Many years ago, I climbed the spiral staircase that winds its way up to the balcony connecting the two towers of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris’ western facade. From there, you can see many of the city’s greatest landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the Arc de Triomphe, the River Seine flowing past Île de la Cité.
A close inspection of the gargoyles and chimeras festooning the towers is just as engrossing as that far-reaching, wide-angle view. Jutting out from the walls, the gargoyles’ long necks channel water away from the ancient stone; the chimeras – horned, winged, taloned, feathered; beasts that never were – are there to ward off evil.
But none of them could protect the 12th-century building from the fury of a different element yesterday. Mercifully, the towers still stand, but the fire which began in the afternoon and raged through the night consumed the roof and toppled the spire.
Fire in the heart
I feel for the Parisians who lined the banks of the Seine to witness the conflagration, those vaulting flames mirrored in their tears. So do millions of other well-wishers around the world, for this is a building etched into the collective consciousness, a Unesco World Heritage site visited by millions of people a year.
Hyperbole aside, its destruction is a true tragedy. Notre Dame is the heart not just of Paris, but also of France, and not in a merely abstract sense: the brass plate set into the ground outside the western facade marks the city centre and the point from which the distance from Paris to all destinations is measured.
But, as we mourn, let’s remember that this heart will beat again.
If you look north from our office in London, you can see across the River Thames to the towers of St Paul’s Cathedral’s west front. The cathedral – a place of comparable cultural clout to Notre Dame – is now in its fourth incarnation. Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece was built in the late 17th century after its predecessor was destroyed… by the Great Fire of London.
Contemporary accounts describe molten lead pouring from the roof of Old St Paul’s into the warren of streets below, causing the pavements to glow like flows of lava. So intense was the inferno that witnesses a furlong away – about 200 metres – could not face the flames.
Symbols of resilience
It took 35 years for the St Paul’s we know today to rise from the ashes – but rise it did, an irrepressible phoenix, just as it had from previous fires in 962, 1087 and 1561.
Furthermore, I’d argue that with each rebuild, just as the physical cathedral became a little bigger, so did its psychogeographical scale – that is, the amount of space it occupies in our minds. Along with all the other things for which it stands, St Paul’s became a potent symbol of the city’s resilience.
While I don’t speak for them, I’d wager that the residents of Utrecht, Barcelona and Cologne feel much the same way about St Martin’s, Santa Maria Del Mar and Cologne Cathedral respectively, all of which were ravaged by, and reborn from, fire at one time or another in their long histories.
It won’t take 35 years to restore Notre Dame, which has survived revolutions and wars, and hosted the crowning of kings and the coronation of emperors. French president Emmanuel Macron has already launched an international campaign and hundreds of millions of euros are pouring into the reconstruction fund.
And whenever this storied structure does reopen to the public, its hold on our imaginations will have grown, not diminished. So let’s look forward to the day when the bells of Our Lady ring out over the rooftops of Paris once more.