The inferno that destroyed the roof of Notre-Dame du Paris has stunned people across the world. In part, that’s because cathedrals, and other symbolic religious buildings, are supposed to survive us.
From the outside, these places are massive, solid, stone structures that imprint themselves on their cities and on the people that live there. They are often at the heart of a city, and among their oldest structures. Yet the history of these buildings is the history of a perpetual battle with entropy and fire.
In 1984 lightning struck York Minster, the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, which lies at the heart of the medieval English city. The resulting fire consumed the roof of the south transept and shattered the rose window.
After the fire, the Minster was rebuilt. This was, however, not the first fire at York. The 1820s and 1840s fire had left large parts of it a roofless shell. In the 1960s, huge structural repairs were needed to stop the central tower crashing into the nave.
The central steeple of Notre-Dame was a modern addition, in cathedral terms, having been added during the 19th century renovations. Those had been prompted by Victor Hugo's passionate arguments to save the building after damage caused in the French Revolution. A few years ago, modern-day Hugos were highlighting the decaying fabric of the building again. Acid rain was eating into the limestone buttresses; the stone was crumbling.
That same weather damage happens to all cathedrals. In the 1980s, on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Britain, I picked up a fallen shard of limestone from a flying buttress. On the roof of St Pauls one time we took a shortcut, and I realised we were walking between the two domes of the cathedral, and the huge beams were what stopped gravity bringing the stone down. Flying buttresses, which we now see as part of the design, were originally a medieval fix to stop gravity taking effect.
You will almost never visit a cathedral that does not have some scaffolding on it, because someone is always working to keep the edifice up. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It is not technically a cathedral but a basilica, meaning it has been granted special privileges by the Pope, and the reason we visit it is in part to see its continuing construction. Though construction started in 1882, it is not yet finished; yet the older end has already undergone reconstruction.
Despite this endless cycle of construction and repair, people often have a visceral response to a cathedral being damaged. ChristChurch Cathedral in New Zealand collapsed so severely during the 2011 earthquake that it can no longer be used. Despite its previous history of partial collapses, the church remains committed to rebuilding it, because of its symbolic value to the city.
A 1916 engraving of Old St Paul's as it appeared before the fire of 1561 in which the spire was destroyed. Image: Francis Bond/Wikimedia Commons.
If you think of symbols of London, you'll think of that dome of St Paul's. That dome rose over the firestorms of the blitz, captured in a photograph. But Wren's dome is not the first St Paul's: it was built to replace the one destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. The old St Paul's was medieval gothic, with a huge central spire, which had been built to replace an even earlier one that had been destroyed by another fire, in 1087.
Other cities are also defined by their most iconic religious building. The Hagia Sofia in Istambul was built in the 500s as a Byzantine cathedral for the Eastern Orthodox church under Emperor Constantine. It’s also been a Roman Catholic church and a mosque. From the time it was completed to now, it has dominated the skyline of the city that surrounds it. The churches that stood on the site before the Hagia Sofia was built were – you’ve guessed it – destroyed by fire.
Whilst many fires are accidental, some of them are deliberate. At least one of the earlier fires at York was definitely arson. The Dresden Frauenkirche was destroyed in the Allied firebombing of the city in 1945. It has been completely rebuilt as part of rebuilding a city that had been almost flattened. Like the Sagrada Familia, it is not technically a cathedral; but it is still a symbol.
It’s the same symbolism that makes us respond to Notre-Dame, regardless of faith. As the spire burnt, we reacted with horror because stone shouldn't burn, and because we understand how iconic buildings are at the heart of cities. Modern Paris grew up on Île de la Cité, with Notre-Dame at its heart, just as St Pauls is in the heart of the City of London.
Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, because it always is. Despite entropy, gravity and the tendency for cathedrals to burn, we continue to rebuild them.