Notre-Dame de Paris will be rebuilt. Monday’s event was a shock felt around the world, but we must remember that fires were a regular part of the life of cathedrals in the Middle Ages and ever since. The use of candles, the abundance of textiles on walls and altars, the timbered structure known as “the forest” sustaining the roof were all fire hazards of the first order.
Flames rained down on Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral when the Vikings attacked the city in the early 10th century. Bishop Fulbert, who came to Chartres in the 980s, rebuilt Chartres cathedral, which burned again in 1134. We have a written account in the “Miracles of Our Lady of Chartres” by the 13th century Jehan le Marchand of a devastating fire in 1194, an account no less vivid than the images seen around the globe on Monday’s TV. “Neither vault nor other building were left standing,” he wrote. “Beams and posts collapsed. In the heat of the fire the lead [of roofs] all melted, walls and ramparts went crashing, belfries and glass went flying. All was turned to perdition, either by fire or collapse.” Miraculously, the most sacred relic of Chartres, the holy tunic which Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus and which is still visible in the cathedral crypt, survived the fire, which took three days to bring under control. After this second fire in the space of 60 years, Pope Celestine III instructed his emissary, a certain Melior, who happened to be in Chartres at the time, to supervise reconstruction “of a church such as could not be found anywhere else in the world.” Melior urged the townspeople of Chartres to “open their purses and empty their pockets…to pay workers and masons who know how to do such work.”
When in 1836 the medieval roof of Chartres again burned, the Minister of Historical Monuments consulted Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who not only worked on the rebuilding of Chartres, but on just about every major Gothic cathedral in France. Viollet is know especially for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris, which he supervised from the early 1850s to 1863 when he installed the spectacular wooden spire whose flaming plunge we witnessed just days ago.
Notre Dame survived the hammers of enthusiastic revolutionaries, who in 1789 defaced whatever religious sculpture they could reach, and who, mistaking statues of the kings and prophets of the Old Testament for the kings of France, toppled them to the ground. Between the end of the 18th century and Viollet’s restoration, Parisians lived with a “toothless Notre-Dame.” The Cathedral of Paris survived the sacking and burning of the sacristy in the Revolution of 1830, the bombardments of the Franco-German War of 1870 and the urban destruction of the Commune. Notre-Dame escaped unscathed both world wars, though the high vaults of Reims cathedral succumbed to bombs in World War I, those of Cologne cathedral in World War II.
As the chief sanctuary of the French nation, Notre Dame is the heart and soul of France. Napoleon was crowned Emperor there in 1804. It was to Notre Dame that General De Gaulle marched with the liberation army down the Champs-Elysées in 1944. Funerals of the Presidents of the Republic are held there. The French gathered in Notre-Dame to mourn the Air France disaster of flight 447 in 2009, and again to express national grief for the slain priest Jacques Hamel in 2016.
Reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris calls now for a Viollet-le-Duc of our time to mobilize the masons, carpenters, glass and metal workers, sculptors, painters and other artisanal trades still alive in France to connect the modern-day cathedral to its medieval past, including the financial contribution of billionaires, the equivalent of great feudal lords. The life of a building is like that of a living organism that suffers, is restored, is renovated and is maintained as the symbolic life blood of a city, a nation and a good patch of the globe.
R. Howard Bloch is a Sterling Professor of French at Yale. He is currently writing a book on cathedrals in and around Paris. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .