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'The religious heart of France': Duke professors react to Notre-Dame burning

<p>The famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned April 15, resulting in its roof collapsing, though the cause of the fire is still unknown.&nbsp;</p>

The famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned April 15, resulting in its roof collapsing, though the cause of the fire is still unknown. 

Built in a French Gothic style and consecrated to the Virgin Mary, the Notre-Dame Cathedral was completed in 1345. This cathedral has survived the scenes of battles like during the French Revolution, inspired novels like Victor Hugo’s "Hunchback of Notre-Dame" and galvanized religious individuals for centuries. It houses Christian relics, ranging from Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns to the Tunic of St. Louis, making it a pilgrimage site for devout believers and history scholars. From its innovative style to its religious iconography, people around the world have celebrated this building for its religious, cultural and artistic significance.

On April 15, the world was left in shock to see Paris’ powerful symbol of religiosity and Hugo’s “vast symphony of stone” in flames. Due to a weakening infrastructure, the cathedral’s spire, oak frame and roof collapsed. Its cause is still unknown, though many link it to the ongoing renovations on the building. And, according to the Guardian, the cathedral itself was 15 to 30 minutes away from complete destruction when the firefighters finally got control of the flames.

The Chronicle asked art history professors who had studied the building about its significance, as well as the meaning of its burning: 

David Morgan, Professor of Religious Studies and Art, Art History, and Visual Studies:

“If the Eiffel Tower is the great symbol of industrial modernity and if the Louvre is the shrine of great art and royal history, the cathedral of Notre-Dame completes the group as the religious heart of France. To see it in flames was shocking because it suggests that the nation itself was in peril. We don't like to think that our totems can die. They are the enduring center to which people anchor themselves. Notre-Dame is special because it has spanned such a long period of French history and in the process acquired layer upon layer of meaning. From the medieval shrine devoted to the Virgin Mary, a patron saint of the French nation, to the setting of Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre-Dame," this building has become an icon of French culture and history. If the icon is destroyed, access to the sacred things it envisions is compromised. That is something everyone around the world suddenly experienced on April 15.”

Kristin Huffman, Lecturing Fellow of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies:

“Notre-Dame is an iconic monument in architectural history. I was in Paris just this January, and the flying buttresses supporting the apse, graceful architectural features, never ceased to amaze me and inspire awe in approaching the Cathedral from the East. Fortunately, there have been laser scans taken of its spaces, new approaches to studying art and architectural history, such as those done in the Wired! lab. These will prove fundamental in Notre-Dame’s restoration."

Caroline Bruzelius, Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies:

“The fire at Notre-Dame is the type of horrific event we never hope to see: one of those moments that sears into the soul and that will always be remembered.

In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period this kind of catastrophe was not uncommon: Whole cities sometimes burned (London in 1666), and we have vivid descriptions of the fire (and miraculous salvation of the relics, too) at Chartres and at Canterbury cathedrals.  A great monument like Notre-Dame can and will be rebuilt, though assessment of the damage will take time.  

I’d like to use this opportunity to remind readers of the Chronicle that historic monuments need constant attention and care, and that great buildings have many “lives.”  Our Duke research team of four freshmen and a senior who working on the Medieval Kingdom of Sicily Image Database, knows this all too well, because they are gathering images of the many “lives,” of buildings in South Italy damaged by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, quixotic restorations and above all, by devastating Allied aerial bombardment in World War II.”

Edward Triplett, Instructor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies:

“I simply can’t think of a medieval building that dominates the skyline and the historical identity of a country the way Notre-Dame does in Paris. It has always been a pivot-point in that city. It is the seat of the Archbishop, it was built taller than any Gothic cathedral that preceded it and nearly every aspect of its interior elevation, sculpture, stained glass and proportions were innovative. My biggest worry when I heard the news about the fire was that the 13th century rose windows, (whose remarkable survival is owed to their temporary removal during WWII) would be destroyed. There are very few stained glass windows from this time period that survive, and these were especially beautiful. As I watched the nighttime footage of the fire cast through Gothic tracery on the news, I thought sure the round rose windows were gone, but I was happy to hear the next day that they had all survived.

I am partially comforted that four years ago, a fellow art historian and digital humanist named Andrew Tallon went to such painstaking effort to create a holistic 3D scan of Notre-Dame. Sadly, Dr. Tallon has since passed away, but as several articles have noted recently, his work will be invaluable to the restorers. We know that the act of scanning is not an act of 'preservation,' but the billions of data points inside the scan are a huge advantage for restorers over plan drawings and photographs, especially for a building with so many sculptural details."

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