Notre-Dame de Paris, otherwise known as the Notre-Dame cathedral, is one of the most iconic buildings in the world — certainly the Western world. And on Monday, it was on fire. Early reports said that the fire began as a result of renovations that have been taking place at the cathedral, but whatever the cause, by the evening of April 15 virtually the entire building was engulfed in flame. Two-thirds of the roof was destroyed, including the cathedral’s famous spire, and many of the priceless works of art inside the cathedral were threatened. Videos of Parisians singing hymns and chanting as they watched the flames went viral on Twitter and Facebook.
Notre-Dame might be the only cathedral, or building of any kind, to be the main character of a story by a famous author — namely, Victor Hugo, who wrote a book in 1931 called Notre-Dame de Paris, which was published in English as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Anyone who has seen the innumerable adaptations, including the animated Disney movie of the same name, probably thinks the hunchback is the hero, but Hugo definitely wanted the cathedral to be the main character, and a metaphor for Paris itself. The publicity his book created actually helped turn the church into a global superstar — it sat empty and mostly unused for decades before Napoleon used it for his coronation, and was still mostly unloved when Hugo wrote his book.
Most people assume that the two soaring towers of the cathedral are identical twins, but the north tower is actually slightly larger than the south, probably a result of the fact that the building was constructed piece-meal over several hundred years. That’s one of the interesting facts about the cathedral collected by Mental Floss, including the fact that in 1935, “three tiny relics — an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city’s patron saints) — were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.” The church also houses what is believed to be the Crown of Thorns placed on Christ, as well as a fragment of the original cross.
According to the official list of facts about the cathedral, the roof — which appears to be almost completely gone — consisted of more than 1,300 massive oak beams, representing about 21 hectares of forest.
I’ve been to Paris twice now, but never got a chance to go through Notre-Dame, something that I now regret. When my wife and I visited a couple of years ago, there was a massive line in front of it that looked as though it would take hours, and we didn’t have hours. So we went to the nearby Saint Chapelle cathedral instead, which has incredible stained glass windows that I would highly recommend experiencing if you have the chance. Hopefully Notre-Dame will be restored and we can visit it at some point in the future. In the meantime, here’s something Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay said about why losing buildings like the cathedral hurts so much:
Why do we grieve for ruins destroyed (by ISIS) or for fires like Notre Dame, sometimes seemingly more than for human deaths? In part because we know we only have decades, each of us, but these things MAY last to say ‘We were here and with all the evil we did, we also did this.’