See It Now: Notre Dame, Past, Present and Future, In Photos

By David Schonauer   Wednesday August 14, 2019

The cause of the fire is still unknown.

French authorities have put forward several hypotheses for how Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral caught fire in April, noted Travel & Leisure magazine recently, including a malfunctioning electrical system and the careless toss of a cigarette.

Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz told reporters that his team hasn’t completely ruled out criminal activity, though the preliminary investigation into the  blaze found no sign the fire was started deliberately, noted T&L.

But, added Time magazine in a cover story, what the fire exposed “is clear — the fragility of our most cherished buildings and the wistful attachment we hold to the spaces within their walls.”

“Within France itself,” wrote Vivienne Walt, “the Notre Dame fire laid bare another, more complicated fragility: a tension rippling through the country, pitting the urge to preserve the past, and traditions of an exceedingly proud nation, against the need to overhaul its hidebound ways and modernize its system.”

The New York Times reported recently that the medieval cathedral came far nearer collapsing than previously thought. “Today three jagged openings mar Notre-Dame’s vaulted ceiling, the stone of the structure is precarious, and the roof is gone,” noted The Times. “Some 150 workers remain busy recovering the stones, shoring up the building, and protecting it from the elements with two giant tarps.”

Time magazine provided a visual tour of the cathedral’s remains, with images by Magnum photographer Patrick Zachmann.

For the next several months, noted the magazine, “the task will be dealing with the impact from shocks that occurred those first few hours the night of April 15—not only from the flames, but from the collapsing wood and stone, as well as the high-pressure water hoses pumped into the cathedral to put out the blaze; it took fire fighters nine hours to douse the fire.”

It is deemed too risky for humans to work inside the cathedral, since any manipulation or heavy pressure could cause further damage. Architects and engineers have been unable as yet to examine the damage in fine detail. But sensors placed inside after the fire have shown no sign of structural movement, noted Time.

Meanwhile, the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London has created an online exhibition of newly released photographs paying tribute to Notre Dame. The images show the cathedral before, during, and after its mid-19th century restoration by French architect Viollet-le-Duc.

Notre Dame, Paris, South Transept, Unknown photographer, C. 1850s

Notre Dame, Paris, South Transept, Unknown photographer, C. 1850s

                                           Notre Dame, Paris, West Front, Unknown photographers, C. 1850s or 1860

Among the images in the collection are photographs of the cathedral taken by a British tourist, taken around 1911 (below). The photographer, J.M. Stewart, was a doctor by profession who traveled widely. In his images, Notre-Dame, still fairly recently restored, was already blackened by industrial pollution.

Notre Dame, Paris, West Front, by J.M. Stewart C. 1911

The collection includes photographs from the Macmillan Commission (below), which recorded war damage in Europe during World War II. The images “show the emotive power of the cathedral and its ability to survive,” notes the library.

American Soldiers after Thanksgiving Day Service, 1944-45, Macmillan Commission

Also included are images made by architectural photographer A. F. Kersting between 1958 and 1964 (below).

Notre Dame, Paris, South Side, by A.F. Kersting C.1958-1964

“The early post-war city captured by Kersting now seems almost as remote as that of 1911,” notes the library.
At top: Notre Dame, East End, Photographer Unknown, C. 1860, from the Conway Library collection


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