You are made to withstand an inferno

Image by Charles Nègre of Henri Le Secq standing near the Stryge (or the Vampire) grotesque on Notre Dame in 1853.
Image by Charles Nègre of Henri Le Secq standing near the Stryge (or the Vampire) grotesque on Notre Dame in 1853. Credit: Darran Anderson

Five years ago I decided to jump on the Eurostar train from London to embark on a solo day trip to Paris. As I arrived ready to stuff my face with all the Parisian pastries, I remembered that there was a long queue to enter the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and to be honest I almost gave up. But soon there was a downfall and the queue dispersed. Miraculously, I managed to make my way in.

Waking up to the news of the cathedral caught ablaze broke my heart. I am instantly reminded of this bit of poem from Adrienne Rich:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save / So much has been destroyed / I have to cast my lot with those, who, age after age / Perversely, with no extraordinary / Power, reconstitute the world.

As the world watches in horror and grieves, there are some glimmers of hope. “All the great old buildings are palimpsests and works of constant repair,” tweets anthropologist and earthquake expert, Elizabeth Angell. “Half the famous mosques in Istanbul have lost their domes and/or minarets to earthquakes in the past, and been rebuilt.” And so will Our Lady of Paris.

Furthermore, “that’s the good news about Gothic architecture: It’s strong stuff, built to withstand even an inferno.”

“It’s not that they’re designed to be burned down, but it’s designed so that if the roof burns off, it’s hard for [the fire] to spread to the rest of the building,” says Lisa Reilly, an associate professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia and a scholar of medieval architecture. “In the Middle Ages, the thought was that stone vaults [could be] used to prevent the spread of fire.”

“The best-case scenario would be that the fire [at Notre-Dame] is limited to the ceiling and the roof structure,” Rispoli says. “A lot of the architecture below survives intact.”

As devastating as this fire is, Europe has been here before: Wars, accidents, and natural disasters have claimed a great many architectural treasures over the centuries. With their wood-framed interiors, large churches and cathedrals of the medieval era have long been vulnerable to conflagrations. In London, old St. Paul’s Cathedral, once among the largest in Europe, succumbed during the Great Fire of 1666. St. Martin’s Cathedral in Utrecht, the only example of classic Gothic architecture in the Netherlands, was destroyed by fires and repeatedly rebuilt until another element, this time a storm, caused its nave to collapse for good in 1674.

And more good news, despite it might be some time before the Notre-Dame bells ring again:

Paris Match reported that the artworks and holy sacraments of Notre-Dame were all rescued safely. No injuries were reported, either among civilians or firefighters or other emergency responders.

The first few steps towards rebuilding/repairing help could come from some unlikely, but very reliable sources, such as Andrew Tallon’s 3D maps of the landmark:

… because it survived largely intact into the digital era, Notre Dame lives on in the virtual world, too—and that may make its restoration all the more complete. For the last half-decade or so, an architectural historian named Andrew Tallon worked with laser scanners to capture the entirety of the cathedral’s interior and exterior in meticulous 3D point clouds.

Tallon’s models aren’t even the only immaculate models we have of Notre Dame. An even more unlikely hero has emerged: the video game “Assassin’s Creed.”:

The video game series is known for its immaculate recreations of real-world places as its settings. “Assassin’s Creed Unity” is set in Paris and an artist for the game, Caroline Miousse, told The Verge she spent two years finessing the appearance Notre Dame, down to each individual stone.

We are saddened by this calamity, indeed. But in a way that these buildings stood through time despite being ravaged by multiple tragedies — a personification of faith, of tradition, of pride, of hope — I think like them, I am also reminded that we are all in a state of constant repair and improvements, and that we can all get better.

Also, something worth thinking about: “The next time someone tries to pretend like you need to choose between homelessness or immigration, nurses’ pay or a tax cut, a children’s hospital or a motorway, remember this moment. The money is there at a click of a finger. It just isn’t in our hands.”

(P/s: More glimmers of hope.)

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