Notre-Dame Fire: The Past, Present, and Future of The Lady of Paris
According to chronicler Jean de Saint-Victor, construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral began in Spring 1163 under Bishop Maurice de Sully, while the Gothic style was in full swing. The first cornerstone of what was to be a massive structure measuring 130m long and 48m wide was laid in the presence of King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III and was completed nearly 200 years later in 1345. Notre Dame underwent frequent adjustments in the following centuries and emerged as one of the most powerful symbols in both France and Europe alike. It can certainly be said that it fulfilled King Louis VII’s aims of it becoming symbolic of Paris’ political, economic, intellectual and cultural power both at home and abroad. The cathedral has had a key role in history, ranging from its important adoption of the musical technique - polyphony, to it being the location where Napoleon was crowned emperor. It is the place where the funerals of presidents De Gaulle, Pompidou and Mitterrand, and the victims of the attacks of November 13, 2015, were held, and where the Mass of 1944 took place after the liberation of Paris; arguably the most important moment in French modern history. Equally, the cathedral has been immortalised by Victor Hugo in a gothic novel commonly known as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (or “Notre-Dame de Paris” in French). The book allowed millions of people who had never been to Paris to experience the atmosphere of the Cathedral and it wasn’t long before it became ingrained in popular culture. While Yvonne Seal does comment that despite these significant moments in the cathedral’s history: “Notre Dame de Paris was never the preferred cathedral of kings. French monarchs avoided it, preferring to be crowned at Reims, about 80 miles northeast of Paris, and buried at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which is now a Parisian suburb”. Notre Dame can instead be seen as “the cathedral of ordinary Parisians…the backdrop against which the city’s inhabitants have lived their lives” and the “sun among the stars”, as John of Jandun, a French philosopher wrote in 1323.
Notre Dame has always had a central role in the lives of both tourists and Parisians, and that is why the “Monday fire has caused a collective commotion” as “all the roads of France pass under its arches – all the memories, the dreams and the fractures of a nation” [Guillermo Altares, El País]. For Parisians the Notre Dame fire meant watching “one of the great symbols of their city come so near to utter destruction” [Yvonne Seal, Vox], Archbishop Michael Aupetit commented: “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying, it’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare” [Anne Gombault, The Conversation].
On Monday 15th April 2019, the Cathedral caught fire during its renovation. CBS news commented that “…a fire alarm went off at Notre Dame shortly after 6 p.m. Monday but a computer bug showed the fire's location in the wrong place. …The flames may have started at the bottom of the cathedral's giant spire and may have been caused by an electrical problem in an elevator.” During the initial phase of the fire, two-thirds of the roof was destroyed, the 93-metre spire collapsed, and parts of the interior were significantly damaged. Yet, “thanks to the efforts of 500 firefighters, the structure of the cathedral itself was saved and preserved in its entirety” [Jean-Claude Gallet, commander of the Paris Fire Brigade, The Conversation]. While the flames also damaged Notre Dame’s central nave, many of the priceless treasures in the cathedral survived. Vox news reports that French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester commented that “any paintings damaged by the fire should be recovered by Friday and sent to the Louvre Museum, where they’ll be stored and restored” and that “the cathedral’s rose stained-glass windows also appear intact, though they’ll likely have to be carefully inspected”. “…a crown of thorns believed to be a “band of rushes” from the original crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head during the crucifixion” is believed to have survived the fire as well, alongside the tunic of St. Louis, dating back to the 13th century. According to Vox “a priest serving as the chaplain for the Paris firefighters” helped to save some of these relics.
(Source: Sky News)
Speaking in front of the cathedral while it still burned, president Emmanuel Macron was determined that the nation would overcome this incident: “We have built this cathedral and over the centuries we have made it grow and improved it. So I say to you solemnly this evening: we will rebuild this cathedral, all of us together […]. We will rebuild Notre Dame.” Thus an extraordinary effort was begun as Macron launched a nation-wide donation effort to aid the restoration of the building. Due to Notre Dame’s status as a World Heritage Site, Unesco pledged its support, and many other individuals and groups followed suit. Stephane Bern, the presidential cultural heritage envoy, reported that by the 17th April, about 880 million euros had already been raised. This has now risen to over one billion euros. François-Henri Pinault, the C.E.O. of Paris-based luxury goods group Kering, announced that the Pinault family would donate 100 million euros to the effort. His rival, Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe and the chief executive of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, promised double the amount and the L’Oreal group, matched his offer. Crowdfunding campaigns have also contributed to the reconstruction effort, with the site dartagnans.fr raising roughly €54,000 under the title “Notre-Dame de Paris, Je T’aime!” (Notre-Dame de Paris, I love you!).
While it is unknown what form reconstruction will take, it is certain that the cathedral cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before. The oak frames of the roof date back to the 13th century and experts quote that “reproducing it would require a forest of 1,300 oak trees”. Another solution though is to “use innovative techniques, as architect Henri Deneux did when he rebuilt the cathedral of Reims after it was nearly destroyed during the First World War”. But regardless of what is built, it will surely be a symbol of Notre Dame’s, and the people’s, resilience. Just like in 1163, and in the subsequent centuries, it will be the people who make the cathedral and raise it from the ground up once more. As former US president Barack Obama stated after the fire, “It’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost – but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can”. Thus, one of Europe’s most powerful cultural and religious symbols is sure to overcome the fire, just as it has resisted other previous disasters, and this incident will make it, and the people, stronger than ever before.
If you would like to donate to the reconstruction effort please make sure to follow the link below. Every penny counts: