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Hope rises from the ashes of Notre Dame
The extraordinary global reaction to the huge fire in one of the world’s greatest cathedrals has prompted a profound debate about civilisation, spirituality and the failings of modernity.
It took just minutes for fire to burst through Notre Dame’s 800-year-old wooden roof and tear down the 750-ton spire.
Within hours, the list of world leaders and public figures sending messages of support included Donald Trump, Theresa May, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, along with the heads of Australia, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Spain and more.
“Fluctuat nec mergitur,” wrote Angela Merkel’s spokesperson. The phrase, which roughly means “she is tossed by the waves but does not sink”, has been used a motto for Paris since the 14th century, when the cathedral was completed.
The powerful shock and raw emotion was best summed up by French President Emmanuel Macron as the news broke.
“Part of us is burning,” he wrote.
Outside on the streets, Parisians sung hymns or knelt in prayer. “The tragedy of Paris,” read Les Echos’s front page.
This may be the most overwhelming reaction to a cultural disaster in living memory, but it has echoes of previous tragedies.
Last year, Brazil’s National Museum was torn apart by fire, destroying 90% of its 20 million artefacts and 26,000 irreplaceable fossils. The museum’s vice-director called it an “unbearable catastrophe”.
When ISIS systematically destroyed the 2,000-year-old ruins of Palmyra in Syria, the “awful crime” was met with almost as much revulsion as the group’s bloodiest attacks.
The first stone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163, when the French monarchy was in its infancy. It was not finished until 1345. Generations of bishops oversaw construction, knowing they would not live to see it complete.
The roof — now reduced to ash — was called “the forest” because each of its beams was built from one of 5,000 different oak trees, which were cut down in the 12th century.
As Notre Dame burned, firefighters risked their lives to protect medieval artworks. Some of the most precious relics have been moved to a safe place.
“We will rebuild Notre Dame,” Macron declared. “Because that is what our history deserves.” One donor has already pledged €200 million to the effort.
Why are we all so affected by the demise of a building? Is it the power of Notre Dame as a symbol of what human civilisation can achieve? Is it a “soul sadness” that we live in an age without the conviction required to dedicate whole lifetimes to a spiritual monument? Is it the terror that everything, no matter how permanent it seems, will come to an end?
When St Paul’s was burned down in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren found an old stone with the word “resurgam” (“I shall rise again”) in the rubble. He built his new cathedral on it. Can we come together to rebuild Notre Dame? And if we can replicate what is lost, can it be the same? Or has a link to the past been broken forever?
- What, in your opinion, is the most beautiful building in the world?
- Why are people so upset by the Notre Dame fire?
- Notre Dame was built in the Gothic architectural style, with elaborate stone spires and gargoyles. Research a different style of architecture and design your own cathedral in that style.
- What cultural site in the UK is the most important to preserve and why? Write 400 words explaining your answer.
Some People Say...
“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”Antoine de Saint-Exupery
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- This is not the first time that Notre Dame has suffered significant damage. It was attacked by rebellious Huguenots in the 16th century, and anti-royalists during the French Revolution. It fell into disrepair in the 18th century, when French writer Victor Hugo ended his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the warning: “the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth.” The subsequent interest led to the cathedral’s restoration.
- What do we not know?
- The extent of the damage is still emerging. The original roof and 19th-century spire have been almost totally destroyed, but the stone exterior has been preserved including the two iconic bell towers. A striking image showing a cross above the altar still intact has been hailed a “miracle” by some.
- The UNESCO World Heritage Site housed such wonders as the Temple of Bel, a Mesopotamian worship place that was dedicated in 32 AD. The temple was largely destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
- The cornerstone was laid down in the presence of King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III.
- When San Giovanni Cathedral in Turin caught fire in 1997, firefighters broke through “layers of bulletproof glass” to save the Turin Shroud, which is alleged to show the face of Jesus.
- Precious relics
- Including Christ’s Crown of Thorns (rarely displayed because it so precious) and the Tunic of St Louis.
- Billionaire Bernard Arnault pledged €200 million after retail mogul François-Henri Pinault pledged €100 million earlier yesteday.
- Soul sadness
- The phrase was used by Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, when she discussed the widespread grief over the Notre Dame fire on yesterday’s Today programme (BBC Radio 4).