Notre-Dame: Revered Artwork and Relics Threatened by Blaze


The fire that destroyed two-thirds of the roof of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on Monday did more than damage a beloved historic landmark: It also endangered the vast collection of Christian relics and artwork housed both within the building and on its grounds.

One of the cathedral’s most precious treasures — a relic of the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ at the time of his crucifixion — was saved from the flames, according to the rector of the cathedral, Msgr. Patrick Chauvet.

But the condition of many of its other treasures — including sculptures, paintings, stained glass windows and liturgical art and relics — remained unclear, Monsignor Chauvet said. He said the main threats to the artwork were fire, smoke damage and falling material like melted lead.

Bernard Fonquernie, who worked in cathedral administration from 1978 to 2001, said water used to fight the fire could also damage its stonework and whatever wood survived the blaze.

Here are some of the treasures about which scholars and the religious faithful are most concerned.

Among the most prized relics at Notre-Dame is a relic of the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ during the crucifixion. Stephen Murray, a professor emeritus of Gothic architecture and medieval art at Columbia University, said the crown at Notre-Dame purportedly contains fragments of the original artifact.

The cathedral also contains a piece of wood believed to be a piece of the cross and a nail believed to have been used in the crucifixion.

“Most of these great cathedrals become destination points through the treasury, what they hold that you can come and worship or that you can come and see,” said Nora Heimann, a professor of art history at the Catholic University of America.

Monsignor Chauvet said Monday that the crown of thorns was in safe hands. He said the tunic of Saint Louis, a religious relic, and a collection of chalices held in the cathedral’s treasury had also been saved.

It was unclear what happened to the piece of wood and the nail some believe to have been used in the crucifixion.

The cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, from whom the church takes its name, which means “Our Lady of Paris,” Ms. Heimann said.

The cathedral contains three rose windows whose stained-glass panes, shaped like flower petals, each tell a religious story, including scenes from the Old and New Testaments, stories from the lives of the Twelve Apostles, and the resurrection of Christ.

“When you’re facing the cathedral, there is a big window devoted to the Virgin Mary, the rose window, and she is in the center of it, enthroned,” Ms. Heimann said.

The status of the three windows was unclear on Monday, but the prognosis seemed troubling. Benoist de Sinety, a bishop of the Archdiocese of Paris, said high heat had damaged the windows, melting the lead that held their panes in place.

The spire of the cathedral, which collapsed on Monday, contained the relics of St. Denis and St. Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris. Laurent Ferri, a curator in the Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University, said an archbishop placed them there in 1935 to protect the building.

According to legend, St. Denis, a third-century Christian martyr, was decapitated and died later while carrying his own head. St. Genevieve is often credited with saving Paris by using the power of group prayer to divert Attila, king of the Huns, away from the city in 451.

Gregory Bryda, an assistant professor of Western medieval art and architecture at Barnard, said the relics included bones, teeth or hair from both saints.



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