The Spire of Notre Dame

The Spire of Notre Dame

26th April 2019

Here at Safety Fabrication, like so many around the world, we watched in horror last week as one of the planet’s oldest and most popular built landmarks, Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames.  We could not let this pass without a mention, so as a mark of homage to one of the most ambitious construction projects of Medieval Europe, today we’re taking a look at the amazing achievement of the builders who accomplished such an incredible feat without the tools and technology we have nowadays.

 Initial construction on Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1163 with the laying of the cornerstone witnessed by King Louis VII or France and Pope Alexander III.  During the first phase of construction, the two ambulatories and the choir section were completed, with the high altar being consecrated in 1182.  The second phase involved building the four sections of the nave and its aisles to clerestory height.  A transept was then added at the choir to provide more interior light (light was a huge consideration before electricity was harnessed for use), with the additional strength achieved by using four-part (rather than six part) rib vaults enabling the roofs to be higher.  The western façade of the cathedral was completed in the 1240s with the north transept being topped with the stunning rose window which drew visitors from around the world for centuries. 

The introduction of flying buttresses in the mid-1200s was an innovative development that allowed the weight of the roof to be carried by the ribs of the vault to a series of counter supports, enabling the walls to be built thinner and higher. 

The project management was the responsibility of master builders of the Middle Ages who were master masons and sculptors with skills and knowledge of stone masonry that are in danger of being lost today.  These master builders were the real pioneers of the construction industry and were much sought after during their lifetimes as cathedral building was on the increase across Europe.  Many of these master builders led a semi-nomadic lifestyle in order to suit the demands of their profession.  Their knowledge and skills would be passed on to new generations at a time when most children followed in the footsteps of their fathers when it came to career choices. 

Following the French Revolution in 1793, the cathedral was rededicated to the Cult of Reason and many of its unique treasures were destroyed – 28 statues of biblical kings were mistaken for statues of French kings and beheaded!  This fabulous structure was used as a warehouse for storage at one point.  In 1801, new ruler Napoleon Bonaparte agreed to restore the cathedral to the Church and was crowned Emperor there in 1804. 

 By the 19th Century, Notre Dame was in a half-ruined state until King Louis Phillippe commissioned its restoration in a 25-year project which eventually returned the cathedral to its former glory.  Since that time, Notre Dame became a tourist magnet, attracting visitors from around the world.  Despite the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, the cathedral survived suffering just minor damage from stray bullets and it became the venue for a special mass to celebrate the liberation of Paris from the Germans. 

Then last week, we witnessed a rampant fire which rapidly spread across the oak roof of Notre Dame and the shocking live footage of the 300-foot spire collapsing in flames.   Luckily, the cathedral was undergoing renovations, so many of its treasures had already been removed to places of safety and were spared the conflagration.  The cathedral, which has been the venue for coronations, baptisms and the funerals of several French presidents, will no doubt be restored, but without the techniques, tools and materials of those medieval master builders, will it ever be the same again?