Paris and the world were shocked to see Notre Dame in flames Monday, though its structure apparently has survived. The centuries-old cathedral is much more than an iconic tourist destination, according to Illinois history professors Carol Symes and Tamara Chaplin. Symes studies French history during the medieval period when the cathedral was built; Chaplin’s expertise is in modern-day France. They spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Carol Symes

What was significant about Notre Dame at the time of its construction?                         

There has been a Christian church on that site since the fifth or sixth century. The decision to build the current Gothic structure was a reflection of the enormous growth of Paris by the 12th century, then as many as 50,000 inhabitants. It was also driven by the ambitions of the French monarchy, competing for power and prestige. Also significant was the cathedral’s dedication to Our Lady (Notre Dame), the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus. Although Christians had always venerated Mary, the promotion of her cult was very new at that time.

The church was built over a century, between 1163 and 1267, and constantly updated.  Thereafter, it stood: despite the destructions of the Reformation and Wars of Religion, the French Revolution, the bombardment of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, the Nazi Occupation, and modern neglect and degradation.

The recent fire underscored the extraordinary sophistication and durability of medieval masonry and structural engineering, nearly all of which has apparently survived. And that’s remarkable because the whole premise of this building style was about maximizing height and illumination, which means that walls are relatively thin, load-bearing arches are pointed and there are few internal columns to impede the view.

The fact that the rose windows appear to be intact is practically incredible. These are essentially enormous holes filled with delicate stone tracery and stained glass, and yet they didn’t explode or collapse in the heat. They would be irreplaceable, since we no longer know how to replicate those techniques or those colors.  What did burn was the wooden roof and interior. Scholars are speculating that some of the wooden beams had been recycled from an earlier church on the site, meaning that they were at least 1,200 years old. 

What items have been destroyed or damaged in the fire that you see as particularly tragic losses?

It appears that some of the medieval statuary is intact, as are many of the gargoyles, which were added during the 19th century. Perhaps the most famous relic, the Crown of Thorns, has apparently survived, but it is unclear how many other precious artifacts have been rescued. Here is where the timing of the fire is especially tragic, because some treasures that had been removed before current work on the roof began had been moved back into the cathedral for display on Good Friday.

For me, as a scholar of medieval liturgy and performance, perhaps the most terrible loss is the building’s unique acoustics. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that music as we know it was invented in, and for, the resonant space of Notre Dame.  Musicians at the cathedral school, inspired by the ways that singing was amplfied and manipulated by the soaring height of the building, started composing songs written for multiple voices singing different melodic lines, which is called polyphony.

Musicians at Notre Dame also invented our modern system of musical notation, which enabled them to capture those parallel lines of music and the exact length of each note, so that singers can stay in time with one another. To lose the very soundscape which inspired so much beauty and innovation – well, it is devastating.

Tamara Chaplin

How would you describe the significance of Notre Dame in the present day?

Due to its enduring, highly visible presence at the very center of Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral is widely understood today as the beating heart of France. A marker on the pavement in front of its celebrated portal, now blackened with ash, still designates “Point Zero,” the geographic center from which all distances in France are measured.

Since the separation of church and state in France in 1905, Notre Dame has been owned by the government in the name of the French people – a fact that speaks to the ways in which the nation’s worldview gradually transformed from religious to secular following the French Revolution more than 200 years ago. For people everywhere the cathedral is now not only a Christian symbol, but a symbol of France.

At the same time, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Notre Dame also embodies a global reverence for beauty, harmony and the sacred. Indeed, the intensity of the international response – shock, disbelief, despair – to the news of Notre Dame’s partial destruction by fire testifies to the cathedral’s contemporary importance as an architectural, cultural and artistic jewel in our modern, multicultural world. 

While we grieve the damage wrought, it is important to remember that Notre Dame has always been a living monument, one that has been desecrated, re-envisioned and restored multiple times. Indeed, the delicate Gothic spire seen toppling in flames in Monday’s dramatic media footage was a highly contested addition to the cathedral in the mid 1800s – as were the sculptures of the apostles that descended it, sculptures miraculously removed from their perches just four days before as part of the renovation project underway.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is promising to lead an effort to repair the damaged cathedral. What’s motivating him to do that, beyond the obvious symbolic importance of Notre Dame?

Despite the immensity of the catastrophe, there is nevertheless opportunity in this tragedy for France’s embattled president, and for Europe as a whole. Macron has been trying for months to calm the Yellow Vest protesters who have been ransacking Paris and many other French cities, often desecrating monuments in the process. In fact, he was about to give a speech to rally the nation in response to those protests when he was called to the Notre Dame conflagration. His impassioned pleas for unity in the aftermath of the fire could turn public opinion in his favor.

Fundraising for the cathedral could also forge solidarity between France, Europe and the world. In this modern moment, characterized by isolationism and a blatant disregard for the transcendent values of art and history, perhaps the near-loss of this great cultural treasure can serve as a wake-up call, reminding us all of what we as a civilization stand to lose if we descend into hatred, greed and ugliness, and fail to protect and preserve the beauty that we can collectively create.


Re-posted from the Illinois New Bureau