The massive devastation caused to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on Monday has not only left the Catholic Christians shocked but also stunned the connoisseurs of historical and cultural edifices across the world.
The 850-year-old medieval Gothic building, whose spire and roof have collapsed in the fire, has been one of the most enduring and symbolic monuments of the French capital and among the most celebrated cultural artifacts in Europe.
To many Parisians, the historical monument is quite simply the heart of their city, its two Gothic square towers rising above surrounding buildings along the river Seine.
As well as a historical landmark and tourist attraction – drawing around 13 million visitors a year – Notre Dame is the heart of the Roman Catholic church in Paris.
The cathedral, whose name means Our Lady, is the seat of the archbishop of Paris.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is the cathedral of French cathedrals, with one of the longest and richest of histories: the site of royal weddings, the consecration of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor and the beatification of Joan of Arc. It is also where the public celebrates the lives of the great and good.
The cathedral was built on a small island called the Île de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine. Construction began in 1163, during the reign of King Louis VII, and was completed in 1345. It is considered a jewel of medieval Gothic architecture.
It was damaged and neglected in the 1790s, during the French Revolution.
The cathedral was immortalised in popular culture by Victor Hugo in his Gothic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, later turned into a Disney film.
The book helped spur significant overhauls from 1844 to 1864, when the architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc redid the spire and flying buttresses.
Notre Dame Cathedral was commissioned by King Louis VII who wanted it to be a symbol of Paris’s political, economic, intellectual and cultural power at home and abroad. The city had emerged as the centre of power in France and needed a religious monument to match its new status.
A medieval basilica occupying the site chosen by the king at the eastern end of the Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the Seine, was torn down to its foundations so the new cathedral could be built.
The first stone of what was to be a massive edifice measuring 130m long and 48m wide, is said to have been laid in 1163, in the presence of Pope Alexander III, but it took another 200 years to complete and underwent frequent modifications in the following centuries.
The two towers on the west facade, measuring 69m high, were built in the early 13th century. The north tower is accessible to visitors via a 387-step staircase, while the south tower is home to the cathedral’s 10 bells. Among the most famous of the bells, the bourdon – named Emmanuel – has tolled at most major events in the history of France, including the coronation of kings, papal visits and to mark the end of two world wars.
The cathedral, where Mass is still offered on Sundays, is currently undergoing extensive renovation. The cathedral was in dire need of a makeover because weather and time had taken a toll on the building. Cracks appeared in the stone, sparking fears the structure could become unstable. Broken gargoyles were replaced by plastic, limestone crumbled at the touch.
Even though the cause of the fire is not yet clear, officials say it could be linked to the renovation work.
It is interesting to note here that this not for the first time that the Notre-Dame Cathedral has been burnt. In fact, the present edifice replaced an earlier church destroyed by fire. Fire struck yet again in the 13th century, prompting new work on the cathedral between 1230 and 1240, according to the book The Engineering of Medieval Cathedrals.
French President Emmanuel Macron, while visiting the scene shortly before Monday midnight told reporters, “The worst has been avoided.”
He said France would launch a campaign to rebuild the cathedral, which is considered to be among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture, including fundraising efforts and by appealing to “talents” from overseas to contribute.
“We will rebuild it together. It will undoubtedly be part of French destiny and our project for the years to come,” a visibly moved Macron said.
The cathedral’s main stone structure had escaped complete destruction by the time the fire came under control.