On April 15, a massive, destructive fire broke out at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, France, severely damaging major parts of the historic cultural landmark.
The Paris prosecutor’s office told reporters an investigation into the fire had been opened, with initial indications suggesting that it had been started accidentally while the cathedral was undergoing renovation work on its spire and roofs. While there were no deaths because of the fire, one firefighter was reportedly injured while responding.
After the fire, messages of sympathy, comfort and condolence poured in from much of the world toward the city of Paris and the nation of France as a whole. On the evening of April 16, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation via a televised statement in which he called for unity and mobilization in order to devote efforts to rebuilding the iconic church. More than $700 million worth of donations has already been pledged to the reconstruction project; rebuilding the structure as a whole is estimated to take anywhere from 20 to 40 years.
Notre-Dame de Paris, French for “Our Lady of Paris,” has long been one of the most revered religious, cultural and historical landmarks in the world. The medieval Catholic cathedral — initially begun in 1160 with ongoing construction and modification in later centuries — has been regarded as one of the most notable examples of French Gothic architecture. The cathedral has withstood the 18th-century French Revolution; it served as the site of the coronation of Napoléon Bonaparte as the emperor of France; it held celebrations of the Liberation of Paris after Nazi Germany’s surrendering of the French capital during World War II.
The cathedral has served as a major site of cultural and historical heritage for the city of Paris — and, for people around the world — with many crediting Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” for sparking popular interest in the building. No matter its function — as cultural mythos, historical backdrop or major tourist attraction — Notre-Dame’s destruction marks one of the most devastating losses in the timeline of artwork and architecture.
It’s not only the cathedral’s exterior that was affected by the fire, however. A number of artworks and relics housed in the building and on the cathedral’s grounds were also endangered. While according to the Paris Fire Brigade, many of the cathedral’s “main works of art” were rescued, some others were seriously damaged or lost altogether.
According to The New York Times, Franck Riester, the culture minister of France, told listeners of French radio the morning after the fire that “Notre Dame’s treasury, which included, for example, the crown of thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis, is safe in Paris City Hall.”
On the other hand, the cathedral’s main organ — one of the most recognized and celebrated in the world, with pipes dating back more than 800 years — was reportedly significantly affected. And while many of the cathedral’s large paintings were salvaged and will be transported to the Louvre Museum for treatment and restoration, there is likely to be damage from smoke and water.
In the wake of this loss, many have called on people to direct attention and donations toward other, smaller places of worship that have also been destroyed. A crowdfunding campaign for three fire-ravaged Black churches in Louisiana, recently targeted by hate crimes and arson, saw a spike in donations of nearly $500,000 after it garnered more views on social media. Many users argued that while the Notre-Dame effort had already received significant donations for rebuilding efforts after the accidental fire, community churches that served as significant religious havens for people of color in the United States were still struggling to recover from destruction driven by hate.
It’s important to note that the French government and citizens, with help from the global community, will likely be able to garner funds and resources to devote to rebuilding the national landmark. Yet, there are several other landmarks, artifacts and religious emblems around the world that are not so fortunate, with many being significantly damaged or destroyed altogether, oftentimes because of deliberate hate, violence and conflict. This is not to minimize what the loss at Notre-Dame means; its cultural and historical significance cannot be undermined. It will take years to reconstruct, and ultimately, so much of what it contained has been permanently lost.
Still, if the loss at Notre-Dame can teach us anything, it is this: The destruction of cultural heritage in any and every part of the world is painful and consequential. Regardless of whether or not one has a personal attachment to its place of origin, art and architecture carry inherent sentimental and historical weight, and with the cathedral’s destruction, the world lost a little part of history that we all could only have assumed would last forever.