Notre-Dame, Paris: History, Two Cults and a Fire

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has survived Louis XIV-style redecorating, the French Revolution, Napoleon and 19th-century remodeling.

I’m pretty sure it will survive repair and reconstruction, following the April 16, 2021, fire.


Notre-Dame de Paris is Burning

Notre Dame de Paris burning, seen from the air. (April 16, 2019)
(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Notre Dame isometric elevation, showing fire damage. (BBC News)Somewhere between 6:50 p.m., Paris time, and 7:18 p.m., April 15, 2019, something caught fire under the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris.

That in turn set of an alarm at 7:20. Give or take a few minutes.

Timelines I’ve seen for the 2019 Notre-Dame fire don’t quite line up.

Not surprising, under the circumstances. Dealing with a fire would have made keeping detailed records a low priority.

I’m getting most of my numbers from Reuters and BBC News articles, and some from a Wikipedia page.1

Okay. Back to ‘what happened and when.’

Folks who were working at Notre-Dame noticed the alarm. Then someone went up to see what was happening.

That was basically a good idea. But the person went up to the attic of the cathedral’s sacristy, which wasn’t burning.

Happily, the folks on site remembered Notre-Dame’s main attic. Then, a quarter-hour later, they’d climbed the three hundred-odd steps up to the attic.

Which, by 7:43, was merrily ablaze.

After what I’d imagine was a brisk trip back down the steps, at 7:51, firefighters were called. They arrived within 10 minutes.

After the Fire: Uncertainty and Some Good News

Notre Dame de Paris spire collapsed. (April 16, 2019)
(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

The cathedral’s spire collapsed at 7:50. Or 7:53. Firefighters began focusing on saving the towers around 8:30.

By 9:45, they’d brought the fire under control. Later, some 15 hours after it had started, the fire was out.

The next day, April 16, a Parisian public prosecutor said that the fire had been an accident: not arson. But he put 50 folks to work, looking into what had started the blaze.

Years later, we’re still not sure what started the Notre-Dame fire. Maybe an electrical short, maybe someone’s cigarette: someone even suggested that a computer glitch was behind the blaze.

But not arson, which may be true. Construction and renovation sites catch fire with distressing regularity.

Whatever caused it, the 2019 Notre-Dame fire wasn’t all bad news.

It hadn’t killed anyone.

And, although we lost part of Notre-Dame’s Crown of Thorns, along with relics of two saints; statues that had been on the cathedral’s spire had been removed before the fire and Notre-Dame’s rose windows survived.

So did the spire’s copper rooster / weather vane: which fell, dented but undaunted, and was found on the day after the fire.

Another bit of good news is how fast folks began supporting after-fire repairs.2

Ownership and Treasures

BBC News: photo, text and diagram showing Notre Dame de Paris fire damage.
(From AFP/Getty, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

I’m guessing that Notre-Dame’s being part of the “Paris, Banks of the Seine” UNESCO World Heritage site made pledging support for rebuilding easier.

So, again my guess, was the cathedral being property of the French government.

Up until the French Revolution, the Paris archbishop — as agent of the Catholic Church — owned the cathedral. Napoleon let the Church conduct religious services there, but didn’t transfer ownership.

Or the cathedral’s been state property since 1905: it depends, apparently, on who’s telling the story. And which aspect of the French state’s ownership is in focus.

At any rate, besides being a house of worship, Notre-Dame de Paris is recognized as one of humanity’s cultural treasures.3 Can’t say that I’d argue with that.

Relics

Notre-Dame de Paris interior, looking through the broken ceiling. (April 17, 2019)
(From AFP/Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Notre-Dame de Paris, looking up to where the spire used to be. (April 17, 2019))

As I see it, zero fatalities is the best news coming from the 2019 Notre-Dame fire.

But I’m also glad that while firefighters were upstairs, dealing with attic flambé, other folks had organized a sort of bucket brigade, and were evacuating art and relics. Which brings me to why they thought a shirt that hasn’t been worn since the 1200s was worth saving.

The shirt of Saint Louis and Notre-Dame’s Crown of Thorns are relics: things associated with a Saint and/or Jesus that many Catholics venerate. That’s venerate, not worship, and that’s almost another topic.

At any rate, the shirt had been worn by Louis IX of France. As such, it’s a second-class relic: something routinely worn or used by a Saint.

The Crown of Thorns is, as far as we know, headgear that Roman soldiers jammed on our Lord’s head shortly before his execution. Documentation for its authenticity goes back to a bit after 409 AD.4

That four-century gap in the paper trail bothers me, but not very much.

History and Priorities

The Roman government viewed Christianity as a subversive movement until 313, and by that time the Empire was crumbling.

Three centuries later, folks like Saint Isidore of Seville were scrambling to preserve the ancient world’s knowledge.

I suspect that scholars like Saint Isidore focused more on scholarly records than on certifying relics like the Crown of Thorns because, in their day, philosophical treatises seemed more likely to be forgotten.

At any rate, veneration of relics can be an important part of being Catholic. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1674)

But it’s not a big part of my daily and weekly routines. Maybe because I grew up as a Protestant, becoming Catholic as an adult; or maybe not.

Finally, about relics: they’ve got a dubious reputation in my culture. I strongly suspect that’s because hucksters and European politics played hob with a legitimate religious practice.5 And that’s another topic, for another time.


A New Cathedral Building in Paris – – –

Notre Dame in the 13th century, with bishop's palace on the left. From 'Paris à travers les Ages,' reproduced in 'Notre Dame de Paris,' Charles Hiatt (1902))
(From “Paris à travers les Ages”/”Notre Dame de Paris,” via Gutenberg.org, used w/o permission.)
(Notre-Dame de Paris under construction during the 13th century.)

There’s been a cathedral in Paris since the fourth century: Saint Étienne’s. Or maybe the fifth. Documentation for that time and place is sketchy, mostly because folks were adjusting to a world without the Roman Empire.

Time passed. The folks in charge remodeled Saint Étienne’s along Merovingian, Carolingian, and Romanesque lines.

Then, in 1163, the bishop of Paris signed off on plans to replace Saint Étienne’s with a new building.

I suppose assigning 1270 as a completion date for Notre-Dame de Paris makes sense. That’s when architect Pierre de Montreuil finished work on the south transept and rose window.

But the building’s gone through considerable change since then. The south rose window, for example, was reconstructed in the 18th century and replaced in the 19th.6

– – – And Two Cults

Engraving of the Fête de la Raison/Festival of Reason' at Notre Dame, during the French Revolution.
(From Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Dancing girls and reason personified: Notre-Dame, Paris, during the French Revolution)

The French monarchy’s state religion was Catholicism.

1566 propaganda print, celebrating faith-based vandalism.Other European monarchies had their own state religions, often some version of Protestantism.

By 1789, that had inspired centuries of religion-themed propaganda and appalling body counts.

Which I figure helps explain why assorted factions in the French Revolution agreed that the Catholic Church had to go.

That left a religion-shaped hole in French culture: which, in 1793, was filled by the Cult of Reason and then Cult of the Supreme Being. Both of which used Notre-Dame de Paris for their events.

I’ll give folks running the Cult of Reason credit. Dancing girls and a personable young stand-in for the goddess Reason sounds like an 18th century toga party.

Then Napoleon started sorting out the mess left by revolutionaries and other enthusiasts. In 1871 folks in the Paris Commune tried torching Notre-Dame de Paris, unsuccessfully.7


Faith, Landmarks and Me

Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral's roof. (April 15, 2019)
(From REUTERS/Benoit Tessier, used w/o permission.)
(Reconstruction resumes: Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral’s roof. (April 15, 2021))

Notre-Dame’s restoration ready to start as safety work completed
Reuters (September 18, 2021)

“Work to shore up the Notre-Dame de Paris has been finished, allowing restoration to start at the cathedral two years after a fire destroyed the attic and sent its spire crashing through the vaults below, officials said on Saturday.
“Soon after the April 2019 blaze, President Emmanuel Macron said the cathedral – which dates back to the 12th century – would be rebuilt and later promised to get it reopened to worshippers by 2024, when France hosts the Olympic Games….”

Although I’m glad to see that Notre-Dame de Paris survived the 2019 fire, and will be ready for use by 2024; I’d be happier if the Catholic Church owned the building.

But my preferences won’t change history, or the current French government’s policies.

Maybe getting Notre-Dame ready in time for the 2024 Olympics feels too ‘worldly.’

On the other hand, we wouldn’t have magnificent buildings like Notre-Dame de Paris if Medieval civic leaders didn’t think their regions would benefit from having a justifiably-famous landmark.8

I can hardly blame 21st century civic leaders from showing the same good sense.

As for whether Notre-Dame’s survival after the French Revolution and 2019 fire is “miraculous” or not? I don’t know. Much depends on how I define “miraculous.”

I do, however, think that the Catholic Church’s survival — the Church, not the places where we worship — that our still being here is wildly improbable.

Or maybe not so much, since for two millennia we’ve been saying that we’re getting help. (Catechism, 687-741, 1287, 2623)

And that’s another topic:


1 April 15, 2019 and following:

2 Taking stock of what happened:

3 One of humanity’s treasures:

4 Two relics and a folks phrase:

5 History, mostly:

6 Two cathedrals in Paris:

7 A cathedral, two cults and a commune:

8 Cathedrals: faith and finances:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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