Why Notre Dame burning affected us all – five questions with an architecture expert

Zachary Stewart

The April 15 fire at the 850-year-old Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was met with disbelief and despair by people worldwide. Catholics mourned the damage to their sacred religious center during Holy Week, while others lamented the potential loss of a significant architectural landmark. Hundreds of thousands posted photos of their experiences visiting the cathedral on social media, while others anguished over never having seen the site in person. 

Built between 1163 and the mid-1200s, Notre Dame was built to showcase the power of Paris as a political, intellectual, and spiritual center, according to Zachary Stewart, an assistant architecture professor and architectural historian at Texas A&M University who specializes in medieval gothic architecture.  

Stewart had special access to Notre Dame during his Ph.D. studies at Columbia University, where he and a team documented the historic building with photos, digital scans and measurements, some of which could be used as part of the restoration efforts. 

Why is Notre Dame historically significant?

 “Notre Dame is an emblem of the city and has been for centuries,” Stewart said. “It was the first Gothic building that went to skyscraper heights and is where many of the elements that we associate with Gothic architecture and that era came together for the first time. It’s been a national symbol ever since.

What is its religious importance?

“As it is Holy Week, many Masses and liturgies were to be held in the church.” he said. “A cathedral by definition is the seat of a bishop, so it’s also a religious epicenter. To lose the mother church of a diocese, for many, is like losing a parent.”

How could this have happened?

“They’ve been doing some substantial renovation work this year,” Stewart said. “There was scaffolding across the outside of the church and equipment easily could have set off sparks of some kind. Historically, the fires in these buildings start in the roof, which is wood covered in metal sheeting. If any sparks get below the metal, it can burn.”

Can it be restored? How?

“There is a considerable amount of important sculpture inside the building, and important religious objects which could not be replaced if lost. Notre Dame is also famous for its stained glass, with multiple ornate rose windows, which is susceptible to breaking and high heat. You can’t restore that. It would have to be replicated.

“However, Notre Dame can bounce back with the right amount of funding and public enthusiasm. The most recent example was the French cathedral at Reims, which was destroyed in World War I and completely rebuilt, much of it with American money from John D. Rockefeller.”

Why does this event affect people emotionally?

“It’s been more emotionally affecting to me personally than I would have thought,” he said. “At first you’re grateful that no one was hurt, but then you start to feel like someone or something has died. One of my former professors said watching the video of it burning was like watching someone be flayed alive, and that resonated with what I was thinking as well. When you see these big, powerful buildings go up in flames, it reminds us all of how tangential life is.”

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Stewart is available for interviews. Media contact: Richard Nira, communications coordinator, College of Architecture communications office, rnira@arch.tamu.edu, 979-845-6863.

 

Sarah Wilson
swilson@arch.tamu.edu

posted April 17, 2019