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Relics at Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame Under Fire

The 850 year old Notre Dame – or “Our Lady” is most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the middle ages. It is symbolic for its antiquity, architectural interest as well its size. It is the heart and soul of France.

As the fire tore through the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on Monday, it generated an outpouring of grief in France and around the world as the symbol of French culture and history burned.

The source of the fire still unknown caused the collapse of its central spire and much of its roof to be damaged. The Cathedral apart from its powerful position in history is home to priceless relics, sculptures and paintings. Many of which have suffered the onslaught of the flames, some damaged and some miraculously saved.

Here are the top ten pivotal artefacts from the Notre Dame.

  1. The Crown of Thorns
  2. The Tunic of Saint Louis
  3. The Rose Window
  4. The Descent From the Cross
  5. The Great Organ
  6. The Bells
  7. The Gargoyles
  8. St Thomas Aquinas, Fountain of Wisdom
  9. The Visitation
  10. The Gallery of Kings

The Crown of Thorns

The crown purports to be a band of rushes from the original crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head during his crucifixion has miraculously survived the fire.

It was given to King Louis IX in 1238, who built the Sainte-Chappelle in Paris especially to house it. Originally from Jerusalem it was later transferred to Notre Dame. Individual thorns have been distributed as relics around the world – encased in rock crystal, the Notre Dame relic is the original circlet or rushes.

Relics at Notre Dame de Paris
Crown of Thorns
image courtesy :

The Tunic of Saint Louis

Belonging to King Louis – the only French king to become a Saint, it is a 13th century linen garment. Crowned in 1226, Louis participated in the Seventh Crusade and died during the Eighth Crusade in 1270. He was canonised in 1297.

King Louis also acquired the Crown of Thorns. It was among the articles that have been retreived.

The Rose Window

The Rose Windows of the Cathedral are amongst the most famous pieces of stained glass in the world. Built in 1260, they later became the pattern for rose windows in cathedrals around Europe.

A large circle of glass piercing a wall supporting tons of stone is a quintessentially Gothic architectural feat. Visually delicate but structurally strong, a web of glass breaks the stone, into smaller symmetrical shapes, distributing weight equally across the circle.

Eyewitnesses say that they saw the South window shatter, while the full extent of damage to the west window is unknown. The North rose window seems to be unharmed, though further updates are awaited.

Through time the windows have seen several restorations and even damaged by the fire in 1830. They remain an import part of church iconography.

The Descent From the Cross

One of the cathedral’s centrepieces, of Mother Mary with Christ in her lap, Nicolas Coustou sculpture – lies on Notre Dame’s high altar. Earliest images from within the cathedral showed that the sculpture was mostly unharmed, though its condition as the fire fighting progressed is unknown as it was photographed amidst billowing smoke and debri.

The Great Organ

The organ dates to the 1730s has been the focus of concern for many. It was constructed by Francois Thierry. It boasts an estimated whopping 8,000 pipes. Notre Dame’s organ remains among the world’s most famous and biggest. It happenstobe oneof the priceless treasures that seemtohav been quite affected

The Bells

Historians, architects and scholars across the world are concerned with the cathedral’s musical instruments that are an endangered artwork. The church bells — the largest of which date to 1681 and that survived the French Revolution. It had been rung at important moments in French history, including to mark the end of both world wars. With the relics of St. Denis an St. Genivieve completely destroyed by the fire, they have narrowly escaped damage.

The Gargoyles

Amongst the beautifully carved depictions of holy figures of saints and prophets- a plethora of divinity, the cathedral’s exterior also features a menagerie of grotesques, the stone creatures intended to protect the church from malevolent spirits. Its when these statues double as waterspouts, that they’re known as gargoyles—though the popular term is often mistakenly applied to the entire family. Several have survived the fire while many have been damaged irreparably.

St Thomas Aquinas, Fountain of Wisdom             

Antoine Nicolas artwork depicts Saint Thomas Aquinas sitting on a pedestal dressed in the garments of the Dominican order, to which he belonged. On either side of the saint, people are drawing bowls to drink at the spring gushing at the foot of Dr. Angélique. An inscription at the bottom of the painting invites you to come and drink: “Hi puros promunt divino and fontes liquors” , “They draw pure liquors from the divine fountain”

The source is the fountain of Thomas’s wisdom and his theology is a spiritual “liquor” that is watering souls who are thirsty to know God.

The Visitation

By Jean Jouvenet – A masterpiece of the 18th century depicting the Virgin Mary raising her eyes to heaven, near her cousin Elizabeth, bowed before her, who is in the sixth month of the conception of John the Baptist.

This painting was greatly admired in the eighteenth century and especially by the authors of guides who did not fail to point out two important iconographic points. First being, the moment chosen. It is no longer the traditional episode of the meeting represented by so many sculptors, the portals of cathedrals, and by so many painters, like Pierre Mignard in a work that was started in Italy, very influenced by the Bolognese school, and completed in France with a great deal of simplicity, gentleness and calm, as it suited the setting for which it was intended. This is the very rarely treated episode of the Magnificat: the Virgin glorifies the Lord who has looked upon the humility of her servant and made her blessed.

The Gallery of the Kings

The cathedral houses an important collection of statues, including the imposing stone figures of Old Testament kings that stand above the entrance. It is called the Gallery of the Kings. During the French Revolution these statues were under threat as they were misunderstood to be those of the Kings and not of Ancient Judea. The statues are yet to be assessed for the full extent of their damage

The fire has been put out by the bravehearts of the Service Departmentaux d’Incendie et de Secours (SDIS, Departmental Fire and Rescue Service). They have worked ceaselessly to secure the Cathedral amidst the most challenging situations imaginable. They had several limitations of movements and restrictions on how to douse the billowing flames as they tried to save the priceless artefacts, the  1000’s of oak beams that were all under threat and not to mention the relics at the heart of Notre Dame. The flames are still smouldering and an estimation is underway to asses and understand the immense restoration work that lies ahead.

To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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