Although the fire that engulfed the spire and roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris erupted a continent away, UT students are still feeling the emotional effects of the damage.
The fire started on Monday, likely originating in the base of the central spire of the cathedral. Officials estimate that fire alarms were activated around 6:43 p.m. While the exact cause of the blaze is yet unknown,CBS News has reported that the fire was likely the result of electrical malfunction, and that a computer error prevented the cathedral’s fire system from detecting the fire sooner.
Notre Dame was in the midst of renovation when the flame began.
The fire ended Tuesday, and construction workers and architects have since stabilized the cathedral’s structure.
While the spire and roof were lost and the high altar was damaged, Notre Dame’s famed towers, flying buttresses and the south Rose Window all survived. Moreover, much of the artwork contained in the cathedral was preserved.
Situated at the center of Paris on the Ile de Cite, the Notre Dame cathedral is a metonym of French religious and historical heritage. Prior to the fire, it was one of Paris’ main tourist attractions, alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Arc de Triomphe. As a functioning cathedral, it was a locus of spiritual life for France’s Catholic population.
Margaret Andersen, professor of modern French history, reacted strongly to the footage of the spire collapsing into the roof of the cathedral.
Andersen noted, however, that this is hardly the first time that the cathedral has suffered damage. After its 1345 completion, the medieval Notre Dame fell into disrepair. During the French Revolution, the cathedral was ransacked—art, statues, and other historical items were either destroyed or stolen.
Napoleon re-established ties between the Vatican and the French government, and in the 1830s and 40s the July Monarchy restored Notre Dame and other cathedrals (the spire that collapsed in the fire was constructed during this period).
The Notre Dame came close to devastation again from bombing in World War II, but survived the conflict.
Andersen contrasted the states of damage the cathedral suffered during the French Revolution and the Monday fire.
“It’s definitely pretty damaging; with the French revolution, for instance, there was graffiti, there was pillaging… but it’s not quite the same thing as having the roof on fire. The difference is that, right now, there’s a huge willpower to restore it. In the aftermath of the revolution, you don’t get that until the 1830s or the 1840s,” Andersen said.
Andersen attributes this willpower to the deep historicity of the monument.
“Notre Dame is the center of the Paris—it’s almost a thousand years old. It’s this testament to time… when you think about all the people who contributed to its construction, and this huge monumental artwork that doesn’t have just a single artist, but so many different people over multiple different generations who contributed to its construction,” Andersen said.
While members of the UT community don’t lay a direct claim to this historical heritage, there is still a cultural gravity which affects those on campus.
Lauren Price, a junior majoring in English, recalled her reaction to footage of the spire collapsing.
“I immediately just started tearing up…I’ve been (to Notre Dame before). I remembered how beautiful it was. It was awe-inspiring, and it’s full of so much history. To hear about that on fire—it’s kind of traumatizing,” Price said.
As a Normandy Scholar, Price is planning on embarking on a trip throughout Europe in May. Among their planned stops was the cathedral; now, they’re not sure what they will do with the time they would’ve spent at Notre Dame.
Though Price is disheartened by the damage to Notre Dame, its history brings her hope.
“They’ve rebuilt it before…it’s kind of nice to know that if they rebuild once, they can rebuild again,” Price said.
Since the conflagration, people from throughout the world have given to the effort to rebuild the cathedral. Over 1 billion dollars have already been donated.
While the time-scale of renovations is uncertain, one fact seems clear: the Notre Dame cathedral has endured too much of human history to be done in by an errant spark.