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History Goes up in Flames at Notre Dame

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The historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames on Monday, April 15th. In a matter of a few hours, hundreds of years of history were wiped out.The French, along with people all over the world, are mourning this Holy Week loss.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Notre Dame attracts approximately 13 million tourists every year. That figure represents nearly double the number of tourists visiting Paris’ Eiffel Tower. But Notre Dame is more than a tourist attraction or a religious site; it is a symbol of France itself. While France owns Notre Dame, the Catholic Church has the exclusive right to use it for religious purposes in perpetuity.

The burning of the structure, which is over 800 years old, means a loss of tangible history. Due to its age, Notre Dame has been a part of numerous historic events. The church was desecrated during the French Revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France inside Notre Dame in 1804 and married in the cathedral as well. Notre Dame’s bells were rung to mark the end of both World War I and World War II.

Notre Dame’s cornerstone was laid in 1163 with construction continuing over the course of 200 years. The cathedral’s famous gargoyles were added in 1240 to serve a functional purpose; they acted as rain spouts. Construction was finally completed in 1345. A mid-19th century restoration added the Gothic structure’s wood and lead spire. Until the Eiffel Tower’s completion in 1889, Notre Dame’s towers were the tallest structures in Paris.

Notre Dame is not only old and historic, but it is an architectural gem. Architects view Notre Dame as the finest example of French Gothic architecture. The cathedral is famed for its carved stone gargoyles, the flying buttresses which hold up its walls, and its stained glass windows. Notre Dame’s three thirteenth century rose windows survived the blaze as did its famous 18th century organ with 8,000 pipes.

In addition to its age, history, and architecture, Notre Dame is famed as a repository of religious relics and works of art. In a testament to man’s determination, a human chain, of whom the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade was a part, formed to remove these items from the burning cathedral. These rescue efforts saved the Crown of Thorns, believed to be a piece of what Jesus wore when He was crucified. Many rescued items were moved to the Louvre for safe-keeping.

People worldwide are familiar with Notre Dame through creative works. The cathedral, situated on a small island in the Seine River in the center of Paris, is the setting for Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a French Gothic novel published in 1831. Today the video game “Assassin’s Creed Unity” prominently features Notre Dame.

The fire at Notre Dame was first reported to emergency services as a blaze in the historic cathedral’s attic. A mass was in progress when the alarm sounded, but the service continued until a policeman approached the officiating priest to order an evacuation. It may take some time to confirm the cause of the fire. The cathedral was undergoing an extensive $6.8 million renovation at the time the fire broke out, so the blaze might be linked to that ongoing activity. Scenes from the fire clearly showed scaffolding around the burning structure.

Once the flames were extinguished, a smoldering mess remained. The cathedral’s spire collapsed, and its roof was ravaged. The cathedral’s ten bells (named Emmanuel, Marie, Gabriel, Anne Genevieve, Denis, Marcel, Etienne, Maurice, Jean-Marie, and Benoit-Joseph) were silenced. Notre Dame’s medieval wooden interior of the structure was gutted. But in a vivid picture of hope and faith, the golden altar cross remained standing in the charred cathedral.

French President Macron has already vowed Notre Dame will be rebuilt. He hopes this goal can be accomplished within five years, but experts are skeptical that such a time frame is realistic.

Money to fund the rebuilding is pouring in. Actress Salma Hayek’s billionaire husband and his father announced plans to donate $113 million towards that goal. Multiple millionaires have likewise pledged money for a rebuilding effort. Over $600 million Euros was initially raised overnight. To date over $1 billion has been pledged.

The rebuilding effort will be aided by the latest technology. Before his death, art historian Andrew Tallon made 3-D laser maps of every detail of Notre Dame. Additionally, game artists and historians working on “Assassin’s Creed Unity” spent about two years getting the details of the cathedral just right, including where pictures hung on the walls. Rebuilding Notre Dame will be a massive project regardless of the available funding and technology. Even if true to detail, a rebuilt structure will never be able to replace the original historic site.

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