Centuries to Build, Hours to Destroy: Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame intact

One of France’s – no, the world’s – best-loved icons, Notre-Dame de Paris, caught fire shortly before 7 pm last night. The flames quickly took hold and, although the fire brigade was quick to react, it was impossible to save the roof, composed of tonnes of wood and lead. This morning, thanks to the tactic of playing water over the stonework, the towers and the walls are still intact. And no one was killed, although a fireman was badly injured while fighting the flames.

The foundation stone of Notre-Dame was laid in 1130. It’s a moot point as to how much of the original structure remains, since it has been remodelled and altered over the centuries according to the whims of successive monarchs. Even so, almost 900 years of history have gone up in smoke in a few hours.  

The cathedral was undergoing a renovation programme and it’s thought that, ironically, the fire started as a result of that. The cathedral has managed to survive the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution (just), the bombardment of Paris during WW1 and the German occupation in WW2. But not 21st-century peacetime.

For Parisians in particular, and French people in general, Notre-Dame is one of the symbols of their history. It has inspired novels, films, poetry and works of art. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the testament to the creativity of the human spirit and the genius of medieval craftsmanship that this building represents. Notre-Dame is deservedly classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Notre-Dame de Paris: the spire and the roof are gone

The footage of the fire’s development has been beamed all around the globe. The moment when the spire collapsed raised a collective groan from the thousands of people gathered nearby to bid farewell to a significant part of their cultural heritage.

Crisis plans for Paris’s major landmarks have been in place for a while. The firemen’s priorities were to get the people out first, then the altar and the artworks before dealing with the structure.

A huge question mark now hangs over the building’s future. Is it possible to restore it exactly as it was? Should a completely different structure take its place, as in Coventry, whose cathedral was destroyed during the blitz? Is this an opportunity for a new Phoenix to rise from the ashes? Whatever is decided, it will take many years to achieve it.

We visited Notre-Dame two years ago. This was our first time, despite having visited Paris on several occasions previously. I’m glad we saw it then. I am deliberately not posting photos of the cathedral in flames. You’ll find plenty of those on the internet. I’d like to remember it as it was.

Sentinel over Paris for nearly 900 years

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  1. Last night and today I blundered around rather like someone who has lost a precious friend or relative. I had not realized how much Notre Dame had sunk into my psych. How much I had taken it as a permanent fixture in my life. To be called on to supply my need for beauty, as an icon to romance, literature and film and as a living history lesson. It was the perfect Gothic Cathedral. Emile Mâle in his The Gothic Image so lovingly describes all the details of decorated capitals, and statues, glass, flying buttresses etc, which as a painter specializing in medieval painting I embraced with real delight.
    So this morning news that all was not lost came as great relief. As I have witnessed in England whole armies of carpenters, stone masons, painters and glaziers can descend on a fire damaged site and bring it all back to life. And in the process a real working knowledge of the period is gained and a real apprenticeship achieved for a lucky few. So all is not lost. Maybe even greater vigilance over safety will come into being.
    I now live in France. I have seen in the French the same shock and sense of a personal loss in this catastrophe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have noted how many people have said that it is like losing a close friend or relative. Notre-Dame had a kind of permanence about it, having endured for so many centuries, that it is inconceivable that it could be destroyed so easily. But I suppose that is a reflection on the impermanence of everything.

      The news that it might be saved is very heartening. And now, of course, we have access to technologies that medieval builders could only dream about. Even so, their craftsmanship is an enduring treasure that must not be lost. Hopefully, while this is a tragedy, it’s also an opportunity.


  2. Nice post …. everyone is totally gutted by this tragedy and apparently money is already pouring in which is wonderful 🙂 So much of the world’s patrimony has been destroyed in these last years what with war and renovations; the Glasgow school of art’s recent conflagrations seem to have been because of carelessness to do with renovation. However, the most recent news is reasonably positive because the stone structure is amazingly still intact … no-one yet knows how the organ is. It was because of the organ that I always drop in when we’re in Paris in the hope that, the absolutely wonderful music that is played on it, is being practised as it was the first time ever I set foot in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I think about what has been done in Palmyra and other places, it makes me sad that this fire seems to have had an accidental, and perhaps avoidable, cause. Another person has commented that the organ does not seem to have been seriously damaged. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that this is the case.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is just heart breaking. Odd that a building could hold such reverence but it does. Odd that it could feel like a dear friend was severely injured but it does. Notre Dam is the heart of a culture not just a church.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it does make one feel like that. Its very longevity and the history that it has seen give it a special place in people’s hearts.

      I hope you’re both well. It seems a long time since we met in Parisot!


  4. I am speechless with grief, as if someone very close to me had died. When I was young married in Paris in the 70s, we used to go to organ concerts at 5pm on a Sunday (miraculously the organ seems to have been spared major damage). I have visited it countless times, and feel great affection for the place, even though I am far from being Catholic or even a believer. What I have always thought, though, is that religions have given rise to fantastic architecture and beautiful music, and hope that future generations will not have to wait too long to feel as inspired by a contemporary version of this beautiful monument.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s good to know that the organ has not been destroyed. Let’s hope it can be repaired. Religion has been, and still is, responsible for some awful atrocities and persecutions, but the upside of it is the wonderful architecture and artistic expression that it has generated. I imagine it will be years before Notre-Dame can rise from the ashes, but hopefully it won’t take as long to restore it as it did to build it!


  5. Like you, our only visit to Notre Dame was quite recent, 2014, despite previous visits to Paris. Tragic to think younger members of our family will never see it as it was. But happy that so many photos and videos exist of it being enjoyed by visitors. We have been glued to BFM TV all morning.

    Liked by 1 person

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