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Experts in French Architecture and History for Notre-Dame Fire
Reporters looking for insight on the architecture or French history after the fire on the Notre-Dame cathedral, please see comments from two Syracuse University faculty members.
Samantha Herrick is an associate professor of history and specializes in the Middle Ages and is the author of Imagining the Sacred Past: Hagiography and Power in Early Normandy. She can speak about the history of many medieval churches being damaged and repaired over the centuries.
Jean-François Bédard is an associate professor of architecture and specializes in French architecture, especially during the 18th century. He can speak about the famous restoration of the church in the 18th century after the French Revolution severely damaged the church.
Please contact Ellen James Mbuqe, director of media relations at Syracuse University at email@example.com or (412) 496-0551 to arrange an interview.
From Samantha Herrick:
“In some ways this is a very medieval event. That is, fires were very common in the Middle Ages and often lay behind the creation of such treasured buildings. For instance, Chartres cathedral as it stands now was begun c. 1200 after a fire damaged the one built in the eleventh century, itself built in place of an earlier church that burned down. These buildings were in constant evolution. The irretrievable loss of the medieval material at Notre Dame is tragic, as is the loss it represents to so many people. But to be damaged and repaired is part of a medieval church’s life cycle. That doesn’t diminish the tragedy, but just fits it into the building’s much longer history.
One interesting aspect being covered on the French news is that they hope not only to have saved the bulk of the structure, but also some important medieval relics: the crown of thorns and the tunic of St Louis. These relics, like the cathedral itself, survived the French Revolution (which destroyed many churches and religious symbols), as well as more recent wars and tragedies. Even in an officially secular country, these relics and the cathedral that housed them mean a great deal to people. They are what the French call ‘lieux de mémoire’ – sites of memory – that accrue meanings and history that help to define the nation.”
From Jean-François Bédard:
“Although it is hard to know with any precision the details of the damage—I read in French newspapers that the structure is now stabilized, particularly the two western towers and the famed rose window between them—we should emulate the bold spirit, if not the practice, of
Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the nineteenth-century ‘restorers’ of the cathedral.
We largely owe the survival of the cathedral to them. They undertook a comprehensive rehabilitation of the church to ensure its structural stability. In many ways Notre-Dame was ‘their’ church as much as it was a medieval monument. To alleviate revolutionary destruction, Viollet-le-Duc did not hesitate to redesign most of the sculpture of the main facade. He notably replaced the statues of the Gallery of the Kings, which, perhaps fittingly, had been beheaded during the Revolution and provided the models for the much-loved chimeras of the bell-towers.
We also owe to him the design of the great spire, whose collapse caused so much emotion around the world. He incorporated to this scheme a whimsical self-portrait as a pilgrim on the road of Santiago de Compostela. Contemporary historic preservation protocols prevent such proactive interventions (most would say denaturations). We have to keep in mind, however, that the reconstruction of the cathedral will also be that of a great nineteenth-century monument.
For Catholics, it is the saving of the famous relics that is the most important. After all, it is largely because of them that the church was built and rebuilt over the years. Despite this catastrophe, we should be thankful that they will remain the focus of yet another reconstruction.”