Paris history expert comments on Notre Dame Cathedral

Published: April 18, 2019
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Investigations are being conducted into the fire that ravaged the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France earlier this week. While the fate of its contents are uncertain, there is hope that many of the significant artifacts are unharmed and that the spire will be rebuilt. 

Ralph Kingston, an associate professor of European history (Revolutionary Era), researches the history of Paris and the cultural, intellectual, and social histories of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century France. In our interview below, Kingston shares the history of the cathedral, and the possible fate of its relics. 

What artifacts in the cathedral are historians most concerned about being damaged or destroyed? 
As well as the crown of thorns, Notre Dame holds a number of relics brought back by Saint Louis (Louis IX) from his two Crusades, including the saint’s own tunic.  These most precious relics have been saved.  Among the relics that are still missing are another fragment from the crown of thorns and relics of Saint Geneviève and Saint Denis, which were placed in the cathedral’s spire in order to protect the building. The copper rooster in which they were placed has been found in the rubble but it was smashed open.

What has been lost is not yet clear. The Cathedral contained a number of seventeenth-century paintings in the side chapels, which will inevitably have suffered significant damage from the smoke, if not from the fire. The Great Organ and the enormous thirteenth-century stain glass “Rose” windows seem to have, despite all odds, survived. If they are severely damaged, it will not be for the first time. A number of panes in the south Rose window were damaged in 1831, and so it contains both medieval and nineteenth century glass.  

Has something like this ever happened to this structure? If not, what kinds of natural forces/disasters, or wars, has it withstood? 
Nothing quite like this has ever happened to the main cathedral. The archbishop’s palace, which used to adjoin the cathedral, was blown up in 1831. Rubble was piled up to start a fire in 1871 during the Paris Commune, but it was never lit. Occupied Paris was spared the sort of bombing that devastated other European cities, like London and Berlin, during World War II.

That said, the building has been built and rebuilt a number of times during its lifetime, however.  This was particularly true during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In the eighteenth century, all the stainglass, except that in the Rose windows, were removed and replaced with clear glazing in order to allow more light into the interior. In 1771, the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot (who designed the Pantheon in Paris) removed the lintels in the west portal, to allow the passage of the processions.  During the French Revolution, symbols of monarchy were removed from the façade.  As a result, much of the gothic impact of the Cathedral as we know it was constructed in the nineteenth century.

When was the last time you visited the Notre Dame Cathedral?
I visited Notre Dame while I was in Paris last November and I was reminded first and foremost of its importance as a site of religious worship. Mass is said at least five times a day. All around the perimeter of the cathedral are the 27 side chapels, where devotees light candles and say prayers.  They are relatively simple architecturally, but decorated in vibrant colors, with statues, paintings, and frescos depicting biblical stories and the lives of the saints. The chapels are devoted to particular saints – including St. Vincent de Paul (for whom the international voluntary organization, Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is named) Saint Geneviève (the patron saint of Paris), Francis-Xavier (the Jesuit missionary), and Our Lady of Guadalupe. The chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe dates back only to 1963 and was dedicated on the request of Mexicans living in Paris. Notre Dame de Paris is also home to one of the most important relics in Catholicism – the crown of thorns brought back from Jerusalem by Saint Louis in the thirteenth century. It is brought out once a month but otherwise kept safe in the sacristy (which is one of the reasons it has survived the fire).

What is a fact or something notable you think is important for people to know about the spire or the cathedral? 
Notre Dame can and will rise again. The spire that collapsed a few days ago was the one that was constructed in the 1860s, as part of Viollet-le-Duc’s renovation of the cathedral. The original spire was taken down in 1786.

It will be more difficult to replace will be the oak rafters in the cathedral’s roofs. The “forest” as it is sometimes called, contains the wood of about 13,000 mature oak trees – that is to say trees that were themselves already at least a century and a half old.  Some beams were cut in the twelfth century, and many more from the thirteenth, and the roof is one of the oldest parts of the structure. Mature oak forests are few and far between in modern Europe, and those that exist are highly protected. Whatever the architects who win the contract to rebuild Notre Dame propose, it is unlikely they will be rebuilding with the same materials. 

Do you think it’s possible to re-build or restore the spire? 
French President Emmanuel Macron has promised that the French state (which owns the building) will lead the effort to reconstruct the cathedral, though experts doubt his claim that it can be rebuilt in five years. 

Almost inevitably, the reconstruction will turn into the kind of grand project that Paris became famous for at the end of the twentieth century, the most immediately familiar of which is the erection of the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre. It is unlikely that Notre Dame will be encased in glass (along the lines of the Reichstag dome in Berlin) but it is hard to see the spire being remade as an exact replica of its former self. What will limit the imagination of architects most is that several of the statues which have surrounded the spire since the nineteenth century were saved from the fire by virtue of the fact that they were in the South of France for restoration. I suspect that these “original” statues will figure somewhere in the plans to replace the spire. 

Whatever restoration plan is chosen, the cathedral will never quite be the same. Buildings are more than stone and wood, but the stone and the wood does matter. The particular acoustics of the cathedral, for example, are probably gone forever. 

What is the historical and/or cultural significance of the Notre Dame Cathedral to France? 
Notre Dame de Paris – Our Lady of Paris – is one of the most recognizable buildings in Paris, dominating the Ile de la Cité, the natural island at the heart of Paris and in the middle of the Seine, its two lordly towers jutting out into the skyline.  Like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the quai d’Orsay, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, it is on the itinerary of about 13-million visitors every year. 

In terms of politics, the meaning of the Cathedral has been contested. In the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, the cathedral came under attack during the Revolution of 1789 for the symbols of monarchy that adorned its walls, and during the 1830 Revolution, the archbishop’s palace, situated on the southern side of Notre Dame, was blown up with gunpowder by anti-clerical protestors and then razed to the ground. Notre Dame in the early decades of the nineteenth century (as we know from Victor Hugo’s novel, published in 1831) was a ruin, its sculptures broken and its masonry crumbling. 

Beginning in the 1840s, however, monarchs and politicians began to refashion Notre Dame as a place where the worlds of religion and civil authority could co-exist in harmony. Architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus secured a contract to restore the Cathedral, remaking the façade by adding new saints, gargoyles and chimeras; installing new bells and stained glass windows; rebuilding the sacristy and the spire or flèche, which had been removed in 1786 as it was swaying too dangerously in the wind.  Successive regimes broke its association with the Bourbon royal family by using Notre Dame as a site of their own celebrations and commemorations. It was at Notre Dame that Louis Philippe arranged the funeral for his son and heir in 1842. In June 1848, 200,000 Parisians processed to the funeral of Archibishop of Paris Denis-Auguste Affre who was killed while preaching peace on the barricades. In 1853, Napoleon III was married there.  A battalion of insurgents intervened to save it during the Commune of Paris in 1871, which otherwise destroyed a vast swathe of the central Paris including the Tuileries, the Hôtel de Ville, and the Palais de Justice. Te Deum services celebrated victory in the cathedral on November 17, 1918, and the liberation of Paris on August 26, 1944. It was site of the funerals and memorial services of Marshal Foch, Raymond Poincaré, General Charles de Gaulle, and more recently of François Mitterand. 

The building also has meaning for Parisians in particular, not least because of its position on the city landscape. When I began my Ph.D. in the late 1990s, I walked by it every day on my way from the left bank to the National Archives in the Marais. Whether crossing the place du Parvis under the cathedral’s two towers, or detouring to cross on another bridge to avoid slow-moving herds of tourists and street sellers hawking cheap postcards, one senses how it anchors the city. Baron Haussmann’s mid-nineteenth-century renovation of Paris is famed for having transformed the city by building wide boulevards. His enlargement and transformation of the place du Parvis is less commented on. Demolishing the clutter of houses on the Ile de la Cité, he quadrupled the size of the square in front of Notre Dame. He also cleared land on the other side, where he constructed a park. Through this transformation, the cathedral lost its ability to shock and dominate the walker who, turning out of a twisting medieval street, suddenly him or herself underneath its towers, staring up at its looming stonework and statuary. Perspective allowed the cathedral (renewed and renovated by Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus) to be seen in its entirety; it was the jewel at the heart of the crossroads of Haussmann’s boulevards, a symbol of Paris’s history drawn in contrast to the hub-hub of the traffic crossing the newly widened rue de la Cité.

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To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Preston Sparks, Auburn University director of communications, at 334-844-9999 or