Damage is unimaginable, Dutch art historian says about Notre-Dame fire

Stunned people watch a devastating fire at Notre-Dame in Paris, 15 April 2019
Stunned people watch a devastating fire at Notre-Dame in Paris, 15 April 2019Photo: Adélaïde Calais WMFr/Wikimedia Commons

"It was like a horror movie, I couldn't stop watching", art historian Sanne Frenquin said to NOS about the devastating fire at Notre-Dame in Paris. "It is impossible to imagine how great the damage is."

According to Frenquin, the cathedral is an extraordinary example of a Gothic church. "Those beautiful stained-glass windows are the most important feature. I searched very hard this morning and here and there are rose windows that might have been saved, but I don't think so. I fear the lead melted in the high temperatures and that we should consider it lost."

The same applies to the 14th-century wood relief around the choir stands, the artworks and the cathedral's famous organ, she fears.

The cathedral is "more than a beautiful collection of stones. It is a treasure house in which the entire French soul from the Middle Ages is summarized in physical form", France-expert and art historian Wilfred de Bruijn said to NOS. "I fear the worst and with me many French. There is talk of a national tragedy and that is not unjustified."

De Bruijn describes Notre-Dame as "an international symbol" and "the pride of Paris". "The huge facade with the two large towers. The gigantic dimensions, the stone vaults, the sculptures and the chapels. And if you stood under the spire, those fantastic stained glass windows through which the sun shone", he said to the broadcaster. "The fire is horrible."

Notre-Dame was declared a World Heritage Site in 1991. The building is 130 meters long. The stairs to one of the towers have nearly 370 steps. In 2013 nine new bronze bells were cast for the cathedral to celebrate its 850th anniversary. The old bells were worn out and no longer sounded pure. 

The new bells were cast by Dutch bell founder Koninklijke Eijsbouts B.V. In 2013, caster Joost Eijsbouts sounded the bell himself. Eijsbouts was shocked by the fire, he said to NOS. "We're talking about Notre-Dame. That cathedral has gained something of inviolability over the centuries. But when I saw the images, I was in despair about whether the towers could be saved, and therefore the bells."

According to him, it remains unclear whether the bells survived. "I cannot judge to what extent the towers were exposed to enormous heat", Eijsbouts said to the broadcaster. The bells are robust and can take a lot, "but if they warm up to high temperatures and the fire brigade puts cold water on them, you get the effect of a hot glass that shatters when you put it in cold water."

The cause of the fire is not yet known. The authorities are still investigating, Laurent Nunez, the French State Secretary of Foreign Affairs, said on Tuesday morning. At this stage it is assumed that the fire had something to do with restoration work done at the cathedral. 

The damage is also still being assessed. It is already clear that a large part of the cathedral was destroyed. Around 400 firefighters worked through the night to contain the fire as much as possible. Two thirds of Notre-Dame's roof was destroyed and the spire collapsed. The two towers seem to have survived the fire. The current estimate is that only 30 percent of the art treasures in the cathedral were saved. But Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo did say that three relics of Christ - the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross and a nail from the crucifixion - were saved from the flames.