France: Fire in Nantes Cathedral

July 23, 2020

The Saint Pierre et Saint Paul cathedral in Nantes suffered a violent but limited fire on Saturday, July 18, 2020. It was not the building’s first disaster, but it irreparably damaged several elements of the building’s interior furnishings.

The current cathedral is Gothic in style. The place was first occupied by a small church whose construction is attributed to St. Clair in the 4th century. In the 6th century, the first cathedral succeeded it, built by Bishop Evhémérus. It was consecrated around 568. The famous poet Venance Fortunat, who became Bishop of Poitiers, celebrated it in a hymn. It was later looted and burned down by the Normans at the beginning of the 10th century.

A Romanesque cathedral, built in the 11th and 12th centuries, would replace it. A fire partially destroyed that one in 1415.

It was in 1434 that the construction of the current Gothic cathedral began. The nave was not completed until the 17th century, but the work was not really finished until the 19th century, in 1891. Thus the construction was spread out over 457 years!

The building has not been spared tribulation. During the French Revolution, the cathedral was used as an observation post, arsenal, and stable. It was even threatened with destruction.

The organ, built in 1620 by Jacques Girardet, the organ builder, was saved by the organist Denis Joubert, who played the instrument during revolutionary celebrations taking place in the church to appease the iconoclasts.

About ten years after the Terror, all the stained glass windows and chapels in the south aisle were destroyed by the explosion of a powder keg in the castle of the Dukes of Brittany.

The cathedral was affected by the bombings of Nantes: a bomb hit the sacristy and seriously damaged the apse and three chapels in 1944. During the restoration work, a fire broke out on January 28, 1972, and destroyed a large part of the roof. The restoration of the building would not be completed until 2013.

The July 18, 2020 fire destroyed the organ, the 15th-century large stained-glass window of the west façade, and other interior parts. Investigators have currently opened a criminal investigation of arson.