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Notre Dame exhibition comes to London – Religion Media Centre

Autor: Religion Media Centre

By Catherine Pepinster

They are called sister churches. Both are symbols of the capital cities in which they stand and are among the greatest glories of medieval architecture.

Now the link between Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame has been confirmed with the Abbey hosting a major interactive exhibition into the story of the Paris cathedral, which was decimated by fire five years ago.

Through use of computer technology, the exhibition reminds visitors how, on 15 April, 2019, at 6.15 pm, an alarm was sounded that a fire had been detected in the nave sacristy, a vague term used with disastrous consequences, because the fire actually began in the building’s framework under the spire, during renovation work. It meant vital minutes were lost as the fire beneath the spire swept the building.

As thousands of Parisians came out on to the streets, many weeping, and watching the church that epitomises their city succumb to the raging fire, Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, promised that it would be rebuilt.

The drama of the fire, the collapse of the church’s spire and the daring rescue of many precious works of art from Notre Dame’s interior, moved the world.

According to Philippe Jost, president of the public institution responsible for the restoration of the cathedral who was in London on Tuesday for the launch of the exhibition, 340,000 people from around the world donated to the fund to restore Notre Dame.

The cutting edge technology of the exhibition, said Jost, “enables us to bridge the cathedral’s nearly millennium-old history with the current restoration project”, and to see “the exceptional quality of the craftmanship and expertise at work throughout France contributing to the cathedral’s restoration”. 

The exhibition at Westminster Abbey which opens today (Wednesday) in its chapter house, works through use of a tablet held by each visitor, an innovation which took the digital exhibition specialists, Histovery, two years to create.

Visitors  are issued with a a HistoPad™, a portable touch-screen tablet developed by Histovery, that acts as a portal via points around the exhibition, which includes historic images of the abbey, photos of the fire and the restoration work.

The 3-D show begins with the fire, showing how it spread rapidly through the building, was countered by a giant “colossus” robot with hose and camera sent into the nave, and how the spire, a 19th century addition to the cathedral, tumbled into the church.

The fire was finally put out after 15 hours with not only the spire but most of the lead-covered wooden roof over the stone vaulted ceiling destroyed.

The interactive show then moves through the chronological history of Notre Dame. Viewers can watch re-created scenes of its origin, with builders getting to work around the Ile de la Cite site in the middle of the river Seine in Paris, where the new building, replacing a much older, simpler church dedicated to Saint Etienne, took shape.

They can see how the old stones from the previous church were recycled to make the new one; look at the master builder’s plans – his preserved book of documents show a mastery of construction – and watch as the keystone is hoisted into place as construction continues.

By the time Notre Dame – dedicated to Our Lady of Paris – was completed in 1260, work on the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter – better known today as Westminster Abbey – had been going for 15 years.

The interactive exhibition also takes the visitor through major episodes in Notre Dame’s history, from the lavish wedding of Henry IV of France to the French Revolution and on to the coronation of Napoleon. The revolutionaries of 1789 smashed Notre Dame’s statues, encouraged anti-religious sentiment and on November 10 1793, they hung a banner over Notre Dame’s frontage declaring it had become a “temple of reason”, where a festival of liberty was held. But Napoleon put an end to the dechristianisation of France.

There are interesting ommissions. Missing from the London version of the exhibition is a section dedicated to some of Notre Dame’s most famous landmarks: its gargoyles.

Also missing is Quasimodo, the famous hunchback who lived in the belfry of Notre Dame. He was a figment of the imagination of the novelist Victor Hugo, who created his story in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo may well have been inspired to write his story by the criminals who once found sanctuary in the church and lived in its belltowers.

The exhibition finishes with the most recent reconstruction of the church, including the erection of an entirely new spire – a 66m high structure that is made of 110 pieces of oak and 150 highly complex joints. The roof frames and the roof and the masonry have been restored, while other parts of the cathedral such as the stained glass windows have been cleaned and restored so that they will look as they did nearly 900 years ago when they were first installed. 

Restorers of the framework of the choir and the nave of the cathedral call it the forest because so many oak trees were used to construct it. One thousand trees were needed to rebuild the church’s 25 trusses, which are vital for the stability of the walls. A similar number of trees were needed for the framework of the spire and the transept.

The exhibition will be a draw for lovers of history and churches, but it has also been devised to entertain children with a game embedded in the interactive show, encouraging them to find hidden gems of stained glass.

According to Bruno de Sa Moreira, co-founder and chief executive of Histovery, the interactive exhibition will not be available to people to access at home “because there you are constantly distracted. We want people to take time with this exhibition so that they are fully engaged and in a building like Westminster Abbey you have the right ambience. That is very important”.

Notre Dame de Paris will be open to visitors to Westminster Abbey from 7 February 7 to 1 June. The exhibition is part of Fraternite, a spring season celebrating links between the UK and France, and the two churches of Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey. It includes talks, tours and music as well as the exhibition.

The planned date for the re-opening of Notre Dame itself is 8 December 2024, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s major feasts dedicate to the Virgin Mary, patron of Notre Dame.

Further details of the exhibition here

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