Patriots Day 2019 was not a very enjoyable day. It was certainly not as dreadful as Patriots Day 2013, but still a frightful day. I woke up to thunder, looked out at the dreary rain, made the decision not to drive to Lexington so I could walk the Battle Road as is my custom, did some errands, and then turned on the radio to hear the Marathon results and instead heard “Notre Dame is burning”. And that was the story for the rest of the day: listening, watching (big mistake but I could not look away), and (towards the end of the day) drinking. I admire all historical architecture, but Gothic cathedrals are more than mere buildings: they symbolize the aspirations and abilities of an era and a civilization. Very early in my teaching career, I essentially turned my medieval survey into an “Age of Cathedrals” course, and I still teach through and around and with these monuments. At first reference that might sound like an approach that is simplistic and old-fashioned, but for me the cathedral has always been both a symbol and a conduit, connecting one to all the layers of medieval history, not just religious, but social, economic, political, cultural, and of course technological. Cathedrals can open up minds too: especially the minds of college students who are predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as merely “dark”, and “backward”. It’s impossible to look at a cathedral and not be impressed by its creators, or maintain a presentist perspective.
AP Photo by Thibault Camus
As the day wore on, I realized I was getting upset as much by the commentary and coverage as by the incessant fire. There was a lot of speculation, and little confirmation, and of course we could see the fire burning and burning and burning. So I turned everything off and went to bed. The next day, the fire had finally been stopped and Notre Dame was still standing: its roof and spire were gone but the bulk of its early Gothic expanse and vaulting, its bell towers, and even its trio of rose windows had been saved. I welcome the full report on the fire’s causes and damage because there is still a lot of contradictory information out there, but I learned a lot from a few select Twitter threads that found their way into my feed, mostly through architectural historians: about the protocol followed by the Parisian firefighters, put in place after the last time Notre Dame was ravaged during the French Revolution and sustained through two world wars, about the oak trees planted at Versailles after the last restoration of Notre Dame’s roof 160 years ago, and about the human chain created to rescue its treasures, with a fire-fighting chaplain serving as the essential link. The combination of a still-standing Notre Dame, human heroism, and the resolute statement of President Macron reassured me quite a bit (French cathedrals have been owned by the state since 1905), but more than anything I am hopeful because of history: cathedrals were built over generations, in fits and starts, many sustained fire damage as well as human assaults but survived and were rebuilt. There are several precedents for the restoration of Notre Dame, but I think the most inspirational examples must be Reims Cathedral, which sustained devastating damage during World War I, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, which was bombed heavily during World War II and severely damaged by a fire in 1972.
The Cathedrals of Reims and Nantes in their present glorious condition. Photographs by Nicolas Janberg for Structurae.
The restoration of Reims, the most royal of French cathedrals, was an epic achievement. It sustained intense shelling by German forces outside of the city in September of 1914, setting fire to the wood scaffolding that was in place, and then the cathedral’s oak roof, which caved into the nave below. Reims lay in a state of semi-ruin for the rest of the war, and was bombed again in 1917 and 1918, thus attaining its status as a “martyred cathedral”. I inherited a book from my great aunt by the American illustrator George Wharton Edwards titled Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France which was published at the height of the war. Reims is on the cover and inside, looking beautiful in his pre-war paintings, but the text reads like a eulogy: the catastrophe is so unbelievable that one cannot realize it…….Reims can never be restored to what it was before the bombardment. Let it rest thus….a sacred ruin—the scarred, pierced heart of France. He goes on a bit later: Let it remain….the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Reims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed. Deleta est Carthago.
Edwards’ book and paintings; two 1914 postcards; Charles W. Wyllie, The Burning of Reims Cathedral after the Severe Bombardment of the Germans, 17-24 September 1914. From The Sphere, 7 December 1914.
Edwards would not get his wish. Reims would be restored after the war (with a good deal of American money) and it served as the site of the signing of the peace treaty which ended the second World War in Europe in May of 1945. Only a year before, and more than 300 miles to the east, the city and cathedral of Nantes sustained significant damage from Allied bombing in June of 1944, but the more serious threat to the latter was the fire that broke out in January of 1972 related to ongoing restoration on the roof. Indeed, the post-war restoration was barely completed by that time according to most accounts, but the “resuscitation” following the fire was shorter, and detailed in a wonderful short video you can view here. President Macron’s five-year plan is perhaps ambitious, but not impossible: it’s been done before.
Nantes Cathedral in flames on the night of January 28, 1972, Museum of firefighters Loire-Atlantique. Hervio Fund; Charles Nègre, Angel of Resurrection at Notre Dame, 1853, Getty Museum.