Notre Dame was technically completed in 1345. But churches -- and big historical cathedrals especially -- have always been dynamic works in progress, palimpsests containing layers and layers of additions which, if scraped away, would always reveal something even older underneath. The crypt in Notre Dame is much older than the Gothic cathedral itself, because it was built atop the ruins of a church that had stood there before. By the same token, much of the interior decoration has been influenced by more recent events. Notre Dame suffered heavily under Nazi occupation and the French Revolution before that, the latter of which saw a lot of the statues destroyed. (Heads in particular were knocked off; anything depicting the monarchy was understandably a target at that time.) Simply put, the newer parts of Notre Dame are just as important a part of the legacy it represents.
Medieval churches have burned throughout history with regularity. Often the biggest structure for miles around, they’ve been historically susceptible to lightning strikes. The roofs in particular are ripe for fires and designed under the assumption that they’ll burn at some point or another, according to Gabriele. This is why Notre Dame was designed with stone vaulting, which is what spared much of the interior from being destroyed -- a layer of stone underneath the roof prevented burning timbers from falling all the way inside, onto the pews and artwork.
Notre Dame’s roof was spared for a lot longer than most others of its kind. It’s right to mourn whatever is ultimately lost from this, especially as worshippers reflect on loss and rebirth over Easter. But this fire, fresh in our minds, will be folded into the cathedral’s long history of destruction and restoration, and the repairs will become an ongoing exercise in what aspects of history we think are most worthy of being preserved.
“There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding and what that means, yes, because Notre Dame kind of stands for a lot of different things,” Gabriele said. “Not just the medieval past, but, you know, 19th century French nationalism … the French colonial legacy, the mistreatment of Jews and Muslims during the medieval period. Notre Dame represents all of that as well, and that’s a really important part of the history that we don’t want to gloss over as we’re talking about why the building’s important.”