Notre Dame Burning Is Tragic, but It's Seen a Lot in 850 Years
On April 15, the world watched Notre Dame burn and partially collapse as a fire spread across its roof. The extent of the damage is not yet fully known -- the towers and the artwork were spared, as were the rose windows. Much of the roof, including the church’s famous spire, was lost.
As speculation about the damage began to circulate online, many people noted that structures like Notre Dame don’t represent just one fixed point in history -- the church may be the epitome of Gothic architecture, but many of its elements were already reproductions of originals, and can be reproduced again. The fall of the iconic spire shocked those watching in person and across social media, though even that wasn’t the 13th-century original. The one that fell was less than 200 years old.
But recent additions like the spire are just as much a part of Notre Dame’s history. “It’s not just the 13th century rose windows, it’s not just the Gothic architecture, it’s not just the nave, it’s how they all kind of function together,” Matthew Gabriele, a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech and the author of a Washington Post op-ed on the Notre Dame fire, told Thrillist. “Notre Dame, all of it if that makes sense, it’s not just that saving the relics or the fact that the rose windows survived is enough to preserve [it]. It’s really kind of what you rebuild, what’s [considered] important, that says something about contemporary France, and what the community that’s rallied around the building really thinks about the building as a whole.”
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.”