So Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught on fire about lunchtime today my time (just before dinnertime, in Paris). I can’t write about anything else today. But fortunately the news is not all bad. It looks worse than it will (probably) turn out to be.
Cathedrals actually catch fire pretty often. As fire departments were quick to point out, they’re old, and they’re super hazardous. If they weren’t religious structures and national monuments, they’d be condemned and torn down. They catch fire particularly often during renovations, because workers string yards of extension cords all over the place to run power tools, and it only takes one spark from one cord to set the place ablaze. That’s almost certainly what happened here.
But cathedrals that catch fire usually end up being restored. York Minster, for example, burned 30 years ago, but it has been restored and most people have forgotten. Strasbourg cathedral was damaged by WWII bombing and restored.
So what burned? First, the spire, but that was already not ancient; it was erected in the 1800s by Viollet le Duc. Le Duc was in charge of restoring Notre Dame, and he was an ambitious sort of guy who wanted to really make everything great, and he thought a spire would look cool. So yeah, the spire fell down.
Second, the roof – but not the stone vault. When you stand inside the church and look up, what you see is the stone vault. Over that, on the other side where you can’t see it, is a wooden roof like the roof of your house. That holds up the slate roof tiles. It’s that wooden part that burned. That’s sad, because the wood was from the 1100s and it was cut from 300 year old oak trees, and we no longer have any 300 year old oak trees we can cut down to replace it. Maybe we’ll replace it in steel, or by bundling together smaller pieces of wood into a truss. In any case nobody normally sees that wood. A small part of the stone vault collapsed, but most of it is fine.
Third, the south stained glass window. That’s probably gone; the heat melted the glass and the lead that held the glass in place. But again, that south rose window was heavily restored on at least four different occasions before this one, including by Viollet le Duc. The smaller rose window in the western facade of the cathedral (the side with the main doors), we don’t know about yet. That one has none of its original glass; it was reconstructed by Viollet le Duc in the 1800s. But the north rose window, which really dates from 1250, seems to have survived.
Inside the cathedral, some wooden things seem to have burned – maybe the choir stalls? The painted carved choir screen with the life of Jesus on it is from the late Middle Ages. It’s made of stone, not wood, so there’s a good chance it has also survived. I don’t know about that yet.*
“What happened to all the other beautiful stained glass windows?” – is that what you’re thinking? Well, there weren’t any. “Is that because the French Revolution smashed them?” Nope. King Louis XIV tossed them in the 1600s. He replaced them with clear glass. Louis wanted to modernize the cathedral. He wanted it to be light and airy and full of paintings, and he wanted people to be able to see the paintings. So he took out the old boring stained glass and chucked it. (Louis also covered the old boring pillars and arches with plaster modern ones, as you can see in this painting showing Napoleon crowning Josephine inside the cathedral.)
In short, while it’s terrible that the cathedral caught fire, it’s not the first time terrible things have happened to the cathedral. It’s also not entirely unexpected. And it wasn’t even the only fire in a super-old and important religious structure today: there was also a fire in Al-Aqsa mosque, on the temple mount in Jerusalem, one of the holiest locations of both Judaism and Islam.
So far the Paris fire seems to have followed more or less the usual path of cathedral fires: it burned the roof, and some wooden things inside the cathedral, and it may have damaged or destroyed some of the windows and sculptures. Fortunately nobody was killed (though one firefighter was seriously injured). Al Aqsa mosque also seems to be mostly okay. Both buildings will still be there for you to enjoy, and your children, and your children’s children. Insh’allah.
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*The latest word is that the choir screen did survive.