The world had its heart broken this week.
A survivor of wars and revolutions, Notre Dame has stood for almost 900 years as the greatest of the Gothic cathedrals and an architectural jewel. It is, without question, iconic.
It has stood, in the words of one shell-shocked art expert, as “one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”
Inside, it contained treasures — some that were miraculously saved.
The inferno that raged through Notre Dame for more than 12 hours on Monday destroyed its spire and its roof but spared its twin medieval bell towers. There was a frantic rescue effort that saved the monument’s “most precious treasures,” including the Crown of Thorns purportedly worn by Jesus.
Also surviving was the Roman Catholic cathedral’s famous 18th-century organ that boasts more than 8,000 pipes. A plan to safeguard the masterpieces and relics was quickly put into action after the fire broke out.
Statues removed from the roof for restoration just days ago also were saved. Officials consider the fire on Monday an accident. The Tunic of St. Louis also was listed among the artifacts saved.
It has left a gaping hole in our human existence. This was not just a cathedral.
“Civilization is just so fragile,” said Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval Cloisters branch in New York, her voice shaking as she tried to put into words what the cathedral meant. “This great hulking monument of stone has been there since 1163. It’s come through so many trials.
“It’s not one relic, not one piece of glass — it’s the totality,” she said. “It’s the very soul of Paris, but it’s not just for French people. For all humanity, it’s one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”
Construction on Notre Dame — French for “Our Lady” — began in the 12th century and continued for nearly 200 years. It sustained damage and fell into neglect during the French Revolution, but received renewed attention following the 1831 publication of Victor Hugo’s novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” This led to two decades of restorations, including the cathedral’s famous flying buttresses and a reconstructed spire.
While most kings were crowned elsewhere, Napoleon Bonaparte made sure he was crowned there in 1804, and married there in 1810.
It is a wonder because of its cohesion. It is art containing art.
Experts note that Notre Dame is an aesthetically smooth synthesis of different centuries.
“It all blends together so harmoniously,” said Nancy Wu, a medieval architecture expert and educator at the Met Cloisters. She said she was struck by the delicacy of the structure, as well as that of the three stunning stained-glass rose windows and the elegant exterior carvings.
“There are a lot of details that remind one of intricate lace,” she said, “even though it’s a building of cold hard stone.”
Those worried about the cathedral’s durability could, perhaps, take solace in one of Notre Dame’s more fascinating survival stories. In 1977, workers demolishing a wall in another part of Paris discovered 21 heads belonging to 13th-century statues from the cathedral. The kings of Judea, which were a prime example of Gothic art, had been taken from Notre Dame during the French Revolution and guillotined by antiroyalists who mistakenly thought they represented French kings.
The heads, which were thought to be lost, are now displayed in the capital’s Cluny Museum.
As one historian noted, “When you step inside (Notre Dame), you have at once the sense of everything that came before, and everything that’s still current.”
Fortunately, just hours after the flames were extinguished, French billionaire François-Henri Pinault pledged that he and his family would donate $113 million to help reconstruct the cathedral, Agence France Presse reported.
Pinault, who is married to actress Salma Hayek, is the CEO of the international luxury group Kering, the parent company of luxury brands Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Gucci and Alexander McQueen. He’s also the president of the French holding company Groupe Artémis, which owns Christie’s.
Pinault’s offer joined many others already pouring in, along with expressions of shock and grief. Several sites are accepting donations, including the Friends of Notre Dame de Paris, which had raised the funds for the renovations that were taking place when the fire broke out.
“We will rebuild,” French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to reporters. “We will rebuild Notre Dame because this is what the French expect, because this is what our history deserves, because it is our destiny.”
That should help our aching heart.