The cathedral of Notre-Dame, a gothic masterpiece which survived Hitler`s plans to blow up Paris, as well as a 2016 attempted bombing attack, last night suffered immeasurable damage from a huge fire.
During the thirty years I lived in Paris, Notre-Dame was a reassuring daily companion, soaring over the turbulence of the modern-day capital, on the Isle de la Cite, one of the two islands in the middle of the River Seine, in the very heart of Paris.
The Isle de la Cite had been the city`s medieval centre, and the great gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris took too hundred years to build. It is difficult for us in our age to conceive what it is must have been like to be a thirteenth century artisan, the sculptor of a gargoyle for instance, knowing that your own lifetime would be too short to see the cathedral`s completion.
Over the centuries Notre-Dame became so closely associated with the history of France, that it sometimes seemed to symbolise it. This was where Napoleon was crowned Emperor, a political act immortalised in Jean-Louis David`s huge painting Le Sacre de Napoleon; a service of thanksgiving was held here avec the Liberation of Paris from the Nazis; and it was here that a Requiem mass was held for President François Mitterand.
Notre-Dame was also associated with French literature through Victor Hugo`s celebrated hunchback. Curiously, Victor Hugo had even imagined the flames of a terrible fire roaring from the cathedral roof… two centuries before the actual tragedy occurred.
The fire broke out in the early evening of 15th April. It seems likely that restoration work being carried out to combat the effects of pollution on the building`s fabric was connected to the cause. The 110-metre long oak timbered roof (referred to by the French as la forêt) was almost entirely destroyed, and, after only an hour, the 93-metre high spire collapsed too, its remains falling through the stone vaulting into the nave. This spire had been the culminating point of the extensive mid-nineteenth century restoration undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc.
For a while the North Tower was also in danger of becoming engulfed. Its collapse would have undoubtedly brought down the other tower and caused the destruction of the famous rose window. Fortunately, fire fighters managed to save the North Tower, although glass in some windows melted from the intense heat.
For those interested in symbols there are plenty here. This horrendous fire occurred in the middle of Holy Week, when Catholics all over the world prepare to celebrate Easter, at a time when the Catholic Church is reeling from the effects of the disclosure of generations of institutionalised pedo-criminality. Images of the cathedral`s toppling spire also recall the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
In 1991, Notre-Dame was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it became the most visited historical monument in Europe. Last night President Emmanuel Macron, who postponed his planned television address to the French nation to present his answers to the `gilet jaune` crisis, vowed that Notre Dame would be rebuilt and announced that an international restauration appeal would be launched. A couple of French luxury goods billionaires, François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, have already committed three hundred million euros to rebuilding.
One of the first international figures to contribute advice as news of the fire spread was US President Donald Trump. He proposed “flying water tankers” over the building, adding “must act fast,” as if that imperative had been lost on anybody in Paris. French fire-fighting experts immediately responded that releasing six tons of water in one go over the building would place the entire structure at risk. A more subtle contribution came from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has on many occasions shown herself to be a great European, and who described the cathedral as “a symbol of our European culture.”
In the last few years Paris and its inhabitants have been through a lot. A series of deadly terrorist attacks, recurrent violence from extremists on the fringes of the recent weekly `gilet jaune` demonstrations, and now the partial destruction of probably the city`s most significant cultural and religious monument. Those who love France can only feel saddened. Let us hope that Notre-Dame will one day rise up again, like those other “symbols of our European culture,” Cologne and Dresden cathedrals.
The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company
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