Firefighters have declared success in their more than 12-hour battle to extinguish the flames that engulfed Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral.

What remained was a blackened shell of the monument immortalized in Victor Hugo's 1831 novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a building that had survived almost 900 years of tumultuous French history.

The two iconic 69-meter bell towers remained intact and swarmed with building specialists and architects at dawn, looking tiny from the ground as they conducted analysis.

The cathedral's spire and roof were gone, however.

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Paris firefighters spokesman Gabriel Plus said "the entire fire is out" and that emergency services are currently "surveying the movement of the structures and extinguishing smoldering residues."

"The task overnight was to bring the fire under control so it doesn't re-start," said Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez in front of the cathedral.

"The task is — now the risk of fire has been put aside — about the building, how the structure will resist," he continued.

Officials consider the fire an accident, possibly as a result of restoration work taking place at the global architectural treasure, but that news has done nothing to ease the national mourning.

Tycoon's massive pledge

Bernard Arnault and his luxury goods group LVMH have pledged 200 million euros for the reconstruction of Notre Dame, following a reported 100 million-euro donation from another French billionaire, Francois Pinault.

A statement Tuesday from LVMH said the luxury goods group and the Arnault family would make the donation to a rebuilding fund for the cathedral, which was consumed by flames Monday evening.

LVMH called the cathedral a "symbol of France, its heritage and its unity."

The Pinault family's earlier 100 million-euro donation was widely reported by French media.

'A monument to the best of civilisation'

Notre Dame, a survivor of wars and revolutions, has stood for centuries as not merely the greatest of the Gothic cathedrals and a towering jewel of Western architecture.

It has stood, in the words of one shell-shocked art expert, as "one of the great monuments to the best of civilisation."

And so it was that across the globe today, a stunned and helpless art world wept alongside the people of France as a massive fire ravaged the beloved cathedral.

"Civilization is just so fragile," said Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval Cloisters branch in New York, her voice shaking as she tried to put into words what the cathedral meant. "This great hulking monument of stone has been there since 1163. It's come through so many trials."

"It's not one relic, not one piece of glass — it's the totality," she said, struggling to find words expansive enough to describe the cathedral's significance. "It's the very soul of Paris, but it's not just for French people. For all humanity, it's one of the great monuments to the best of civilization."

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Boehm spoke shortly before the Paris fire chief announced that firefighters had been able to finally save the structure, including its two main towers. Much of the roof was destroyed.

A pigeon flies over the Notre Dame cathedral as dawn breaks in the French capital. Photo / AP
A pigeon flies over the Notre Dame cathedral as dawn breaks in the French capital. Photo / AP

The exact cause of the blaze wasn't known, but French media quoted the fire brigade as saying it was "potentially linked" to a 6 million euro ($10) renovation project on the church's spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris Prosecutor's office, which was investigating, said it was treating it as an accident.

Construction on Notre Dame — French for "Our Lady" — began in the 12th century and continued for nearly 200 years. It sustained damage and fell into neglect during the French Revolution, but received renewed attention following the 1831 publication of Victor Hugo's novel "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame." This led to two decades of restorations, including the cathedral's famous flying buttresses and a reconstructed spire.

While most kings were crowned elsewhere, Napoleon Bonaparte made sure he was crowned there in 1804, and married there in 1810.

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the cathedral. Photo / AP
French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the cathedral. Photo / AP

Experts note that Notre Dame is an aesthetically smooth synthesis of different centuries. "It all blends together so harmoniously," said Nancy Wu, a medieval architecture expert and educator at the Met Cloisters. She said she was struck by delicacy of the structure, as well as that in the three stunning stained-glass rose windows, and the elegant exterior carvings.
"There are a lot of details that remind one of intricate lace," she said, "even though it's a building of cold hard stone."

Aside from the structure, art experts were concerned about the fate of countless priceless artworks and artifacts inside, including relics like the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo later said on Twitter that the crown of thorns and the tunic of St Louis were among the artifacts saved.

"This cathedral has a number of elements that are not just famous but religiously significant," said Julio Bermudez, professor at the school of architecture and planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "One of course is the crown of thorns ... the faithful believe this is the crown that the Savior put on his head. It's kept in a very safe place. But you know the fire is tremendously damaging." He also expressed concern about the beautiful stained-glass windows, which he called "really irreplaceable."

Those worried about the cathedral's durability could, perhaps, take solace in one of Notre Dame's more fascinating survival stories. In 1977, workers demolishing a wall in another part of Paris discovered 21 heads belonging to 13th-century statues from the cathedral. The kings of Judea, which were a prime example of Gothic art, had been taken from Notre Dame during the French Revolution and guillotined by antiroyalists who mistakenly thought they represented French kings.

The heads, which were thought to be lost, are now displayed in the capital's Cluny Museum.

Tthe Notre Dame Cathedral, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris, in 1911. Photo / AP
Tthe Notre Dame Cathedral, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris, in 1911. Photo / AP

The mourning was not limited to the art world. Religious leaders, too, expressed deep sorrow over the devastation.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying for Notre Dame, which he called "second maybe to St. Peter's Basilica, (in) ... the ability of a church to lift our minds and hearts back to the Lord."

"For the French, my God, for the world, Notre Dame Cathedral represents what's most notable, what's most uplifting, what's most inspirational about the human project," he said.

Flames and smoke rise as the spire on Notre Dame cathedral collapses in Paris. Photo / AP
Flames and smoke rise as the spire on Notre Dame cathedral collapses in Paris. Photo / AP

Boehm, at the Cloisters, found herself thinking about how the cathedral is at once of the past, and of the present — a living, vibrant building, despite its age.

"When you step inside it, you have at once the sense of everything that came before, and everything that's still current," she said.

- Associated Press