Notre Dame fire inspires reflection

Parisians reacted with immense shock as flames engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral, a symbol of French history. The façade remains standing.Courtesy of Remi Mathis via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, I was waiting for my Medieval Architecture class to start when I received a notification from my CNN app declaring that Notre Dame was burning. “It’s just the spire,” I naively thought. “If any part of Notre Dame can burn, it’s the spire.” I knew that the statues of the apostles—what had most sentimental value for me—had been removed for restoration just four days before the spire caught on fire.

Despite what my initial lack of worry might indicate, Notre Dame has come to mean more to me in the last few months than I had ever believed it would. As many of you know, Notre Dame meant a lot to the late Professor Andrew Tallon. As with many of his students, Professor Tallon meant a lot to me. I took his final Art 105-106 conference sections and was completely blown away by his intellect and passion for medieval architecture, especially Notre Dame.

In Professor Tallon’s classes, some of what he said sounded familiar. I had actually visited the cathedral years before. I remember it was the night Pope Francis got elected, and I was lucky to hear Notre Dame’s bell ring from a boat on the Seine to commemorate the moment. The experience sparked my interest in the building and in medieval architecture in general.

Thus, to watch Notre Dame in flames broke my heart beyond words. I know that Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Lindsay Cook, who teaches on medieval architecture, felt the panic as a classmate and I broke the news to her. My own worries diminished as I focused on Cook’s. She had dedicated so much time to the cathedral in her dissertation that watching it slowly burn must have felt like losing a beloved colleague. She confessed that despite her general criticism of 19th-century restoration efforts, she knew how important the project was to Tallon.

Shown above, a famous view of Notre Dame Cathedral before the catastrophic fire on Monday, April 15 destroyed its iconic spire. Courtesy of Peter Haas via Wikimedia Commons

Notre Dame was perhaps equal parts modern and medieval. Architects Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean Baptiste Lassus renovated the cathedral between 1845-1864, during which time Viollet-le-Duc altered the cathedral to match his desired aesthetic. Thus, we got the most memorable parts of Notre Dame: the gargoyles, the rose window, the central portal, the flying buttresses that hold the nave, the pinnacle and even the apostles that guarded it (and no, these are not the ones that Victor Hugo described in his novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He published that in 1831, before the restoration).

Professor Cook’s criticism was not with Viollet-le-Duc’s work (Lassus died before the restoration) in the decor but with his choice of materials. He replaced the sturdy stone that had lasted for centuries with porous, weak and useless stone that jeopardized the building’s structure. Like my professor commented as we watched newscasts, there have been attempts to restore the 19th-century stonework, but all have failed.

Consequently, before his untimely passing, Professor Tallon worked with other people to fundraise money to properly restore Notre Dame. Although it was not entirely medieval, it became the patrimony of Paris and of Catholicism. It housed several important relics, including the biblical Crown of Thorns. But what was most important to me was that the statue of St. Andrew near the spire that was taken down four days before the cathedral caught fire. It was to be restored in Professor Tallon’s honor. These artifacts survived, but sadly the architecture is severely damaged.

While viewing the Paris newscasts of the fire in Professor Cook’s office, I could not help but think about those who cared so deeply about the building that they spent their time fundraising to see it restored—just like Tallon. I know if he were still here, he would probably be as devastated as all of us. Yet, having known Professor Tallon, I think he would have remained positive, assuring us all that Notre Dame can be rebuilt.

Professor Tallon’s work in Notre Dame remains more relevant and important than ever. Although he did not know this at the time, he saved the old Notre Dame from being forgotten, through his precise laser scans and 360-degree pictures. There is now hope that, thanks to Tallon’s work, what was destroyed in the fire can be rebuilt and restored to its former glory.

My heart truly goes out to all the Parisians, all of Tallon’s colleagues from Friends of Notre Dame, his students and everyone who worked with him to make Mapping Gothic France possible. I and many medieval architecture students are indebted to the website and Tallon’s work. Now, so is the world. I truly hope that Notre Dame, like the relic it housed, is victorious over death and rises from her ashes.

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