People all over Australia were aghast Tuesday morning at the news that Notre Dame de Paris was ablaze. The cathedral has been at the heart of French culture and society for 850 years.
Its existence is precious for many more people around the world. With 13 million tourists each year, it is one of the most visited places in the world, as recognisable as the Taj Mahal, the London Houses of Parliament or the Sydney Opera House.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1163, at the dawning of the age of the medieval power of throne and altar. We think of it as a massive sandstone edifice, but the internal structure required no fewer than 1,300 mature trees. Many of them were once saplings in the eleventh century. It was those trees that caught fire yesterday and collapsed under the lead roof of 200 tonnes.
One of the famous features of Notre Dame is its ‘flying buttresses’ – stone arches fanning out from the sides to absorb the pressure the roof placed on the walls. It may be that these buttresses have also protected the walls from collapsing during the fire.
While President Macron has undertaken to see that the cathedral is ‘rebuilt’ over five years, and major private donations have already been promised, there will be intense debate about the materials and design of any new roofs and internal structures. It may well be that contemporary materials will be seen as appropriate way of recognising this traumatic episode in the history of the building.
Notre Dame has been at the centre of French history. Situated on the île de la Cité on the river Seine in the heart of Paris, the cathedral has withstood violent attacks before, going back to the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth century.
During the most radical phase of the French Revolution, in November 1793, the rage Parisians felt against the alliance of the Catholic Church with the European armies invading France led revolutionaries to smash many of the statues and turn the cathedral into a ‘temple of reason’.
Napoleon made peace with the Pope, reopened Notre Dame and celebrated his coronation there as Emperor in 1804.
Victor Hugo’s epic 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame played a role in highlighting the derelict state of the cathedral and launching a restoration in the 1840s.
It was then that the steeple was added, the collapse of which into the flames created the harrowing image which will always represent this day of loss.
In more recent times the cathedral has continued to be caught up in tumult. Battles were fought around it in 1944 as resistance fighters pursued German soldiers during the Allied invasion. Some stained-glass windows were smashed.
It has also been touched by the scourge of our own times. In 2016 French police narrowly averted a major attack on Notre Dame, arresting terrorists who had assembled a massive car-bomb nearby.
It is too soon to know with certainty just what caused the inferno. We can only hope that it had nothing to do with a puzzling recent spate of vandalism and fires in churches in other parts of France.
More likely it was sparked by restoration works being carried out on the deteriorating external fabric of the cathedral. Ironically, that restoration had required authorities to relocate some of the precious statues on the roof. They at least are safe.
We know that employees and firefighters managed to save a significant number of priceless art works, documents and objects, including holy relics. Amazingly, the altar and pulpit seem more-or-less intact. We can only hope that the 300-year old organ has survived the damage of heat, smoke and water.
Notre Dame is one of the great jewels in the world’s architectural patrimony. The inferno which raged so quickly through its medieval ribs of timber has left a gaping black hole in the heart of the City of Light.
Banner Image: Fouad Maghrane/AFP/Getty Images