Monday, millions of people across the world watched Notre Dame de Paris burn. There is a sense of collective loss at the destruction of a monument of such religious and cultural significance that is greater than any individual, or even any individual religion. From those who walk by it daily to those who’ve dreamed of taking their children to see it to those who have never seen it, we all mourn this loss.
While what happened to Notre Dame shocked me and moved me to tears more than once over the course of the evening, I’ve also found that my background and training as a medievalist has given me a perspective on the destruction that allows me to be hopeful rather than devastated.
Because history has shown us how churches live. They are not static, they are not constructed and then forever fixed in time, they are not mere monuments to the past. They are built, they get burned, they are rebuilt, they are extended, they get ransacked, they get rebuilt, they collapse because they were not built well, they get rebuilt, they get extended, they get renovated, they get bombed, they get rebuilt. It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters. To think we cannot recover from this is to worship the artifact and not what the artifact stands for, to turn the church from something living into a mere dead relic.
The spire that fell, that beautiful iconic spire? Not even 200 years old. A new spire can be built, the next stage in the evolution of the cathedral.
The rose windows? Reproductions of the originals. We can reproduce them again.
Notre Dame is one of the best documented cathedrals in the world. As part of the “Mapping Gothic” project, a team of researchers recently took thousands of high-resolution photographs of the cathedral (and many others in France), which can be viewed at mappinggothic.org/building/1164. In addition to this, there are architect’s drawings and records kept by those who have contributed to its construction over the centuries. We have the knowledge we need to rebuild it.
But more than that: We have the skill. There may not be as many ecclesiastical stone masons nowadays as there were in the height of the Middle Ages, but there are still plenty; every major cathedral in Europe has trained stonemasons available. There is little doubt that masons from all over Europe, if not further, will be standing ready to contribute to rebuilding. Same with glaziers, carpenters and other craftspeople.
Precious artworks and relics may have been lost, and those we cannot recover. There is report of one fireman seriously injured; this, too, is a tragedy that we can only hope will not become worse. But no one died. And neither has the cathedral.
This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has been destroyed. I’m absolutely certain it won’t be the last.
Sara Uckelman is assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University, in England. She originally posted a version of this essay on Facebook.