THE RENOVATION OF NOTRE DAME: AN ICON IN FLAMES
It was an appalling and riveting sight to watch France’s beloved Notre Dame burn last Monday evening. The inferno that raged through the Cathedral for over 12 hours destroyed its’ spire and roof, but spared the iconic twin bell-towers. The shock and devastation at this awful tragedy is to be rescued with promises of funding and a total renovation by an army of experts and craftspeople.
The cathedrals’ stone vaulted ceilings “acted as a kind of fire door between the highly flammable roof and the highly flammable interior” according to Tom Nickson, a senior lecturer in medieval art and architecture at London’s Courtauld Institute. Much of the internal stonework has survived but the medieval oak roof framework is no more.
The Notre Dame ‘Forest’ Roof was 800 years old
Considering this question turns us to the history of how the Notre Dame roof was constructed originally. It is an epic and inspiring story. As furniture makers we find it fascinating to discover the history behind the building of the original Notre Dame roof. In our workshop we work with French oak everyday and it is truly inspiring to learn about the craftsmanship and knowledge that went into it’s complexity. The Notre Dame website describes the roof as the “…framing of Notre-Dame…..one of the oldest structures in Paris”.
Photograph of the internal roof structure. Source: Notre Dame de Paris
Did you know?
- The frame work for the original roof was named ‘The Forest’ because of the huge number of trees used to complete it. 1,300 trees were felled and 21 hectares of forest were cleared. Each beam came from a different oak tree.
- The trees were estimated to have been 300 to 400 years old, so will have originated from the 8th or 9th centuries.
- The construction of the framework was legendary and it’s complexity was described as ‘astounding’ in the Middle Ages.
- The roof structure was 100 metres long and 10 metres high. It was 40 metres wide in the transept and 13 metres wide in the nave.
- The first part of the frame used oak trees felled around 1160 – 1170.
- It then took 50 years to prepare the trees. The first stage was to lay all the trees down and the align the tops with the North and energy of the earth.
- All the bark was then removed and all the trees were submerged in a swamp for 25 years. This gave the oaks protection from insects and fungus.
- Around 1225, the trees were removed from the swamp. They were then sawn into beams and left to dry for another 25 years before use.
- With the average lifespan in the late 1100’s – most of those who felled the trees will not have seen the roof building begin
Will the new Notre Dame Roof replicate the original?
In response to the fire President Macron has been reported to have said, "We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years,....And we can do it." Though, he has added since,"Let us not fall into the trap of haste."
So will the renovation of Notre Dame recreate the old roof structure with oak beams? Or will it be rebuilt with a more creative approach and a mix of modern and traditional materials? This is the question that hangs in the balance. But contrary to Macrons promise, most experts agree that the renovations will take years, if not decades.
Can France supply Notre Dame with enough Oak trees?
If the Notre Dame roof is to be replicated exactly, finding materials will be a challenge. The cathedral roof was made from oak beams cut from trees that were centuries old. Even in the 13th century, when the roof was first constructed, they were hard to come by. It has been said that there is no country in Europe with big enough trees today.
Mary Wolfrom from AFP news agency writes,"For the roof structure, either they will reconstruct it like before, or do something completely different. Rebuilding this masterpiece would involve all professionals in the wood sector. I think there will be a massive mobilisation." She also goes on to say that, "In France there are plenty of oaks, the wood will not be a problem."
An article in L'Express states that the original trees were tall enough to make beams that reached 13 metres. An oak tree takes at lease 150 years to reach this size. Will trees be found in sufficient numbers in France? "I have no doubt", certifies Michel Druilhe, president of the interprofession of foresters."We have in France 5 million hectares of oaks of all ages, and, in comparison, a reconstruction requires only about twenty hectares! " Moreover, the French sawyers announced that they would reserve the necessary trunks for Notre-Dame."
A Contraversial Ending
Since the fire, millions of euros have been pledged to fund the rebuilding cost of this iconic building. As fast as the promises arrived however, controversy has been right on its’ tail. Questions have naturally arisen as to why such vast fortunes are being spent on just one cathedral when thousands of natural ‘cathedrals’ and indeed the entire planet, needs saving urgently.
It has been suggested that the Tronçais forest (in central France) could supply some of the oak trees that are needed for the rebuild. I am sure this in itself could easily become a hot topic for debate. But it is, according to Wikipedia “…the only forest in France which is managed with harvesting of timber on a cycle exceeding 200 years.” 95 percent of this forest is made up of Cessile Oak, traditionally used for building, ships and furniture.
So will the ‘Forest’ rise again?
With 1,300 trees to find, renovating the ‘Forest’ may be an unsustainable step too far. Ultimately, only time will tell us how the renovation of Notre Dame cathedral will proceed. As woodworkers, we will be watching with a very close eye indeed.
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The title image for this article was taken and kindly supplied by Paris resident Marc Rougiers.