The medieval architects, builders and craftsmen who created Notre Dame were fully aware that they were constructing not just a monument, but a metaphor.
A Gothic cathedral was a book for an unlettered age: Its intricate carvings narrated biblical stories to princes and peasants alike. Its long nave, intersected by a shorter transept, evoked a human body, or a crucifix. Its massed towers against the sky were like the mountain on which Moses received the tablets of the law. Its ostentatious luxury, set amid the narrow streets of a squalid city, bespoke a social order in which the unwashed many were dominated by the opulent few. Some scholars have described the Gothic cathedral as a model of the entire medieval universe, from its moldy underworld crypts, to its ethereal spire pointing up and up toward an infinite God.
At first, the burning hulk of Notre Dame cathedral seemed an exquisitely terrible metaphor as well, an almost biblical portent for our own doomed era. To some onlookers, it stood not just for the fragility of all human creations — how a monument lovingly constructed over the centuries could be pulverized in an instant — but about the fragility inherent in political institutions, ecosystems, civilizations.
“Watching helplessly on TV and social media as this beautiful, centuries-old thing was completely destroyed — it basically felt like everything else that has happened since 2016,” a friend of mine said. President Trump, climate change, France’s yellow vest protests, the decline of religious faith. Around the world, human beings saw all of those things, and many more, reflected in the flames.
And then the first images emerged from Notre Dame’s interior. Wooden chairs still stood in neat rows. Votive candles lit by worshipers the day before still flickered in their sconces. Much of the cathedral appeared unscathed.
A crucial fact missing in most of the coverage of the Notre Dame fire was that the cathedral in effect had two roofs: one made of 800-year-old wood, and beneath it another one made of 800-year-old stone. It appears that the stone roof held, apart from the collapse of two sections of vaulting. Initial worldwide mourning at the utter destruction of a global treasure seems to have been premature.
A cathedral spokesman even announced Tuesday morning that Notre Dame’s three great medieval rose windows appear to have survived with minimal damage — a nearly miraculous thing considering the fragility of a 40-foot-wide expanse of glass, much of it dating back nearly a millennium, set in soft lead and suddenly placed in close proximity to many, many tons of burning and falling debris.
Engineers have inspected the structure as a whole and found that there is no danger of collapse. Humanity has not suffered an irreparable cultural loss at Notre Dame. Unlike many of the great European churches, the cathedral was not filled with magnificent works of art, as it had already been stripped and plundered several times over the centuries. The masterpieces of Notre Dame are its stonework and its glass work, and these are largely intact.
Even the iconic spire that spectacularly toppled on Monday — bringing many viewers around the world to tears — was a 19th century replacement of an original that was taken down in 1786. It was well documented and can be faithfully reconstructed. In an astonishing stroke of good luck, the spire’s most important sculptures had been removed for restoration just a few days ago.
Who saved the cathedral? Not only the Parisian firefighters, but also its medieval builders.
Those 12th and 13th century geniuses, their names now largely lost to history, created a structure whose ostensible fragility — all those flying buttresses, attenuated columns and slender ribs of stone — masked a formidable strength. The architects of Notre Dame and other Gothic cathedrals used pointed arches, ribbed vaults, columns and flying buttresses to transmit the weight of all that stone outward and downward into massive, deep-set foundations. Flying buttresses brought to bear equal and opposing forces that held — and still hold — the whole thing together.
A Gothic cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling, crisscrossed by interlocking ribs, is like a spiderweb that can lose one segment without compromising the whole. The vaults withstood a barrage of millions of pounds of burning wood and molten lead, apparently only giving way beneath the plummeting spire that alone weighed 750 tons.
The cathedral will need plenty of rebuilding. Perhaps the metaphors will as well. And maybe they’ll be more hopeful. Our human creations, both physical and otherwise, have innate strength that’s not always immediately clear. Past generations built better than we sometimes realize, and the ingenuity of our species can resist many disasters.
The exact same spires don’t always soar toward the same skies, nor do the same gargoyles grimace on the same rooftops. But what our forebears built together — stone upon stone laid by many hands over centuries — may just outlast us mortals still.