What’s Happening with the Notre Dame restoration? An Advent 2021 Update

Writing about the construction of Notre Dame de Paris, two very different experts said:

When it was decided to rebuild a cathedral, the bishop, the canons, rich townsfolk, and neighbouring landowners made the first offerings. The king was next approached, and usually gave a large sum. Collections were then made throughout the city and surrounding countryside, and no one, not even the poorest, dared shirk so high a duty. ‘The Cathedral of Paris,’ said the papal legate, Cardinal Eudes de Chateauroux, ‘was largely built with the farthings of old women.’…At Paris even the ‘guild of prostitutes asked the bishop to accept either a window or a chalice.
– Henri Daniel-Rops

Notre-Dame was built by a superb common effort in which the entire community took part, the manual laborer as well as the master artist, the serf and villein as well as the merchant and prince…From their collective energy and enthusiasm the cathedral emerged as the crowning structure of the walled city of the Middle Age. Paris then crowded around the church with inexpressible love. – Allan Temko

The restoration of Notre Dame has followed on amazingly similar lines, in a triumphant vindication of medieval methods and materials.

In July 2019, the French Parliament approved a new law concerning the restoration, that it “preserve the historic, artistic and architectural interest of the monument.” The few attempts to suggest ‘modernist’ or novel designs for Notre Dame have been met with instantaneous and widespread scorn. The president of France himself made some suggestions about renovating the spire, and was shouted down so thoroughly that I have not seen it mentioned again. Recent headlines about much more drastic changes to the cathedral’s interior suggested by a much less powerful figure are a good example of the protectiveness many of us feel for the cathedral. The proposal in question has not yet been reviewed (or even submitted for review). The universal backlash makes the proposal’s already slim success far less likely.

Donations of money and technical support have poured in from around the world, including from the richest woman in the world, Sotheby’s, Ubisoft, and countless ordinary men and women.

Restoration efforts have sparked interest in craftsmanship, such as the meticulously constructed roof in miniature made by French carpenters, and the Notre Dame Truss Project at the Catholic University of America.

There are many instances of what can only be seen as providential research, such as expert on medieval stained glass Myrtille Hunault completing groundbreaking restoration work at the nearby Sainte-Chappelle, or sound engineers Barteld Postma and Brian Katz creating a soundscape of Notre Dame. Both projects were completed just a few years before the fire.

There are lots of big picture articles on the restoration’s progress, but I would like to focus on some details. Below is a small selection of the thrilling and at times miraculous work happening at Notre Dame of Paris, organized loosely by the eight working groups of the restoration project.


Source: Nicolas Marincic

“With precision and boundless energy, a team of carpenters used medieval techniques to raise up — by hand — a three-ton oak truss Saturday in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, a replica of the wooden structures that were consumed in the landmark’s devastating April 2019 fire that also toppled its spire. The demonstration to mark European Heritage Days gave the hundreds of people a first-hand look at the rustic methods used 800 years ago to build the triangular frames in the nave of Notre Dame de Paris. It also showed that the decision to replicate the cathedral in its original form was the right one, said Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, who heads the cathedral’s reconstruction. ‘It shows firstly that we made the right choice in choosing to rebuild the carpentry identically, in oak from France,’ Georgelin said in an interview. ‘Secondly, it shows us the … method by which we will rebuild the framework, truss after truss.’ [source]

“Timber is the ‘perfect ecological material,’ he says. ‘Cement or metal do not [stand up] well to fire and time. But the Medieval frame withstood more than 800 years.’” [source]

“Some 1,000 oaks in more than 200 French forests, both private and public, were chosen to make the frame of the cathedral transept and spire — destined to be admired on the Paris skyline for potentially hundreds of years. ‘Given the place occupied by the cathedral in the hearts of the French, in the history of France and the world … we are happy (that) the entire industry — from foresters to sawyers — is mobilized to meet this challenge,’ said Michel Druilhe, President of France Bois Foret, a national interprofessional forestry network.” [source]

“Restoring Notre Dame has led to new discoveries about the cathedral, such as that it’s not perfectly symmetrical, she says. And workers have reached the cathedral’s vaults for the first time in hundreds of years. ‘No one had actually seen the top of this cathedral close up until now,’ she says. ‘The fire, ironically, as tragic as it was, has become an absolute lesson for a whole range of different artisans and scholars.’” [source]

Watch videos of the felled royal trees here and here.


Source: Sharon Mollerus

“Katz describes Notre Dame’s sound as being ‘as full as you can imagine, with the reverberant energy coming from all around. As you move within the space, the acoustics varies due to changes in ceiling height, for example. This is very noticeable and can be heard on our online simulation example as you travel around the cathedral.’” [source]

“In honour of the International Year of Sound (sound2020.org) and for the 1 year memorial of the Notre-Dame cathedral fire, a team of researchers and sound engineers has recreated a virtual reconstruction of a recent performance recording made in the cathedral, recreating the monumental acoustics and the event.” [source]

“Pardoën’s goal is to reproduce the everyday sounds that were heard inside and outside the cathedral, from its construction in the 13th Century until the 2019 fire. Working alongside a team of acoustics researchers and sound engineers, her findings will help the architects choose the materials and techniques used to restore Notre-Dame in order to make it ‘sound’ like it used to.” [source]

“The Bay Area artist Bill Fontana is currently working to record the sounds that the medieval church ‘hears’ through its ten monumental bells. […] Emmanuel is the oldest of the cathedral’s ten bells, recast on the orders of King Louis XIV in 1681, and considered one of the most harmonically beautiful in Europe, ringing in a clear F sharp. It was the only bell to survive the French Revolution—the rest were melted down to create cannon balls—and it was the first bell to ring out when Paris was liberated from Nazi rule.” [source]

(Listen to Emmanuel here.)


Source: Sharon Mollerus

“Our metal group has been focused on uncovering the ‘iron skeleton’ of the building: armature including chains, cramps, pins, and nails used to hold up the wood and stone. We now know much of the metal dates to the time of the original construction in the 12th and early 13th centuries. We think we have just found a set of about 1,000 nails 12-cm long used in the original framework for the suspended wooden pathway, dating from the 13th century. A series of iron cramps (40-cm long iron staples) were discovered just below the beams on top of the upper walls, which were literally unreachable before the fire. Some more were unveiled in the domed tribunes and in the nave chapels using metal detectors.” [source]

“For years, restoration experts worried that the fragile copper figures risked plunging to earth from Notre-Dame cathedral’s 19th-century spire. Instead, in a miracle of timing, the sculptures of the Twelve Apostles and four New Testament evangelists escaped a fiery end when they were plucked by cranes and removed just days before the blaze in Paris on Monday.” [source] (See a video on the restoration of the statues here.)

“For a better knowledge useful for restoration as well as in the history of art and techniques, a scientific study is conducted by the Metal Pole of the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory. The statues therefore regain the shade corresponding to their placement by Viollet-le-Duc. Protection is carried out on all statues by applying microcrystalline wax. The statues will be put back in place.” [source]

“‘The engineers of Raketa have already begun to study the clock mechanism in the Notre Dame Cathedral to understand what details they can design for it at the Raketa watch factory in St. Petersburg,’ the press service said. The press service also recalled that the Raketa watch factory has experience in the design and production of the biggest clock mechanism in the world. […] The Raketa watch factory dates back to 1721.” [source] (See a video from Raketa’s factory here.)

“Unfortunately, the clock’s original drawings had been long lost, and there were no digital records. Photographs offered the only clue as to how the clock might be rebuilt and while helpful they didn’t provide the precise details and measurements required to make a faithful reproduction of the original clock. Serendipitously, while compiling an inventory at Sainte-Trinité church in northern Paris, just four kilometers away from Notre-Dame, French watchmaker and restoration specialist Jean-Baptiste Viot found a nearly identical (though 40 cm larger) version of the Notre-Dame clock movement hidden away in a disused room, covered by boards and old furniture. The mechanical Sainte-Trinité clock had been forgotten since being replaced by an electric model more than 50 years ago.” [source]

See a Twitter thread on statue rescues here.


Source: Carolyn Whitson

“Scientists have been working on the windows in a lab based in the former stables of a 17th century chateau just east of Paris. After the fire, more than 2,000 glass panels were carefully removed for restoration. The damage caused by the blaze has left traces on the windows, some of which date back to the 13th century. Scientists will spend several more months examining the glass before the restoration can begin.” [source]


Source: Martie Swart

“When that work begins, there will be a new demand for experts who have the same skills required to build Notre Dame 900 years ago. In the workshops of the Hector Guimard high school, less than three miles from the cathedral, young stone carvers are training for that task. […] ‘The computer helps gain in time and accuracy,’ says Lebegue. ‘But for stone carving, you have to have a 3D vision and be able to represent objects in space. And drawing by hand is still the best way to acquire that skill.’ [source]


Source: Larry Koester

“‘I am delighted that the great organ’s removal has finished nearly two months ahead of time,’ says the army general Jean-Louis Georgelin, the president of the public body responsible for the cathedral’s conservation and restoration. ‘The great organ can now be cleaned and restored, before being returned to the cathedral to be gradually reassembled.’” [source]

“It wasn’t only the pipes, but nearly everything has been removed and taken down: the console, the windchests, the wind trunks, actions, pipe conveyances, etc. This took the organbuilders almost five months. The treatment of each component will be different according to the element and material to be restored: cleaning and decontamination of the metal pieces (pipes, conveyances, wind trunks), application of a layer of paint to the wooden parts, and replacement of all leather parts, even those that are new.” [source]

“Felicja Lamprecht, a conservator of monuments and artist from Toruń, who has her own atelier in Paris and is part of the team working on the reconstruction, told the Polish Press Agency: ‘We have been working on the 19th century frescoes in St Ferdinand’s chapel in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris since September 2020 and we can say that we are very pleased with the effects of our work. The chapel has been finished and it looks wonderful. It is light and brightened. Our work has a deep meaning, because we are dealing with original materials and reconstructing a work of the most beautiful proportions constructed for God, which can be seen in every detail of the Cathedral.” [source]

“During the second half of the work to secure Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, a somewhat special operation took place between September 2020 and April 2021. Two chapels were completely cleaned and restored. ‘We chose two chapels which had been among the most dusty by the fire but also because they were very different from each other: Saint-Ferdinand is a polychromed chapel decorated by Viollet-le-Duc, Notre -Lady of Guadalupe, an unpainted chapel,’ recalls Jonathan Truillet, deputy director of operations. The objective: to take advantage of this emergency intervention to test in life size and in real conditions the protocols for cleaning and restoration of chapels for the future restoration site.” [source]

For more pictures, see here and here.


Source: screenshots graciously provided by Autodesk

“‘Some of the chapels of the cathedral have already been restored,’ Feltman explained. ‘While the current restoration is informed by the latest digital technologies, such as 3-D laser scanning, the reconstruction will not look contemporary. It will recreate the appearance of Notre Dame as it was before the fire using the materials of the Middle Ages, such as stone, wood, iron and lead.” [source]

(See the engineering design process in these videos from NOVA: Saving Notre Dame.)


Source: Trevor Huxham

“France’s society for the protection of birds has issued a plea for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame to keep the original holes atop the edifice that were home to kestrels and other species for centuries before the cathedral was devastated by fire in 2019.” [source]

“The hundreds of thousands of bees that lived in hives inside Notre Dame’s roof are alive and well, according to the beekeeper, or apiculteur, that oversees them. […] Beekeeping on rooftops is one of Paris’s best kept secrets. Besides Notre Dame, hives are also kept atop the roofs of other notable structures, such as the Opéra Garnier, Musée d’Orsay and Grand Palais.” [source]

Learn More


Le chantier du siècle
Friends of Notre Dame de Paris
Restore Notre Dame
Restaurons Notre Dame
Rebatir Notre Dame de Paris

Videos and lectures

Notre-Dame Cathedral Reconstruction Explored in Ambitious Documentary Series
Les matériaux de Notre-Dame de Paris livrent leurs secrets
Middle Age and Modern Timber Techniques in the Restoration of Notre Dame de Paris
City of Paris, supported by Autodesk, launches design competition to reimagine surrounding area of Notre-Dame de Paris

Virtual walkthroughs

Universal Museum of Art
Virtual Notre Dame
Building Information Modeling

Social media

Association française Restaurons Notre-Dame
Fondation Notre Dame
Scientifiques de Notre-Dame
Restoring Notre Dame de Paris

Title photo by Rohan Reddy on Unsplash, from April, 2019.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email