A Miracle of Timing: The Statues That Escaped the Notre-Dame Fire
PARIS — For years, restoration experts worried that the fragile copper figures risked plunging to earth from Notre-Dame cathedral’s 19th-century spire.
Instead, in a miracle of timing, the sculptures of the Twelve Apostles and four New Testament evangelists escaped a fiery end when they were plucked by cranes and removed just days before the blaze in Paris on Monday. It was a small cause for celebration after the destruction of two-thirds of Notre-Dame’s roof and spire. People were also cheered to learn that crosses, a crown of thorns and the famous rose window also survived the flames.
It was a relief not to contemplate the likely fate of the spire’s sculptures if they had stayed where they had been for the last 160 years. A cock — the Gallic rooster that topped the spire, and the unofficial national symbol of France — vanished in the inferno, along with three religious relics that were inside.
The badly tarnished copper statues, with their heads detached for transportation, were in a warehouse in the Dordogne region in southwestern France on Tuesday. Restoration experts there were preparing to clean and restore them to their natural brown color before returning them to Paris in 2022.
But now those plans were delayed, said Patrick Palem, a veteran restoration expert with SOCRA, the company overseeing the makeover. Speaking on French radio on Tuesday, he said that the project was “for the moment stopped and delayed. This is no longer the priority.”
The new focus, he said, was on the “reconstruction and renovation of Notre-Dame, which could take between 10 and 20 years, probably for a cost of several hundred million euros.”
The 16 sculptures, each weighing about 500 pounds, were removed on Thursday, delicately hoisted into the sky and then transported by truck to SOCRA’s workshop. They were installed during major reconstruction of the cathedral in 1859 and 1860 by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whose face was a model for one of the figures, the apostle St. Thomas.
“So he will have survived the fire, but imagine how his heart would break learning about this,” Stephen Murray, an expert in French medieval architecture at Columbia University, said in a telephone interview.
Viollet-le-Duc was a Gothic Revival architect who was famous for his own creative restorations, introducing Notre-Dame’s gargoyles, which served as rain spouts from the roof and appeared to have survived the fire. He was also fiercely attacked for his vision and accused of vandalizing history. Viollet-le-Duc restored the facade of Notre-Dame, inside and out, including replacing 60 statues.
When his sculptures were removed last week, it was the first time since the 1860s that experts could get a close-up glimpse. In the SOCRA workshop, Mr. Palem and other experts examined the head of St. Thomas and the interior of the sculpture to look for weaknesses and cracks. They had extensive experience working on other restoration projects at the Palace of Versailles and the basilica of Mont-Saint-Michel.
The original plan was to restore the sculptures two by two since time and pollution had dramatically changed the original surfaces. The strategy was to weld cracks and clean the works to expose the original copper broad color that had been covered by a layer of chalky green tarnish.
Instead, the restorers woke up to a nightmare, with damages that mounted by Tuesday morning. For Mr. Palem, it was an incalculable loss.
“For those of us who worked in the interior, we saw the disappearance of a good part of us,” he said on a morning radio show. “That’s what’s terrible. For some, it represents religion. For us, it’s the notion of work and in particular this beautiful roof that has disappeared with all its history.”