The fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Tuesday captured the world’s attention, and rightfully so. The iconic structure, featured in Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, was a symbol of Christianity, of France, of Gothic Art, and of the High Middle Ages throughout the world. No structure besides the Eiffel Tower is so associated with France.
For faculty who travel with students to France, especially in programs like French and History, watching the destruction was tantamount to a personal loss.
“I’ve been there numerous times, both personally and professionally,” Dr. Evan Bibbee, a professor of French at MNSU, said. “The thing that me the most upset and saddest is that it is such a longstanding and important part of French history, and really the history of the world because it was the symbol of the period.”
“A lot of the aspects of medieval French society were expressed in the ways in which the cathedral was built,” said Dr. Bibbee. “I was just there with students from Mankato and we went up inside the bell towers, so a lot of them were visibly upset yesterday when I saw them in class.”
Bibbee said that the fire’s cause was likely related to the dry, aging wood in the cathedral’s structure. “The same wooden beams that caught fire in the roof of the knave were the same type of beams that are in the bell towers,” said Dr. Bibbee. “It’s easy to understand how fire would quickly take those beams down.”
He added that while many old churches had been renovated with more fire-resistant structures, Notre Dame largely retained its wooden beams. “A lot of the other well-known churches in Paris have been renovated and converted since their original construction. Notre Dame, in a lot of ways, was in its original state,” said Dr. Bibbee
For Dr. Christopher Corley, a professor of history at MNSU who specializes in European history, the burning of Notre Dame hit hard. “I have complicated emotions, I guess,” said Dr. Corley. “To see anything like Notre Dame go up in flames is very difficult. But I also have personal feelings, in that I took my kids there to see it, and I take my students there.”
Dr. Corley has taken students to Notre Dame three times, and has been there himself over 20 times.
This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has been scarred by history, either. “During the Reformation, the church was vandalized by Protestants during the wars of religion in the late 16th century. It was significantly damaged during the French Revolution,” said Dr. Corley. “Parts of it were turned into a temple of Reason. The statues on the front were defaced and torn apart, while much of the metal inside the church was melted down for the war effort.”
Echoing Dr. Bibbee, Dr. Corley said that in addition to its religious and cultural importance, Notre Dame is also enormously important to architectural history. “The Gothic architecture speaks to a moment in history when humans aspired to reach God. It’s a very confident form of architecture that is very different from that of previous centuries,” said Dr. Corley.
Dr. Corley said that Notre Dame had a profound effect on the students he brought there. “I loved to walk in with them, because their eyes are immediately drawn up. They are overwhelmed by the majesty of the building, the soaring columns, and the stonework,” said Dr. Corley. “That’s the point of Gothic architecture. To see something that was designed in the 12th and 13th centuries have that effect on a 21st century person is one of the most amazing things to watch as a scholar.”
Header photo courtesy of the Associated Press.