The Notre-Dame Cathedral located in Paris caught on fire April 16th, 2019, and the whole world mourned as millions watched along. Observers from every continent couldn’t believe that they were watching the iconic architectural structure collapse in front of their eyes.
As the world watched the roof of the cathedral turn to ash and collapse upon itself, it left people wondering how it could happen and what history they were losing. Read on to see what we now know about the fire and the history that it nearly destroyed.
There Are Two Possible Causes
The cause of the fire is still unknown, but the Paris prosecutor has already opened an investigation to get to the bottom of it. Currently, officials believe the blaze was either negligence—like a burning cigarette—or a simple electrical misalignment.
There is some silver-lining despite the chaos that you might be hearing on the news. Even though the beloved cathedral’s spire was turned to ash, many of the features and historical relics of the tower didn’t suffer the same fate.
It Was Undergoing A $12.5 Million Renovation
At the time, the cathedral was going through a nearly $12.5 million renovation. There was scaffolding basically surrounding the entire building, which ended up causing a little bit more obstruction for the firefighters.
In total, 400 firefighters and 18 fire hoses were able to contain the lit up cathedral. Paris’s fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet was able to summarize the damage, saying, “The fire affected two-thirds of the roof, which has collapsed, as well as the spire.”
But, There’s A Lot Of Hope
Some historians weighed in on the catastrophe and gave everyone some hope about the whole situation. Apparently, while the roof is completely gone, only part of it was even dated back to the 13th century. Most of it was renovated in the 19th century, and the stone arch roof under the top roof is completely fine.
Also, one of the main stained glass rose windows had fallen out, but most of the other stained glass windows are okay.
The Main Structure Is Still Standing Tall
The spire has fallen down, but since it was in the process of being restored, they took the 16 statutes surrounding it away just four days before the fire, so they’re completely fine.
Most importantly, the main structure of the building is still standing tall and no part of the base has “burned down” like many people are speculating. So, the good news is that Notre-Dame is still standing and no one was wounded.
The Cathedral Has A Vast History
The Cathedral was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries. The somewhat Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy.
It gets thousands of people walking through its doors to see the rose window and flying buttresses. The history and architecture have made the Notre-Dame Cathedral one of France’s most prized possessions.
An Ancient City Lives Beneath Notre-Dame
There’s a pagan city that lies below the cathedral. The land by which the Notre-Dame de Paris stands right now was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over the temple which has some rich history in itself.
In 1710, there were pieces of a sculpted altar that was dedicated to Jupiter and other deities found in the area. There were other ancient era architectural ruins found in the 1960s and 1970s lying beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.
It Was A Gothic Trendsetter
The cathedral was one of the first structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were first added to the cathedral in the 12th century because Notre-Dame had such thin walls. Originally, there were complaints about the lack of natural light in the cathedral which meant they needed to add bigger windows to overcompensate, but it did affect the overall structure.
The buttresses became a huge part of the architecture and add to the gothic design of the overall structure.
The Bells Were Melted Down To Be Cannons
During the 18th century, the cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed into a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. During that time, 19 of the 20 iconic bells (the only exception was the 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel) were removed and melted down to make cannons.
The bells were replaced in the 19th century but they just weren’t the same. They didn’t give the same ring as the old ones. So, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound.
Napoleon Has A Lot Of History With Notre-Dame
Say what you want about Napoleon Bonaparte, but he was a massive reason the cathedral still stands today. When he decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in horrible shape.
It had endured years of vandalism from the French Revolution and was used primarily as a warehouse. So, when Napoleon declared its return to church use and hosted his grand ceremony in the cathedral, it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.
The Gargoyles Are More Modern Than People Think
Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters watching Paris’s every move). Most people don’t know that those creatures weren’t added to the cathedral until the 19th century.
This makes them more modern than they are medieval. Since they were added in 1843 and 1864, many of them have been decaying. PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down.
There Are Bees Housed On The Roof
On the Notre-Dame sacristy, just beside the cathedral, is a small hive of bees that have become pretty popular. The hive was installed in 2013 with Buckfast bees, a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness.
Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. The best part about them? All their honey is given away to the poor.
The Cathedral Is Point Zero In France
This little dent in the cobblestone is often overlooked by tourists who are too busy looking up at the cathedral than down. It’s hard to blame them. But, beneath the crowds is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star-embedded in the cobblestones.
It has the words “Point zero des routes de France” and it represents the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924 and proves all roads lead to Notre-Dame.
The Largest Organ In France Is In The Cathedral
The Notre-Dame organ has almost 8000 pipes that date back to the 18th century. It’s played with five keyboards which unofficially makes it the biggest organ in France (some claim that Saint Eustache has a bigger one).
The organ’s structure, like most of the cathedral, got muffed up a bit during the French Revolution. There are a few slashes in the wood of the organ loft but it’s still in decent shape all things considered. It was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.
The Spire Was A Saintly Lightning Rod
The spire was, unfortunately, one of the victims of the recent fire. It took the brunt of the flames and collapsed onto the roof. It wasn’t just pretty to look at either: in 1935 three tiny relics — an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some parts of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city’s patron saints) were secured inside the spire.
It was supposed to be a spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within the cathedral.
Victor Hugo Brought More Worldwide Attention To The Cathedral
Victor Hugo used the cathedral as a setting for his 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Quasimodo, the main character, is feared by Parisians because of his deformity, but finds sanctuary in the cathedral and is employed as the bell-ringer.
The book has since been made into a Disney movie and has been enjoyed by millions of people around the world, bringing a new demographic of Notre-Dame admirers. The Hunchback is now a timeless classic, and Quasimodo is basically a household name.
The Novel’s Success Was Crucial To The Restoration
After the Hunchback of Notre-Dame came out, the cathedral became so popular that they ended up immediately starting a major restoration project. It was supervised by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc who was the one who saw the importance of the spire.
This restoration brought the sculptures of mythical creatures to Notre-Dame as well. It’s weird to think that all of this money and time was put into this cathedral because of the success of a novel.
The Two Towers Were The Last Piece Of The Cathedral
The two towers are 69 meters high, and were the tallest structures in Paris until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. The towers were the last major element of the cathedral to be constructed. Despite what many people believe, the south and north towers are different heights.
The north tower is accessible to visitors by a stairway, and its entrance is on the north side of the tower. The stairway has 387 steps and has a stop at the Gothic hall at the level of the rose window.
The “Poor People’s Book”
The Gothic cathedral was a “poor people’s book” covered with sculpture vividly illustrating biblical stories for the vast majority of parishioners who were illiterate. To add to the effect, all the sculptures on the facades were originally painted a gilded.
The sculpture of the right portal shows the coronation of the Virgin Mary, and left shows the lives of saints who were important Parisians, like Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Every detail of the cathedral has some meaning.
The Stained Glass Windows Offer Amazing Eye Candy
The stained glass windows of Notre-Dame, otherwise known as the three rose windows, are among the most famous features. The west rose window was the first, and smallest of the roses.
The two transept windows are larger and contain a greater portion of the glass than the rose on the west facade. The north rose was created in 1250, and the south rose was created in 1260. The south rose has 94 medallions, arranged in four circles, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and those who were around him at the time.
They’ve Put New Rose Windows In
The south rose has had a difficult past. In 1543 it was damaged by the settling of the masonry walls, and not restored until the 18th century. It was then seriously damaged during the French Revolution in 1830.
In the 1960s, after nearly three decades of debate, it was decided to replace the windows designed by Viollet-le-Duc and put in new windows. The new ones would be made by Jaques Le Chevallier, and are without human figures.
They use abstract grisaille designs and color to recreate the luminosity of the Cathedral’s interior in the 13th century.