The Notre Dame Cathedral fire is destroying centuries’ worth of history

The world is mourning the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral for good reason.

The medieval Catholic cathedral that has stood for more than 850 years — and took more than 200 years to complete — is the most-visited monument in Paris. Some 13 million people a year (or about 30,000 a day) explore the Gothic landmark where Napoleon was coronated emperor, or climb the 387 winding steps up the two belfry towers for a breathtaking view of the city, perched amid Notre Dame’s legendary bells and stone gargoyles and chimera.

Its lattice wood-timber frame was created with 1,300 oaks from 21 hectacres of forest, with each beam coming from a different tree, many which were 300 to 400 years old. But a massive fire engulfed the historic house of worship early Monday evening (Paris time), collapsing its iconic spire and the roof, as well as destroying the framework, just as the landmark was undergoing a $6.8 million renovation project. A spokesman told the BBC that the whole structure was burning. “There will be nothing left,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether the vault, which protects the cathedral, will be affected or not.”

Many priceless works of art and relics considered sacred to Catholics were threatened, and during the Catholic Holy Week leading up to Easter. They include what’s believed to be a piece of the True Cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on, as well as remnants of the Crown of Thorns he wore. The status of these relics and other pieces, including the 8,000-pipe Great Organ of Notre Dame, were still unconfirmed at press time, although one journalist in Paris tweeted that the artworks, the Crown of Thorns and the Holy Sacraments had been saved. And several copper statues representing the 12 apostles were spared, having already been removed before the fire as part of the renovation.

French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “Our Lady of Paris in flames. Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”

Construction on the cathedral began in 1163, commissioned by Bishop Maurice de Sully of Paris, and wasn’t completed until 1345. It was then bolstered by flying buttresses in the 1500s, making it one of the first buildings in the world to use them. The cathedral has endured centuries of destruction and restoration; the Huguenots vandalized it during the 16th century, when many tombs and stained glass windows were destroyed under the guise of modernization. The heads of 28 statues of kings were also removed during the French Revolution, when the cathedral was used to store food. Notre-Dame was partially restored between 1845 and 1870, and again in 1991, ahead of the current reconstruction.

The cathedral was featured prominently in Victor Hugo’s classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” where the iconic building stood in for France itself, but the real-life events it stood witness to are even more extraordinary. Henry VI of England was crowned King of France there in 1431. Mary, Queen of Scots married King Henry II there in 1558. And Joan of Arc was beatified in the cathedral in 1909, almost 500 years after she was burned at the stake as a heretic.

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