French President Emmanuel Macron said “a part of us” burned as Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire Monday. Around the world, helpless viewers understood.
The Gothic beauty and solemnity of Notre Dame de Paris, accented by gorgeous stained-glass rose windows, has made spirits soar for centuries. Then in a matter of minutes the cathedral seemed imperiled. Something crumbled in those who watched as its blazing spire teetered and fell.
The cause of the fire appeared connected to an ongoing renovation. Flames devoured much of the roof. And what of the other injuries sustained by Notre Dame? Extensive. Millions worldwide now will root, pray and donate for the cathedral’s reconstruction.
All buildings communicate something, in their intended function as well as their appearance. Many places of worship, from the simple to the grand, are special in those regards. Notre Dame is universally revered — by some as a house of God, by others as a triumph of design and construction.
Its architecture is both sturdy and delicate, a symbol of what endures beyond any lifetime, a testament to humanity’s highest achievements and aspirations. Rich with images and adorned with gargoyles, its religious story can be grasped outside the bounds of language. The Catholic cathedral, begun in 1163 and completed in 1345, contains some of the first flying buttresses. The fallen spire dated to the 19th century.
The cathedral bells heralded hundreds of years of some of the most studied events in Western civilization.
Notre Dame is where Joan of Arc’s mother appealed her daughter’s conviction for heresy, where Mary, Queen of Scots wed and where Napoleon I and Josephine were crowned.
Lovers of literature experience it through Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” — as do young followers of the Disney tale of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. The cathedral was plundered during the French Revolution and has been threatened by terrorists.
The fire broke out on Monday of Holy Week, which draws students and parents on spring and Easter breaks, as travelers hear the call of April in Paris. Some 12 million visitors enter the cathedral each year.
As news broke of the fire, many people reflected on past visits and posted photos to social media — a collective reliving of college semesters in Europe, honeymoons, midlife explorations and retirement trips. All were grateful they’d made it to Notre Dame. Those who haven’t now must wonder whether they'll get the chance.
Notre Dame is both an irreplaceable icon and a vibrant piece of Paris. It is one of the world’s most famous attractions, a building that has the power to move visitors with its religious and historical meaning. It is a sacrosanct place of art, architecture and culture. And now it has been ravaged by fire.
As a result, many of us are gutted, too.
If Notre Dame can be rebuilt, let it happen.