidalgo said.

    However, other priceless pieces of history have been damaged or lost forever.

    Relics inside the spire lost despite some lucky escapes

    The cathedral's 19th-century spire, which makes it a relatively recent addition to the building, collapsed after catching fire — and it took with it a handful of priceless relics stored at its tip.

    A fragment of the crown of thorns and relics of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris, were kept in the rooster-shaped top of the spire.

    Their current status is unknown, but it is suspected they have been destroyed.

    Some of the cathedral's famous gargoyles are another potential casualty.

    The sculptures are a significant aspect of its architecture and feature prominently in postcards and in the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    "Undoubtedly, some of the gargoyles would have been damaged," Professor Aldrich said.

    Fortunately, the bronze statues of the Twelve Apostles on the cathedral's spire had lucky escapes.

    They were removed for restoration work ahead of the fire, and are safely locked away elsewhere in the city.

    Carvings, centuries-old timber at risk

    Clare Cousins, the national president of the Australian Institute of Architects, told ABC News that the timber carpentry inside the cathedral's ceiling was likely destroyed in the fire.

    These structures supported the building and sat between the cathedral's beautiful vaulted ceilings and its heavy lead roof.

    "As we all know, timber is combustible and if fire takes hold, it takes hold of the structure very quickly," she said.

    She said some of the wood inside the ceiling may have been original, dating back to when the cathedral was built.

    Professor Aldrich said artworks carved into the building's exterior were also significant and may well have suffered.

    "Like most medieval cathedrals, there's a great deal of carving, often with symbolic importance, around the cathedral inside and outside," he said.

    Rose windows, paintings and a special organ

    Much to the relief of art historians, there are reports that at least one of the cathedral's three famous rose windows has survived the fire.

    They date back to the 13th century, although they have been damaged and broken in the past.

    The west rose window contains none of the original medieval glass and was restored in the 19th century.

    The southern window has previously been restored, after being damaged by fire during the 1830 French Revolution.

    The Archpriest of Notre Dame cathedral, Patrick Chauvet, told media that other objects inside the cathedral were spared.

    "We were able to save some chalices, I think. [The fire] didn't reach the treasury," he said.

    "And then inside they tried to save some paintings, but it was impossible to take down the big paintings."

    The cathedral's organ has been a cause of concern for fans of the instrument, given its historical importance.

    "The organ is majestic, it's used for worship services and also for regular organ recitals," Professor Aldrich said.

    "Organs are fairly delicate instruments because of the pipes and the other equipment, and one fears that not just the fire itself, but the heat, the smoke and possibly the water could have wreaked considerable damage."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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