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The Tragedy of the Notre-Dame Cathedral

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

I’d feel like I didn’t do my job as an art writer if I didn’t address the tragedy that took place in Paris this past Monday. In the morning hours of April 15th, 2019 the Notre-Dame de Paris caught on fire and the blaze carried on for over 8 hours. Over 500 firefighters worked tirelessly to maintain the blaze and although the spire has fallen and the ceiling collapsed, it appears that a majority of the structure has been saved. Preliminary investigations suggest that the fire was accidental and a byproduct of recent renovation measures.

During the blaze the surrounding area was evacuated as a safety measure in case the structure collapsed. There were no casualties as a result of the fire and one firefighter listed as “seriously injured,” appears to be the only incident in the efforts to contain the blaze. A small silver lining came up as 16 statues were recently removed for the first time in over a century to be cleaned and were ultimately saved from the blaze.

Seeing this building, a masterpiece of the French Gothic era, engulfed in flames and smoke, the spire coming down, it was heartbreaking. The Notre-Dame was a historical and artistic landmark and the thought of it collapsing after standing tall for over 800 years shook the world. I felt that in the wake of this tragedy and as rebuild efforts begin I should take a moment to briefly go through and appreciate the history of the Notre-Dame and its significance.

Building of the Notre-Dame began in 1163 following the decision to demolish the Romanesque structure that stood on its ground. The massive cathedral was meant to be a cornerstone in ushering in the French Gothic style. This new style brought innovation in both architecture and decoration. Decoratively the French Gothic style was much flashier than anything that had been seen before, massive and colorful rose windows along with scores of naturalist sculpture were key elements in the Notre-Dame and would be in all buildings of the style. But with more decoration, comes a lot more material and a lot more weight, so new architectural innovations like the rib vault and flying buttress were utilized to effectively and elegantly hold the weight of the cathedral.

The cathedral was largely finished by 1260 but renovations and additions were made through much of the 13th and 14th centuries. The cathedral has been home to many historical events. In 1231, King Louis IX placed the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus before his crucifixion, the crown along with a piece of the cross he was crucified on still reside there today. In 1431, Henry VI of England was crowned King of France there. In the 1540’s rioting Huguenots damaged the cathedral and during the French revolution of the 1790’s it was damaged again, then taken and rededicated to the Cult of Reason and later the Cult of Supreme Being. Following his rise to power, Napoleon Bonaparte returned the cathedral to the church in 1802 and was coronated as ruler of France her in 1804. In the early 19th century, following commercial success of things like the Hunchback of Notre Dame bringing attention back to the cathedral, restoration efforts began and they’ve continued on and off until today.

The Notre-Dame has been home to a myriad of historical events, was a cornerstone of the French Gothic movement, and today is the most visited monument in Paris, bringing in 12 million dollars a year. Almost as soon as the flames were extinguished, talks of restoration were beginning because we have to save this monument, it bares so much cultural, historical and artistic significance. Another small silver lining comes in the form of historian Andrew Tallon, who used lasers to create an in depth of map of the Notre-Dame. These renderings will no doubt be a pivotal tool in the restoration of the monument. Supporters and patrons have been pouring in to donate and offer a hand in the restoration so even in the wake of tragedy, there are some positives.

I’m really distraught by the destruction of the Notre-Dame and although it looks like the restoration will be heavily supported, I have to end on a pondering note. We’re barely 48 hours removed from the blaze and I’m already hearing buzzings like, “it will be better than before.” But in an increasingly modern society that likes to think its current ideas are vastly superior to any previous ideas, this scares me. We need to do our best to save and restore the Notre-Dame, we cannot and I repeat CANNOT let this turn into a flexing of our modern architectural muscles. There’s history here, there’s cultural significance, there’s a lot more at stake than just a building. There’s a lot to think about in the near future in regards to the Notre-Dame de Paris and it’s a scary thing.

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