Why history says Notre Dame will rise again

While the fate of many of its relics remains unclear, the past points to the cathedral’s future role as a spiritual and civic center.

On a spring day in 1163, the first foundation stone for the building that would become the cathedral of Notre Dame was set into the soil of Paris’ Île de la Cité, on a patch of land where an earlier Christian basilica—and centuries before that, a Roman temple—stood. Over the centuries, Notre Dame rose as the spiritual and civic center of Paris, then became a target of Hugenot vandals in the 16th century, rampaging revolutionaries in the 18th century, and Nazi occupiers in the 20th century. During its 850 years, the cathedral was a target of adoration and revolt, damage and reconstruction, and yet the 12th-century foundation remained firmly planted on the island in the Seine.

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Now, on a mild spring evening in the 21st century, as the cathedral of Notre Dame burned, a human chain of Parisian police and city officials hastily evacuated some of its most important portable treasures: a crown of thorns that, according to Christian tradition, graced the head of a crucified Christ, and the tunic worn by Louis IX when he presented the relic to Notre Dame around 1238, a little more than 70 years after construction on the cathedral began. Out came more items from the Treasury—gold chalices, silver ewers, liturgical books—gifted to the church after its earlier contents were looted in 1789 during the French Revolution. (Discover the 800-year history of Notre Dame.)

Then there were the objects impossible to move: the enormous bells in the north and south towers that tolled at some of the most significant moments in French history; the Great Organ, with 8,000 pipes crafted across several centuries that filled the cathedral with music; the Rose Windows, enormous sparkling wheels of medieval stained glass that illuminated its aisles. At the time of writing, the damage to these features is unknown.

But what is known, and documented in wrenching video and photographs, is the fate of Notre Dame’s 19th century spire, a landmark of the Parisian skyline rivaled only by the Eiffel Tower. When it collapsed in flames around 8:30 PM, it took with it relics of the Crown of Thorns and Saints Denis and Genevieve, sacred objects ensconced in the proud copper figure of a rooster that overlooked the City of Lights from its perch atop the spire. The rooster was later found intact in the rubble; the condition of its relics is currently unknown.

Also gone is the “Forest,” the complex wooden structure dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries that supported a sprawling roof sheathed in lead tiles. While not a sacred relic or ornamental masterpiece, it was a rare example of medieval engineering, says Meredith Cohen, associate professor of medieval art and architecture at UCLA. She’s also worried about the fate of the cathedral’s choir, begun in 1260. Apart from the sculptures that grace the feature, there are little things that may be lost, such as the graffiti scratched into the choir stalls by the medieval worshippers whose voices once filled Notre Dame. (See how other iconic locations are unprepared for fires.)

Street scenes from the Notre Dame fire Bystanders reflect on the fire's impact and firefighters explain their strategy to save the iconic building.

“The building itself is the treasure, and all of the other things are just details of this great project in the Middle Ages to make this really sublime structure that can hold all of this art,” says Cohen. “It was a kind of utopian vision for people in the Middle Ages, and they really wanted it to last forever.”

“A cathedral was also a source of civic pride, whether or not you considered yourself a great Catholic,” adds Nancy Bisaha, professor of history and director of medieval and renaissance studies at Vassar College. “It was something that drew people to your town. It was something that that put you on the map, so in that sense, you didn't even have to be a member of the faith to take pride that it is part of your town, and sends a message of what you were about.”

And since Notre Dame is such a seminal landmark to Parisians and all French citizens, rebuilding and restoring the cathedral will be complicated, Cohen notes. The medieval foundations still stand, but should the spire be rebuilt in its 19th-century Gothic revival style, for instance, or in its earlier medieval version, or as a product of 2019 that sits in harmony with the earlier structures?

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Smoke and flames rise from the cathedral of Notre Dame on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. The cause of the fire is yet unknown, but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work.

Véronique Soulay, a medievalist and co-author of the book La Grâce D'une Cathédrale, tells National Geographic that all of the knowledge to recreate Notre Dame in its previous form is feasible. The “Forest” has been meticulously surveyed and 3D scanned, and specialized craftspeople have the skills to work with tools used by the original medieval builders.

Nevertheless, Soulay asks, “now that the structure is lost, do we want to rebuild the identical cathedral, or will we choose to replace it with a metal frame to avoid a new disaster?

Editor's Note: This text has been updated.