Inside the building bathed in light, a swarm of protected professionals from head to toe are busy cleaning every inch of the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes. It had been entirely contaminated with lead after the pipes of the great organ burned during the fire of July 18, 2020. Some of these professionals are posted on a basket to reach the vaults, others on scaffolding to brush the walls, while workers crisscross the ground with very high voltage vacuum cleaners. Started last January, the decontamination project of the 30,000 m2 of the building, a masterpiece of flamboyant Gothic art, should be completed in September.
“It’s long, because it’s meticulous and complicated work for the teams”, explains Anne-Marie Chepeau-Malhaire, cultural services and heritage engineer at the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (Drac). Because of the risks to their health, the workers are equipped with overalls, a helmet with assisted ventilation and cannot work more than six hours a day. In the places most damaged by the fire, a latex-based product will be used to remove the lead dust more effectively.
cracked stained glass
Once this 2.6 million euro decontamination project is complete, the actual restoration phase, valued at 25 million euros, can begin. The work will concern the choir organ, the choir and the southern arm of the transept, before moving on to the most altered part, the western massif, where the great organ and its 17th century case went up in smoke. “In this place, 90% of the stones are altered,” describes Anne-Marie Chepeau-Malhaire. Other damage, not visible to the naked eye, was discovered during the work. Like these cracked stained glass windows in the nave, which will have to be replaced.
Among the 24 paintings in the building, dating from the 19th century, three suffered directly from the fire. Meticulously cleaned, they are now stored in the chapels of the cathedral. The first restoration will begin this summer with The Martyrdom of Saint Gohard. “Some have blisters from the heat, others have seen their varnish whiten from the water from the firefighters, but most of these damages are reversible», specifies Clémence Mathurin, curator of historical monuments at the Drac. Finally, the entire electrical system will have to be replaced.
No reopening planned before 2025
If the Drac refuses to give a deadline, the partial reopening of the building does not seem possible before 2025 or 2026. This will leave time for the tomb of Duke François II and his second wife Marguerite de Foix, jewel of the cathedral with its marble statues and recumbent figures, to get a makeover. Altered by humidity, this cenotaph from the beginning of the 16th century was to be restored in 2020. Spared by the fire, it will soon be dismantled and then restored for two years in an undisclosed location.
“It’s very delicate work.confides Clémence Mathurin. Its lower parts will be immersed in baths which will remove its destructive salts.. It will then find its place in the building, which will also have begun to regain its luster.