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Tue Apr 16, 2019, 03:48 PM

Great cathedrals burn, collapse and crack. Notre Dame can survive this.

Museums Perspective
Great cathedrals burn, collapse and crack. Notre Dame can survive this.

By Philip Kennicott
Art and architecture critic
April 16 at 1:00 PM

Every cathedral, like any great stone building, is a work in progress. No sooner have the walls risen than they start to collapse, the weight of stone pushing down and splaying out, settling and cracking. Take a closer look at most great old churches, and you see huge pillars wrapped in metal, iron reinforcing bars embedded in the walls, arches pulled together at their base with metal rods. If you took an X-ray of the buildings, they would look a bit like the mouth of someone who has had a lot of dental work — a messy confusion of interventions, repairs and misguided improvements.

It looks as if the structure of Notre Dame, in Paris, is mostly intact, despite the fire that consumed the roof above its stone vaults and brought down its 19th-century wood and metal spire. Much of the art was saved, some of it placed in storage before renovations, and other pieces were removed before the fire could destroy them. Early photographs and descriptions of the damage seem to indicate that part of the ribbed ceiling structure has collapsed, and it will take time to determine how much of what remains is structurally sound. Fire may not burn rock like it burns timber (though limestone is susceptible), but heat and water can ruin the integrity of stone.

[How Notre Dame inspired Henri Matisse, who depicted the cathedral as a living memory]

But the shock of the fire is still extraordinary, felt throughout not just France but also the world. Notre Dame stands at the heart of Paris, has led a long, rich life in the literature and imagination of France, and is one of the most beautiful Gothic structures on the planet. It soars above a city that has an embarrassment of architectural riches, and it never ceases to draw the eye, by day and night, registering changes in the weather and the seasons with subtle changes of color and shadow.

A 2016 photo of the interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

History, however, tells us these things are all too common, even as modern media saturation makes it seem somehow unprecedented. Flip through the pages of any tourist guide to an old castle, church or palace, and there is often a litany of fires, floods, revolutions and occasional bouts of revolution and iconoclasm. The prison of the Bastille, in Paris, was pulled down in the 18th century in the name of liberty, while much of the medieval city was plowed under in the 19th century in the name of progress. ... Building large stone churches has always been an art and a science, and it sometimes meant trial and error. The first dome at the greatest church of all — Hagia Sophia in Istanbul — collapsed before the miraculously thin saucer we see today was successfully completed. These tribulations are soon forgotten, and even today, most visitors who contemplate the massive supports added to Justinian’s church consider them beautiful architectural curiosities.

Meanwhile, the roof will rise again, and in a century some bored teenagers will stand in the plaza before the great Gothic doors and listen as their teacher recounts the great fire of 2019, just one chapter among all the others, and seemingly inconsequential given the beauty of the building as it stands glowing in a rare burst of sunlight on a spring day in Paris.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at The Post since 1999, first as classical music critic, then as culture critic. Follow https://twitter.com/PhilipKennicott

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Reply Great cathedrals burn, collapse and crack. Notre Dame can survive this. (Original post)
mahatmakanejeeves Apr 2019 OP
jberryhill Apr 2019 #1

Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Tue Apr 16, 2019, 04:11 PM

1. ...

But, yes, these buildings are more like living organisms than something that was built and everyone said, "That's that" to.

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