Crypt at Notre Dame Cathedral reopens for exhibition on Victor Hugo, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

A Step Forward and A Look Back

Crypt at Notre Dame Cathedral reopens for exhibition on Victor Hugo, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

Entrance to Crypte Archéologique de Notre-Dame, the just-reopened museum located beneath the front square of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The fire-damaged cathedral itself remains closed until 2024. ( Rodrigo Menezes Wikimedia Commons)

Eighteen months after a catastrophic fire ravaged the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the over 800-year-old Gothic landmark at Île de la Cité has partially reopened for a special exhibition held in its crypt. A full public reopening for the cathedral proper is still a couple of years off, with officials expecting crucial repair and restoration work to wrap up by 2024—a timeframe that’s held firm despite coronavirus-related delays that temporarily halted work this spring.

As reported by the Associated Press, the sprawling underground crypt-turned-museum was spared damage during the April 2019 inferno, although it was severely contaminated with toxic lead dust which took over a year to remediate.

“In order to decontaminate the crypt we had to decontaminate the forefront of the cathedral as well and it took a long time because we had to repeat the operation several times,” Anne de Moudenard, chief curator of the exhibition told the AP. “Every time we thought it had worked, and in fact no, it hadn’t. So, decontamination, then the pandemic, it took a long time. Actually, this exhibition was ready one year ago.”

Normally, the archaeological crypt-museum, located beneath the front plaza of the cathedral, hosts 170,000 annual visitors. The exhibition, titled Notre-Dame Cathedral: From Victor Hugo to Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc, is scheduled to run through September 2022. As one of 14 diverse museums operated by the City of Paris, the museum currently requires guests over 11 to wear face coverings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As for the show itself, it’s a particularly appropriate one that celebrates the legacies of two figures that were instrumental in the 19th-century rebirth of the famed cathedral, when it had been abandoned and fallen into a state of deep neglect and disrepair: the author Victor Hugo and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the young architect who led the charge in reviving and restoring the building and designed its iconic 300-foot-tall spire. The spire was later toppled during the fire and, after months of infighting and delays, it was decided in July it would be restored to its original state in lieu of being replaced with a contemporary design.

As for Hugo, his wildly popular 1831 novel the Hunchback of Notre-Dame (originally tiled Notre-Dame of Paris or Our Lady of Paris) helped to bring the ailing, heavily vandalized cathedral back into the collective conscious of French citizens who, after reading the book, became interested in seeing it and other neglected works of Gothic architecture be revived, not razed. In fact, the novel is less the story of a love triangle between a bell-ringer, a justice-seeking Romani girl, and a handsome military archer, and more an architectural billet-doux and a literary battle cry for the cathedral to be appreciated and preserved in a historically respectful manner.

As detailed by Agence Presse-France, Hugo was known for publicly rallying in support of saving France’s then-fading works of Gothic architecture, and had even published an 1825 pamphlet waging “war against the demolishers” who were considering destroying the forsaken cathedral and erecting a new building at the site.

“There is perhaps not a single city in France today that is not thinking about, beginning or completing the destruction of some national monument,” Hugo wrote.

Hugo’s advocacy led to the involvement of then 30-year-old architect Viollet-le-Duc, who had already spearheaded other, albeit smaller, church restoration projects in France. Working alongside Jean-Baptiste Lassus, Viollet-le-Duc won a competition seeking architects to bring back Notre Dame to its former Gothic splendor.

The ongoing exhibition will tell the story of the heroic efforts of Hugo and Violett-le-Duc with photographs, architectural drawings, writings, interactive video, and other materials.

“The project was born very quickly after the fire, from a desire to pay homage to the cathedral. I worked on the photographs which allow us to follow the renovation site in the 19th century,” de Mondenard told AFP.