One of France’s – no, the world’s – best-loved icons, Notre-Dame de Paris, caught fire shortly before 7 pm last night. The flames quickly took hold and, although the fire brigade was quick to react, it was impossible to save the roof, composed of tonnes of wood and lead. This morning, thanks to the tactic of playing water over the stonework, the towers and the walls are still intact. And no one was killed, although a fireman was badly injured while fighting the flames.
The foundation stone of Notre-Dame was laid in 1130. It’s a moot point as to how much of the original structure remains, since it has been remodelled and altered over the centuries according to the whims of successive monarchs. Even so, almost 900 years of history have gone up in smoke in a few hours.
The cathedral was undergoing a renovation programme and it’s thought that, ironically, the fire started as a result of that. The cathedral has managed to survive the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution (just), the bombardment of Paris during WW1 and the German occupation in WW2. But not 21st-century peacetime.
For Parisians in particular, and French people in general, Notre-Dame is one of the symbols of their history. It has inspired novels, films, poetry and works of art. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the testament to the creativity of the human spirit and the genius of medieval craftsmanship that this building represents. Notre-Dame is deservedly classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The footage of the fire’s development has been beamed all around the globe. The moment when the spire collapsed raised a collective groan from the thousands of people gathered nearby to bid farewell to a significant part of their cultural heritage.
Crisis plans for Paris’s major landmarks have been in place for a while. The firemen’s priorities were to get the people out first, then the altar and the artworks before dealing with the structure.
A huge question mark now hangs over the building’s future. Is it possible to restore it exactly as it was? Should a completely different structure take its place, as in Coventry, whose cathedral was destroyed during the blitz? Is this an opportunity for a new Phoenix to rise from the ashes? Whatever is decided, it will take many years to achieve it.
We visited Notre-Dame two years ago. This was our first time, despite having visited Paris on several occasions previously. I’m glad we saw it then. I am deliberately not posting photos of the cathedral in flames. You’ll find plenty of those on the internet. I’d like to remember it as it was.
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