Jean-Pierre Beaussier, director of the La Forge d'Art Loubière company, and his team took down the ferramenta, the iron that held most of the stained-glass windows of Notre-Dame in Paris. He agreed to answer our questions.
Six months ago, Notre-Dame caught fire. A few days later, your team arrived to bring help…
Like everyone else, I learned the news through the standard media, and we watched all evening long. Looking at the pictures, I had a strong feeling of amazement and helplessness…
I was rung up on Easter Monday – the following Monday – to ask me to help with my team. On Tuesday there was a meeting to establish the proceedings. On Thursday morning my team was on site, ready to go.
I wasn’t there Thursday morning, but my team reported a real feeling of desolation, faced with the scale of the damage…
You didn't hesitate to respond to the urgent call for Notre-Dame…
I wanted to go there, and so did my team. We didn't have any feeling of obligation: it was our will. We love complexity, urgency, and a challenge. Notre-Dame was a real challenge, and we were happy to be able to help.
Why did you take out the stained-glass windows ?
The windows were removed because the next major stage will be to check the condition of the vaults! All the debris that fell on them will have to be removed.
It is very important to know how much the stone and the joints have been affected. To check this, timber platforms will be installed above and below the vaults. To install these platforms we needed to rest beams on the window frames, so we had to take the stained-glass windows out of their frames.
A stained-glass window is made up of glass and lead. The result is relatively soft, and can't be more than half a square metre in area. The stained-glass windows that we know are held in iron frames. Eight expert master glaziers came to remove the glass from the iron. We sometimes helped them when iron had to be prised out. And then we removed all the ironwork from each window and stored it individually in a case specially made to measure. The result awaits an appeal for a company to repair the iron and reinstate the windows.
There are still some stained-glass windows that we will have to take out once the scaffolding that melted in the fire has been removed, but that's another story…
What are the future stages in the restoration of the stained-glass windows and the ironwork ?
As in most cathedrals, there are rules governing restoration. The first is probably the most important: to re-use as much of the original material as possible. Hence the ironwork is taken down with great care, because it wil be reinstated in the window from which it came. That's why each set of ironwork is stored in a separate case. There were no standard measurements at the time, so very precise measurements have to be taken [from a distance?].
When the ironwork reaches a workshop it is to be restored to a perfect condition. If it has been damaged, it will also be given treatment against rust. Only then can it be put back in its original window, ready to receive its glass. Each stained-glass window will be cleaned and restored by the master glaziers.
It is very likely that protective outer windows will be installed in Notre-Dame, which means moving the original ironwork a few centimetres inward. On the outside modern ironwork and stronger modern glass will be installed, protecting the ancient glass against all possible damage. The original window will be put back in place and will be visible from inside the building. That was done at Chartres, but it's too early to say whether it will be done at Notre-Dame.
Could you tell us about the work of the craftsman in wrought iron? What training do you have to have, and what qualities are important ?
You know, it's a trade that has evolved. In the old days, I'd say for people who are fifty-five or older, you became an ironworker because you weren't very good at school… Then for about a dozen years it appealed to almost no-one.
Now, for people younger than forty-five I think it's very often a deliberate choice, and a passion. There are people who after five years at university realised that this is what they wanted to do, and – sometimes against the wishes of their family – they were converted.
The essential quality is motivation: you have to be happy in what you do.