By EJ Dickson
Yesterday, the world watched in open-mouthed horror as Notre Dame Cathedral, an 800-year-old monument in Paris, France, burst into flames. As the Paris fire department scrambled to save the priceless relics and artworks inside, French officials gradually started to take inventory of what had been recovered from the wreckage and what had been lost forever, with many — particularly Catholics, who had flocked to the city to celebrate Holy Week — gathering outside to sing hymns and mourn.
But while the spire of the building — which famously dates from the 19th-century restoration, not from medieval times — and much of the roof are destroyed, the iconic facade, the three large stained glass rose windows, and much of the internal structure, as well as many of the priceless artworks and relics contained within, appear to have been saved. “I have to say, it’s terrible, but it also appears it could have been much worse,” says Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of art history at Harvard University whose research focuses on the art of the High and later Middle Ages.
The fact that the building did not collapse — a concern in the hours immediately following the blaze — serves as a “powerful testimony to the skill of medieval builders,” Hamburger says. He credits the survival of the structure to the building’s iconic rib vaulting and flying buttresses, which prevented collapse. “It’s worth remembering why they went through the trouble building it this way — it wasn’t for aesthetic reasons, it was for fire-proofing,” Hamburger says. “In a way, what we have here is proof of concept.”
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