Notre-Dame: burnt but not burnt down

18 Apr 2019

This week the world watched in shock as the iconic medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was rapidly engulfed in flames. In a heartfelt blog, medieval buildings expert Dr Katherine Weikert shares her thoughts and emotions.

Notre Dame ablaze (image AP, Michel Euler)

Notre-Dame Cathedral ablaze (image AP, Michel Euler)

Notre-Dame has burnt.

As I write this, on the morning of 16 April (and revised on 17 April), conflicting reports are still coming in. The Parisian fire brigade have reported that the structure is saved, declaring the fire completely out around 3:30am on Tuesday. We don’t yet know what damage has been done, or how much danger will become apparent in the next few days as the stones and mortar cool and shift and crack, as engineers, architects and firefighters inspect the structure. There is discussion about the relics, glass, textiles, art: what has been saved and what had to be sacrificed. The medieval relics of the Crown of Thorns and the Tunic of St Louis have survived but the organ is feared heavily damaged. The west façade is standing, including the towers. The three magnificent rose windows appear to have survived but we are waiting on word about the state of their survival: has all the glass gone? Has the tracery held? We know, thankfully, that there were no deaths, though two firefighters and one police officer were gravely injured, and we thank all those wonderful men and women for the extraordinary lengths they went to in order to save this place.

medieval research at Winchester: image of stained glass window

Deep sense of loss

The reactions I’ve been seeing convey the deep sense of loss that so many of us feel in having watched Notre-Dame burn, and in the uncertainty of what lies ahead for it. I’m a medievalist who studies buildings, so my reaction to the fire has been complex: an academic sense of watching time burn in front of you, alongside a deep emotional feeling of loss. The great palimpsest of Notre-Dame is, in one fell swoop, scraped clean again. It doesn’t matter that the cathedral underwent many changes from its foundation in 1163 until the present day: the fact that the spire was a nineteenth-century creation does not make it less a part of the cathedral, does not make its toppling less heart-breaking to witness. Buildings are repositories of memory and meaning, and each alteration is part of the place. The renovations at Notre-Dame, from the high medieval period to the nineteenth century and beyond, are indications of the non-static nature of a building. Each piece of fabric is a part of the cathedral’s biography, imbued with meaning for those who built and touched and saw and were in some way part of the place.

Every time I walk into a building such as this I think of the people who have touched it and been touched by it, by the life of the building itself, which is, to me, a living creature. The timbers that held the marks of their fellers, the delicate traceries carved by careful hands: these are physical reminders of the past makers and inhabitants and dwellers who found meaning in this place, whatever that meaning was to them. These pegs for memory, these reminders of people long ago, might be gone, and this loss is irretrievable.

Medieval architecture: built to last

The loss of twelfth- and thirteenth-century timbers of the cathedral’s framework and roof are particularly painful to my medievalist’s heart, though these timbers did what they were meant to do, as did the stone vaulting. Buildings collapse and buildings burn. The clever architects of the medieval world knew that as well as we do. In Mainz, the cathedral caught fire the very day of its consecration in 1015. Wintonians don’t have to look particularly far to see the near-collapse of the late medieval Lady Chapel at Winchester Cathedral due to water damage in the crypt. Medieval architects knew how to design and build, and did so with knowledge of structural integrity and a wary eye towards fire. In the case of fire, the stone might hold and the skeleton of the structure would remain, but the wood would be a loss. Indeed, it looks like this is what happened at Notre-Dame. Medieval architects built with time in mind and had a long view of what their buildings were meant to mean and convey long after their lives, but they were equally aware that buildings were susceptible to fire, water, earth, human and environmental changes. Buildings are never immortal, not even the ones we assume to be so.

Not the only holy site destroyed

This terrible fire also brings to mind many other devastating losses. Just the last several years have seen the destruction of irreplaceable pieces of cultural memory: at the same time as Notre-Dame’s fire, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, also suffered a fire, though fortunately there were no casualties reported there, nor significant loss as the flames were quickly contained. Yesterday’s fire at Notre-Dame also echoes the fires at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, and the two at the Glasgow School of Art in 2014 and 2018. More darkly, we recall the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001, of large parts of Palmyra by ISIL in 2015, and the racially motivated arson of three historic black churches in Louisiana, USA, in March and April of this year. These all represent not simply the loss of heritage but painful wounds to communities. Notre-Dame, like the others, is not a crystallised place of the past but one with an active community and society surrounding it and touched by it. The sense of loss to these communities is one that cannot be measured, nor can it be quickly soothed.

A cathedral waiting to rise again

One of my many reactions to the first reports of the fire at Notre-Dame, in my initial shock, was a quite simple acceptance of the cathedral exiting one stage of life, and entering a new one. French President Emmanuel Macron has already vowed that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, and has announced an international architectural competition for its design. The shape and the form of it to come will no doubt be debated in the coming months, and in its renewal Notre-Dame will be both different and the same. Notre-Dame is not dead, nor is it gone. But for the moment we might want to think of it as dormant: resting, waiting, healing, as we do the same.

Dr Katherine Weikert is Senior Lecturer in Early Medieval European History.

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Find out more about medieval research at Winchester

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