Notre-dame de paris

From Burning Emotion to the Future Rebirth of a World Heritage Site

On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw.

“Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.”

“This place leaves no one indifferent. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you, ”said Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, in front of the monument in flames.

“We will rebuild”, declared the rector of Notre-Dame, “we will rebuild”.

In daylight, the extent of the damage was staggering. The cathedral’s 93-metre spire collapsed, two-thirds of the roof was destroyed and parts of the interior were badly damaged. But thanks to the efforts of 500 firefighters, the cathedral structure itself was “saved and preserved in its entirety”, according to Jean-Claude Gallet, commander of the Paris fire brigade. Two towers with their huge bells are still standing and many elements of the cathedral priceless treasures Survived.

Around 7:20 p.m. on April 15, 2019, smoke from the burning cathedral obscured the sun.
Jennifer Galle, CC PER

Huge emotion

Of all the historic monuments on earth, Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the “superstar”: its unique history, exceptional architecture and renowned artefacts attract millions of visitors to Paris. Indeed, the cathedral can be described as a intangible strategic resource with few global equivalents.

Notre-Dame de Paris is above all an exceptional Christian and Catholic place of worship, almost 1000 years old. It is a jewel of Gothic art with innumerable treasures, including radiating stained glass windows, the crown of thorns and tunic of Saint Louisand the choir organ. It is collectively classified as a Unesco World Heritage.

As the “eldest daughter of the church” in France, Notre-Dame is a national and cultural symbol, and has witnessed much of the country’s history: all its kings have entered it, and Napoleon crowned himself emperor there. This is where the funerals of Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and François Mitterrand took place…

The Coronation of Napoleonby Jacques-Louis David, 1808. Louvre Museum.

Millions of people who have never been to Paris have breathed the air inside the cathedral while reading Victor Hugo’s famous novel. Although commonly called in English The Hunchback of Notre Damethe original title is Notre Dame of Paris, bringing the cathedral to the fore in the title and the narrative. Hugo delivered a romantic vision of the cathedral, as well as a passage that describes a fire that only took place in the imagination of readers:

“All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They saw an extraordinary sight there. At the top of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with swirls of sparks, a vast, disorderly and furious flame.

The spire of Notre-Dame de Paris in flames.
Guillaume Levrier, CC BY

A direct consequence of the history, architecture and art of Notre-Dame, its place in culture and literature, the cathedral is the first monument in Europe, with around 14 million visitors in 2018. It is one of the “first assets” of France, the “cathedral of cathedrals”, a must – the real word is used in French.

World Heritage Sites arouse emotions and emotions reveal shared values. So many emotions on the faces of all those who gathered in front of Notre-Dame, the countless messages from heads of state, the deluge of emotions on social networks, the place of Notre-Dame in the collective imagination and the global influence is undeniable.

Speaking outside the still-burnt cathedral at 11:30 p.m., French President Emmanuel Macron said:

“Notre-Dame de Paris is our place, it’s our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we lived all our great moments […]. It’s in so many books and paintings […] Even for those who have never been there, this is our story.

Such monuments encourage us to emotionally identify with them. They are the keystones of national identity and can even more international relationships. The anguished reaction to the cathedral fire mixes sentimentality, nostalgia and nationalism in ways deeply tied to the past, as historian David Lowenthal recounts in his study The past is a foreign land.

Creative reconstruction

Continuing his speech in front of the cathedral, President Macron was unequivocal:

“We built this cathedral and over the centuries we have grown and improved it. So I tell you solemnly tonight: we will rebuild this cathedral, all together […]. We will rebuild Notre-Dame.

In the evening of April 15 and until the next day, an exceptional effort began to take shape: the French President launched a national donation operation, Unesco pledged its support and the mayors of large and small towns in France are united. The wealthy Arnault and Pinault families have pledged to donate a total of 300 million euros for future restorationand thousands of people pledged their support.

Before the path to the revival of the cathedral can be traced, we need a serious assessment of how the tragic destruction of such a priceless monument was even possible. It was being renovated when the fire broke out, which raises questions about the requirements for work on historic monuments, but also about the level of resources allocated. Art historians like Alexandre Gady and Didier Rykner have said that fire could and should were avoided. They claim that even though Notre Dame is “repaired”, we have already somehow “lost” it.

It is almost certain that the cathedral cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before. The fire broke out deep in the roof, which was then being repaired. The oak frame dates from the 13th century, and according to experts, to reproduce it would require a forest of 1,300 oak trees. An alternative is to use innovative techniques, as the architect Henri Deneux did when he rebuilt the cathedral of Reims after being nearly destroyed in World War I.

Reims Cathedral in 1914.
Wikipedia, anonymous.

Monuments in general and religious monuments in particular are fragile. Against all expectations, Notre-Dame survived periods of immense turbulence in the history of France, and was not touched neither by bombardments nor by major fires, a constant threat before the invention in 1752 of the lightning rod. Until April 15, it had reached us remarkably preserved, and millions of visitors paid tribute to it each year. Yet the risk of the unimaginable remained.

“It’s in our nature to cry when we see history being lost – but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as possible,” former US President Barack Obama said on the night of the election. ‘fire. Notre-Dame de Paris is the heart of the city and of France, and a source of inspiration for the world. We are all cathedral builders, in a moment of sacred union in a secular society.

Before the fire, during and after.
Leighton Kille, CC BY

Translation from the original French by Leighton Kille.