News Analysis

Best of the web: The response to the Notre-Dame fire

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Parisians knelt to pray, even as the flames rose

At his blog, William Newton reflected on the scenes in Paris after the fire broke out. “Hundreds of Parisian Catholics, many of them young people, were kneeling together on the streets around the burning Cathedral for hours.”

To some, it was a baffling sight: “Like the Ancient Romans commenting on the way that the Early Christians went to their deaths in the Colosseum, the secular media had no idea how to process the sight of people praying the rosary and singing hymns to the Mother of God, even as the most famous building in the world dedicated to her was being reduced to ashes.” Such is the incomprehensibility of the Faith – “foolishness to Gentiles”, as St Paul wrote.

Notre-Dame was many things – an “artistic monument, selfie backdrop, architectural masterpiece, film location, historical site”. But its primary purpose had always been a sacred one – and “even as the old church was being destroyed, it managed to bring together those who seek eternal life through Him who promised, ‘I shall rise again.’ ”

Why the cathedral is still standing

At CityLab, Kriston Capps and Feargus O’Sullivan looked at the architectural reasons for Notre-Dame’s survival. Gothic architecture is “strong stuff”, they wrote, “built to withstand even an inferno”. Lisa Reilly, a historian at the University of Virginia, observed that cathedrals from Notre-Dame’s era were “designed so that if the roof burns off, it’s hard for [the fire] to spread to the rest of the building”.

Medieval builders, conscious of the risk of fire, used stone vaults. The roof is timber, but the structure underneath is generally able to withstand fire.

Moreover, Capps and O’Sullivan wrote, the roof’s destruction does not lead to an overall collapse, as it might in another building. That’s because, “In 12th- and 13th-century buildings of this type, the walls are held in place by flying buttresses” – pillars connected to the main building by arches. The weight of the walls, roof and ceiling is transferred to these buttresses, amounting to what Reilly calls “a structural exo-skeleton”.

After the fire, a choice for the French nation

For the French philosopher Rémi Brague, the cathedral carried no dear personal memories: “My memory of Notre-Dame is rather unpleasant: the stage-fright I had when I had to give a Lenten lecture there.”

In Rémi Brague’s remarks to Le Point, translated for First Things by Stephen E Lewis, he said, however, that the fire was a chance to reflect on the Marian meaning of the cathedral. Thus: “The question that this fire poses to us, and which all these traces pose to us more discreetly, is that of knowing what we want to do about them: destroy them, like the Islamic State had begun to do to all that preceded Islam? Embalm them with museographical aestheticism in ‘the purple shroud in which the dead gods slumber’? Find once again the spiritual impetus that used to carry them, and which could give birth to new masterpieces, artistic but also social? There’s a choice.”