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The story behind the towering Notre Dame spire and the 30-year-old architect commissioned to rebuild it

Less than a week before fire tore through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a repair crew brought down religious statues for the first time in more than a century. (Video: AP)

The statues floated across the sky like ghosts, headless as they hovered above Paris one by one on the morning of April 11. Bearing the likenesses of the 12 apostles and symbols of the four evangelists, they were dislodged from the base of the 90-meter-tall Notre Dame de Paris spire by crane, carefully lowered to the ground, and then placed in the bed of a truck.

Their removal was a “magical moment,” given that the statues had not been seen up close since the original architect put them there more than 150 years ago, Marie-Hélène Didier, a French official overseeing the restoration, told Agence France-Presse news agency. It was supposed to be part of a badly needed restoration project for the cathedral’s spire.

But now, after an inferno engulfed the famous cathedral Monday night, the statues’ removal seems more akin to a rescue mission. The 16 religious figures, which were whisked off to southwestern France, appear to be among the only surviving remnants of the famous cathedral’s renowned spire that, for decades, pierced the Paris skyline like an arrow — until it toppled to the ground Monday night.

As fire ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, the central spire of the 800-year-old monument toppled. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I’m completely nauseated,” Olivier Baumgartner, who was working on the spire restoration project, told the New Yorker on Monday.

The spire and the statues trace their roots to the mid-19th century work of a bold visionary who, at the age of 30, was commissioned to restore the cathedral and replace an old spire after years of neglect. The earlier spire had been removed from Notre Dame Cathedral between 1786 and 1791 after centuries of wind damage left it teetering on the brink of collapse.

But the cathedral itself had endured far worse than wind.

At the time the young architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was chosen in 1844 to spearhead the restoration project, Notre Dame was crumbling. The ravages of the French Revolution had left scars. Mobs had kidnapped the statues of kings that adorned the cathedral and beheaded them in a public square. Bells that rang from the cathedral’s towers were melted down into cannons. Sheets of acid rain had eroded the medieval stone, and the gargoyles and monsters perched along the church’s edges “had weathered to an unrecognizable nubbin,” architectural and art historian M.F. Hearn wrote in one biography of the architect.

To many Parisians, the Cathedral of Notre Dame has embodied the heart of the French capital for more than 800 years. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Then, there was Viollet-le-Duc. The precocious son of cultured, bourgeois Parisian parents, Viollet-le-Duc was a strict Gothic revivalist, believing that there was no other way to do architecture in France. He had an ally in author Victor Hugo, who favored the same style and whose 1831 novel depicting the cathedral in shambles helped spark the desire to save it. Hugo sat on the board that picked him, Hearn wrote.

Notre Dame was in ruins. Victor Hugo’s novel about a hunchback saved it.

But not everyone loved Viollet-le-Duc’s architectural philosophy, said Stephen Murray, a medieval art history professor emeritus at Columbia University who has studied the cathedral’s Gothic architecture and the journals of the man who erected the spire. Viollet-le-Duc had a peculiar vision: To him, restoring the cathedral didn’t mean merely making it look like it used to; it meant restoring it to a state that the original architects perhaps dreamed of achieving — but never could. He wanted to fulfill a vision that, in the course of centuries, had never been completed, Murray said. And to some critics, this was presumptuous, even egotistical, Hearn wrote.

“He really thought he could almost become the medieval architect of the building,” Murray said.

The spire, made of wood and covered in a protective lead coating, would soon bear this fruit, Murray said. Despite his critics, Viollet-le-Duc’s finished product would become a fixture in the Parisian sky, a religious beacon that in France is called “la fléche,” meaning arrow. In addition to the spire, Viollet-le-Duc ultimately restored the entire western facade of the church over 25 years, including the bells, the beheaded statues and the priests’ sacristy, which had been burned down by revolutionaries in 1848. Viollet-le-Duc’s partner, Jean-Baptiste Lassus, died in 1857, leaving him with the liberty to carry out his vision.

Viollet-le-Duc didn’t view the Gothic architecture as merely a fashionable design, Murray said, but rather as an indelible part of France’s national identity.

“The funny thing is, Viollet-le-Duc was not a Christian. He was not a Catholic,” Murray said. “He was just a believer in the genius of the French nation.”

In any case, the design holds tremendous religious significance for the millions who visit the cathedral every year. Before the spire fell, at its top was a rooster. In 1935, the archbishop of Paris decorated it with a piece of what is believed to have been Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns, making the rooster a “spiritual lightning rod” protecting all the parishioners within, according to the cathedral.

And at the spire’s base were the 12 apostles and the four evangelists — the winged man, lion, ox and eagle that symbolize Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In fact, one of the apostles, Saint Thomas, who is the patron saint of architects, is believed to have been sculpted in Viollet-le-Duc’s likeness, perhaps as a testament to his work, according to the cathedral.

Saint Thomas was the only apostle facing the spire rather than looking out at the city of Paris, Murray said, as though he were surveying the spire’s beauty.

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