In 1665, Christopher Wren visited Paris, studying its architecture and taking notes for his restoration of the majestic, crumbling St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The fourth church built on that site, Old St. Paul’s had taken roughly 200 years to construct, having finally been consecrated in 1240. Its windows are referenced in The Canterbury Tales. Catherine of Aragon was married in the cathedral to Henry VIII’s brother. The poet John Donne was buried there. And in 1666, the year after Wren returned from Paris, St. Paul’s was destroyed by fire, along with much of the rest of London. “I was infinitely concern’d to find that goodly Church St. Paules now a sad ruine, and that beautiful portico ... now rent in pieces,” the writer John Evelyn observed in his diary, concluding, “thus lay in ashes that most venerable Church, one of the most antient pieces of early piety in the Christian world.”
Notre-Dame de Paris, the most glorious and symbolic structure in the French capital, was completed in the 13th century, around the same time as the old St. Paul’s, and has survived it by more than 350 years. On Monday afternoon I was crossing the street in Paris when I happened to catch sight of Notre-Dame’s twin bell towers, stately and certain in the springtime, as familiar as the sun. Hours later, the cathedral was on fire, its 300-foot spire glowing orange before it dwindled into flames. In videos capturing the moment the spire collapsed, you can hear the cries of the people watching, people whose hearts were tearing at this blow to Paris’s sense of self. Notre-Dame, like all truly great monuments, is more than masonry. It encapsulates something about mankind itself: grandiosity, aspiration, imagination, faith.
What Notre-Dame might come to symbolize now, though, is resilience. Like so many of the incomparable cathedrals, mosques, and towers around the world, it’s found itself vulnerable, a strange quality for something hewn out of stone. Notre-Dame’s Gothic edifice, one of the most recognizable facades in all of Western architecture, is an astonishing interaction between art and physics, its intricate arches and carvings and portals seeming to defy possibility, even gravity. Its frame, though, has turned out to be simpler, and infinitely combustible. The structure holding up the roof, referred to romantically as “the forest,” was made of wooden beams, some of which dated back to the 12th century. Notre-Dame’s website has pictures of the charpente, a chaotic construction of planks and pegs. “Incendie, ce n’est pas impossible,” the description states. Fire isn’t impossible.
There’s no doubt that recovery, for Notre-Dame, will be arduous, and expensive, and dominated by the same kinds of arguments and recriminations that always accompany the commitment of public funds to colossal projects. What seems hopeful, though, is that it will be rebuilt, because the history of sacred structures is defined by exactly this cycle of ruin and repair. Cathedrals in Europe are palimpsests, built and rebuilt on the same sites over thousands of years: They bear additions and repairs—and sometimes total reconstruction—by countless hands. Notre-Dame, for example, is believed to have been put up on the original site of a temple to Jupiter. Four separate churches predated its consecration, and all were destroyed, or demolished, before the cornerstone for Notre-Dame was laid in the springtime of 1163, 856 years ago. Notre-Dame’s spire, the one that burned on Monday, was added in the 19th century, replacing the original, which had been weakened by the elements over the course of 500 years.
None of this makes the Notre-Dame fire less catastrophic, or less of a wound to the soul of Paris. But it’s comforting, maybe, to consider how many sites have recovered from the grievous damage of natural and man-made disasters. The old St. Paul’s was built after a fire in 1087 destroyed much of medieval London. It was damaged by storms in 1255, after which its roof was refashioned out of wood (a structural decision that would prove fatal four centuries later). Wren’s redesigned St. Paul’s took 33 years to construct, cost more than a million pounds, and is inarguably one of the most spectacular buildings in the world. Wren, the poet Deanna Rodger writes in “Reconstruction,” “knew how to rewrite, a surprise savior … [finding] flow in fire, and life in ash.”
The ultimate fragility of buildings such as Notre-Dame is a tragedy, but a very human one. Cathedrals bear in their construction all the fragments and blows of civilization, the moon shots and the arbitrary chaos of life over time. In Seville, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See incorporates in its design a bell tower that used to be a minaret, from the mosque that formerly stood on the site. In 1936, revolutionaries in Barcelona started a fire in the crypt of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Família, destroying some of the blueprints for a basilica so impossibly ambitious that it remains unfinished even now. The Dresden Frauenkirche, a baroque church built in the 18th century, survived Prussian cannonballs during the Seven Years’ War, only to be obliterated by Allied incendiary bombs in 1945. For decades, the rubble remained, a monument to the cost of the war, until an 11-year reconstruction project was completed in 2005. The blackened stones of the bombed cathedral make up one-third of the building that stands today.
The saving grace of Monday’s tragedy is that the stone structure of Notre-Dame still stands, that most of its treasures seem to have been saved in time, that none of the 400 firemen who fought the blaze for nine hours lost their lives, and that much of the interior of the cathedral seems to have survived, including the three astonishing rose windows. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has pledged that Notre-Dame will be restored, describing it as “our history, our literature, our imagination ... the epicenter of our lives.”
But Notre-Dame also occupies a space beyond architecture or faith, a space in which buildings seem to represent the human capacity for endurance. “It is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer,” Victor Hugo wrote in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel that itself spurred an outpouring of public support for the decaying cathedral’s repair in the 19th century. The fire on Monday was a catastrophe. What happens next has the potential to remind France—and the world—that extraordinary feats and recoveries are still possible.
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