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Measuring the architectural loss of Notre Dame fire

Jeremy Melvin is an architecture history expert, journalist and published author. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

It is poignant that the great cathedral of Notre Dame is probably receiving as much attention now, as its fate hangs in the balance, than at any other time in its 850-year history. Rarely has the destruction of an historic work of architecture generated so much public emotion.

Last year, the inferno at Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro destroyed many cultural artifacts and rattled the country’s sense of its own history, but international interest in the disaster quickly dwindled. Perhaps the closest comparison to Monday’s fire is the burning of Britain’s Houses of Parliament in 1834, which simultaneously destroyed a national symbol and some of the finest examples of English medieval art.

But the loss to architecture that the destruction — even if only partial — of Notre Dame represents is arguably more tragic.

Built on the ruins of earlier churches, the project was initiated under Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, in 1160. Construction went on for many decades but the bulk of the work was completed between 1163 and 1250.

A photograph of the Notre Dame in Paris taken by Edouard-Denis Baldus in about 1865.

A photograph of the Notre Dame in Paris taken by Edouard-Denis Baldus in about 1865. Credit: SSPL/Getty Images

Compared to the old Palace of Westminster, it is far more coherent as a work of architecture. Though countless masons and craftsmen contributed to the cathedral’s construction, every detail refers back to a single overarching design concept.

That said, there was considerable scope for individual expression through the structure’s many ornamental carvings. Their variety provokes almost unfathomable levels of interest, while offering invaluable insight into the way people thought, felt and worked during a crucial period in European history. This playfulness and richness of expression has long been recognized as one of the great hallmarks of gothic architecture.

Gargoyles perched upon the north tower of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Gargoyles perched upon the north tower of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Credit: Alain LECOCQ/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Notre Dame is not the first example of gothic architecture, however. That title falls, if to any building, to the Basilica of Saint-Denis on the edge of Paris. Its 12th-century abbot, Suger, led the project, bringing together many of the style’s characteristic features — large windows, vertical stresses and slender, pointed arches — for the first time. Suger’s work inspired other churchmen and architects to surpass his achievements, resulting in a series of great gothic cathedrals being built across northern France over the next 50 to 100 years, in cities such as Chartres, Rouen, Amiens and Reims.

Notre Dame is part of this group of structures. Together, they brought new levels of refinement, structural innovation and artistic expression to the style through the overwhelming height of their spaces, the variety of ornamentation and the magical effects of stained glass on light.

As these cathedrals brought new creative potential to architecture, France gradually gained the upper hand in the “Game of Thrones”-like struggles that characterized medieval European politics. After recapturing Normandy in 1204, the kingdom of France again controlled lands once ruled by their English cousins. The great cathedrals rising in their cities seemed to bear out their claim to be “the most Catholic kings.”

The first anniversary of  the death of General Charles de Gaulle at the Notre Dame in Paris in November 9,  1971.

The first anniversary of the death of General Charles de Gaulle at the Notre Dame in Paris in November 9, 1971. Credit: Jean-Claude Deutsch/Paris Match/Getty Images

Armed with new expressive potential, these buildings could convey powerful messages about biblical figures like Christ, the saints and prophets, as well as local kings, lords and religious figures. Yet Notre Dame also rooted its influences in the corporeal world, with its ornamentation bringing new levels of naturalism to the gothic tradition.

The structure, ornament and architectural effects of light and shadow, which emerge from what we now recognize as gothic style, have embedded Notre Dame within French political history. Why else would Napoleon have crowded himself there in 1804? Why else would Charles de Gaulle have led victory celebrations after the liberation of Paris in 1944, even as snipers still lurked in the vicinity?

This photograph taken on June 26, 2018, shows worshippers as they arrive to take part in a mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

This photograph taken on June 26, 2018, shows worshippers as they arrive to take part in a mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “Notre Dame de Paris” (known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”) revived interest in the cathedral. In a crucial though little remembered chapter entitled “Ceci tuera cela” (“This will kill that”) he argues that “this” — the printing press — will kill “that” — the cathedral. It’s a lamentation that reflects the apparently inexorable march of intellectual history, though within a decade the great architect, theorist and restorer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was busy renovating Notre Dame. It was his version of the original 13th-century spire that collapsed to gasps from onlookers Monday evening.

Emmanuel Macron: We will rebuild Notre Dame

Ironically, this fire seems to have started during another phase of renovation. At the time of writing, reports had confirmed that the spire and oak roof had been destroyed, but the cathedral’s iconic facade and towers, were spared. Any restoration will certainly require political intervention, and given how potent a national and political symbol Notre Dame is, it’s little surprise that Macron has already signaled his willingness to do so.

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