The devastation of Notre Dame cathedral

It was difficult to explain to my colleagues yesterday why the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was so devastating. There is simply no equivalent in the United States of a building that has such a rich historical, spiritual, artistic, and even geographical significance to an entire nation.

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In both a literal and a figurative sense, Notre Dame cathedral represents the heart of Paris — and of France.

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It has been a touchstone for millions of people in moments of both grief and joy.

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It also has been one of the few constants across centuries of human history: For more than 850 years it has survived invasions, plagues, revolutions, and floods.

So it felt inconceivable yesterday to watch the flames engulf the roof and see the spire collapse into the glowing furnace where only two hours before a priest had been holding mass. I kept thinking it was a nightmare, except that I couldn’t wake up.

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This morning there were glimmers of hope that at least the bones of the ancient structure might be saved.

And the bell towers survived — along with the enormous bourdon Emmanuel, which dates to 1686 and was the only bell at Notre Dame to survive the French Revolution. (Already this morning its Wikipedia entry had been updated: “It was not affected by the fire of April 15, 2019.”)

The new bells that were installed in 2013 seem to be okay as well.

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But so many other questions remain. What of the stained-glass rose windows? One Twitter account says they “exploded.” (Probably untrue.) Another says the upper halves melted. (Sadly, more plausible.)

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And what about the enormous paintings and frescoes in the chapels that surround the ambulatory — and the sculptures, and the priceless hand-carved wood panels?

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We’ll have to be patient in the coming days for more answers to emerge. But for now my profound admiration and gratitude go out to the 400-plus firefighters whose skill and courage prevented a total loss.

Even if only its shell remains, I will return to Notre Dame again and again during my next visit, as I have always.

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… because you don’t have to be Catholic or even French to appreciate the beauty and significance of this monument to hope.

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“Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives … so I solemnly say tonight: We will rebuild it together.” — President Emmanuel Macron

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Update • Posted April 17, 2019: The immense 13th-century rose windows, the Great Organ, and much of Notre Dame’s art have weathered the historic fire. And the rooster  — which contained three important relics — that fell with the spire has also been found among the rubble. My grief has turned into hope that Our Lady will rise once again from the ashes.


  1. It is a tribute to this great dame that so many near and far are moved by her ravaging. I have not been back in years and now I wish I had… Somehow, even for those of us who love it as a cultural icon, the enduring presence of Notre-Dame is essential to Paris and the rest of the world. Thanks for this lovely post, Heide!

    • Hasn’t it indeed been heartening to see the global outpouring of support? As so many have noted, it’s a monument that belongs to all of humanity. I hope that in not too much time you will be able to go back and bask in the glow of those glorious windows again. And as long as we’re corresponding: Thank you too for your own beautiful, moving post! xx

    • I really have been blessed to visit so often, Audrey and Tom — it’s a privilege i hope never to take for granted. Just as i hope humanity will never again take this monument for granted. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  2. Thank you for these lovely “before” pictures.

    As a Catholic (and one who has never been to Paris) I am still working out how to process this. Right now I just have a profound sense of sadness. And also of fear – that where the original was built as a monument to the glory of God (and in honor of the Virgin Mary for whom it was named) the replacement will be just another government project. Where most of the world has long seen a grand museum, I still saw a magnificent church. I am fearful that I will no longer be able to see that. I hope I am wrong.

    • It’s difficult for a person of faith to process the near-loss of such an important symbol of the faith, isn’t it. But don’t be afraid for the future of this church, J.P.: This site has been used for worship since Julius Caesar landed here in 52 B.C. If anything, I think almost losing Notre Dame will reconnect millions of people around the workd with the reason it was built 855 years ago: for the glory of God.

  3. This made me recall the fire at York Minster in1984.
    I am not in the least religious, but these monuments represent so much more than just a religious edifice.
    They are a reminder of what humanity can achieve in a world of turmoil & violence.
    So sad that such destruction can happen in almost the blink of an eye.
    Like York, with luck and time, it can be restored to its former glory.

    • Thank you so much for this thoughtful, hopeful comment, David. You are right that Notre Dame and the York Minster have significance far beyond being (albeit magnificent) places of worship. And I do hope that this tragedy will provide a moment of unity for the people of France, who have been struggling lately with so much unrest.

  4. Thanks for the beautiful pictures of Notre Dame. Let’s hope that some of the treasures have not been destroyed and that it will be rebuild. It won’t be the same, but…. time will tell what meaning it will bring.

    • Thank YOU for stopping by, Regine, and especially for your kind comment. I’ve been heartened throughout the day to see images from inside the cathedral with many priceless statues intact, and to hear that the enormous rose windows look okay at first glance. Let us indeed hope that many more treasures are also safe — not for their own sake, but for what they represent to people of faith, and to the people of France.

  5. Heidi, I was so sorry to see this yesterday. I immediately thought of you (and, Cari too). I knew that you would feel this deeply. Your photos are so beautiful. I hope much more get saved.

    • Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Tom. Truly. I hope Cari was able to visit and that she came home with some wonderful memories of this beautiful building — just as I hope it will be restored, so future generations can have the same privilege.

  6. My first reaction yesterday upon hearing about the fire was my heart sank unbelievably low because of the cathedral’s obvious historical and cultural significance but I think I felt far worse because I thought of you crestfallen. Do you know you’ve been the most wonderful ambassador, teacher and storyteller the past couple years with your essays and images from Paris, imbuing your impressions with such characteristic love, humor and fondness that the city has become a much more real place to me than any guidebooks or other accountings ever offered? I’ve had the immense privilege of visiting the cathedral but I was young and I think I had always counted on the outside chance of being able to go back and seeing it through more open, mature eyes. It will be awfully hard in the days and weeks to come, to learn what was lost and/or damaged. Don’t want to get my hopes up because there’s a lot we don’t know yet but I’m intrigued and hopeful at the opportunities a restoration may offer. There will certainly be an opportunity to contribute or donate toward such an effort and I will do so in your name. xxoo

    • I thought I had run out of tears, dear Jason, but your incredibly kind and moving comment has me crying once again. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I do believe with all my heart that you will still have the privilege of visiting again and seeing Notre Dame through more open, more mature eyes. And if there’s any way to move heaven and earth so our visits coincide, I will be there to show you the little traces of history that even fire can’t erase! In the meantime, I join you in being hopeful that much was saved, and that a full restoration will be possible. Thank you, thank you, thank you …

  7. I come from Lincoln in the UK which has a magnificent gothic cathedral and got up at 4am this morning to check on the news of Notre Dame, your photos are a beautiful tribute to this wonderful iconic building, was so pleased to hear they have been able to save the structure

    • Wasn’t it an enormous relief to hear that the structure can be saved? When I saw those fireballs yesterday I was certain the entire cathedral would crumble. It seems miraculous, somehow. Thank you so much for stopping by, and especially for your kind comment.

  8. Yes, there is a lack of human words to describe the importance of that devastating fire. But there was also an alarming voice in my heart speaking: And what about all those far more devastating acts of man-made violence (Isis) in Syria and Iraq where priceless oeuvres have suffered irreparable damage, acts of mindless distraction which only just meritted a few lines in the newspapers?! Are we measuring with different measures?
    But yes, yes and yes, it is a national tragedy, every single case of them, and I haven’t seen a better post than yours today. Those photos, I don’t know how and from where you’ve got them, they are über-stunning and show the lost heritage in all its beauty and splendor.
    I had one re-post on Flickr because I had some old photos in my private files – it’s nearly ironic that even the text I prepared in 2011 was well fitting to yesterdays tragedy:
    Luckily, I’ve already read and heard about various propositions for re-building whatever is needed. One ultra-rich investment family offered immediately 100 million € and the UNESCO has also made an important declaration:

    Here a 360° virtual tour by an Italian (link was sent to me by a friend):

    • As always, you make an excellent point, Kiki. Yes, we are indeed measuring with different measures — and that is unfair. Although I also wept when I read about the destruction of Palmyra, I think it resonated less for many people in the West because it’s not a familiar part of their cultural heritage. But SO MANY people have either been to Notre Dame, watched the movie, read the novel, seen pictures, that’s it’s part of the collective consciousness. That said, you’re right that we should be paying more attention to the global destruction of our human heritage — because these ancient sites really belong to us all.

      On a brighter note, thank you for all of the wonderful links you shared. I absolutely ADORE your photo collage! And isn’t that 360° virtual tour incredible? As is the declaration from UNESCO. Even amid the destruction there is beauty, and hope.

      Merci infiniment.

      • I still would like to know the provenance of your incredible photos. Can you enlighten me?
        And ‘my’ special joy is that the organ is not beyond renovation – that is something one can’t even start to contemplate. How ‘easily’ could the roof have fallen on this unique instrument and destroyed it. We all continue to live in HOPE 🙂

        • The provenance of my photos? I took them all myself over the past few years, Kiki — is that what you mean? (The photos I post here are always mine, unless I state otherwise.)

          And yes indeed, dear Kiki, I join you in rejoicing the survival of the organ, and of the magnificent stained-glass windows. I cried (again) yesterday when I read that news. Amid such destruction, what a gift it has been to also find HOPE. xx

          • well well well….. your photography is so outstanding that I honestly did NOT think it could be yours. A super big BRAVO to you and an even greater THANK YOU. I am pointing people to your blog for the ND drama!!!! And thanks for NOT putting any of the fire pics on either…. it’s too depressing!

          • Gosh, Kiki … well … thank you! This is truly a first for me. I am flattered to the point of speechlessness. And you’re very welcome for not having been subjected to even more fire photos. Our minds and hearts are already so saturated with those heartbreaking images that I would rather focus on happier times. And with each passing day I am growing more hopeful that this beautiful phoenix will indeed rise from the ashes! I’ve been absolutely stunned by the speed and generosity of the global response.

          • Yes! I saw that article also, Kiki. Hopefully the outpouring of support will spill over into other worthy causes too. And a very happy Easter to you too!

  9. What a beautiful tribute to this magnificent building. Thank you so so much for sharing it with us. I spent a lot of yesterday in tears, in shock, devastated. While we did not get a chance to see Notre Dame Paris while we were in Europe, we did see many of those old churches, including Notre Dame Rouen. They are so much more than churches – the history, the art, the architecture. Not to mention the significance of this particular church and its central spot in France’s history. I was so sad to see it go up, but I also have a lot of hope in the unity people have shown in the desire to rebuild. Sending hugs, prayers, and love to the people of France and everyone who mourns, and also the personnel who put a lot on the line to save what they could.

    • Oh, M.B. — I would have shared my box of Kleenex with you yesterday. Weren’t the images horrible? And yet, during your visit to Notre Dame de Rouen, you no doubt saw photos of the devastation that cathedral suffered from bombing raids during both world wars. And they rebuilt it! Just as they will rebuild Notre Dame. As you’ve said so beautifully, I too hope this tragedy will become a galvanizing moment of unity for the French people. Thank you for sharing your beautiful, uplifting, hopeful words here. xx

      • Well we shared a virtual box of kleenex anyway! 🙂 You are so right about Rouen, we did see the pictures, and they’ve done a marvelous job with those rebuilds!

        • I love the idea of a virtual Kleenex box: easy on the nose, and no waste. Ha ha!

          And about Rouen: It’s sad in a way that so many cities have had to rebuild their cathedrals after fires and wars — but reassuring to know also that it can be done. I hope they can meet Macron’s ambitious goal of five years. But no matter how long it takes, it will be worth the wait. xx

  10. Wow such an array of absolutely stunning photos of my favorite church. I am heartbroken. I will never forget when I lived in Paris in 1993 as a student how I’d go to listen to the live free organ concerts at the Notre Dame. It was so magical! There really is no place like it. I sincerely hope they can rebuild it in a way to preserve its heritage.

    • I join you in your heartbreak — and also in your hope that Notre Dame will be rebuilt in a way that both honors and preserves its heritage. Thank you so much for stopping by and for sharing your lovely memories here.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Soja; I very much appreciate your reading. And yes … yes, there is hope. I am so happy to be able to write those words after feeling so hopeless just two days ago!

  11. An awful tragedy, it’s such a beautiful cathedral and indeed such an icon of Paris and France. Had the pleasure of visiting it many years ago and it was so stunning inside. A sad loss 😕

    • It’s such an iconic building that it’s part of our collective consciousness, I think, whether we’ve actually set foot inside or not. But I am heartened to know that the structure and so many of its irreplaceable treasures (such as those windows!) will be saved, so that someday you will be able to visit, Simon, and see it with your own eyes. In the meantime, I am honored these words and images spoke to you. Thank you so much for stopping by!

    • Thank you, Michael! Yes, the photos are all mine — shot over the course of many, many visits of course. As you can see, it’s one of my favorite subjects. Happy Easter to you too, and thank you for stopping by!

  12. While watching, like the rest of the world, the news that devastating evening, I guessed you’d write a post. I knew it would include many beautiful photo’s too. What I couldn’t have guessed is that Notre Dame Cathedral would survive as well as it has. So there is a plan and it’ll be interesting to see it take shape again. Like time traveling back many centuries, we’ll be witness to something quite spectacular.

    I’m blown away by so many moments in your photo’s and wonder sometimes how long you waited to capture some. My most fav, lady with balloons, passing into view but not obstructing any part of the star of the show. The bridge photo, framing the Cathedral in a perfect oval of light. (Did you get the Mr. to paddle you out there?) Also, the long shot, down the canal, the sun perfectly lighting the boat in the water just before it floats into shadow.

    Finally, and my most favourite, the photo with a flock of birds flying on the right of the Cathedral. I just love watching birds fly together, synchronized, seemingly floating on breeze, back and forth. While it must be instinctual for them, to me it’s a beautiful sense of community and it looks like they’re having the time of their lives. That’s what I thought of when my eye’s fell upon the photo and it was a pretty pleasant moment, thanks dear 😀 xk

    • I could not agree more with your astonishment that the cathedral weathered that firestorm as well as it did, dear Boomdee. A week ago today I thought it was a total loss! And yet every day since then has revealed some new miracle (in the true sense, in some cases). So it’s wonderful to consider that you and I will have the privilege of seeing this Gothic masterpiece reconstructed before our very eyes. Well … over the next few years, anyway. 🙂 In the meantime, thank you to the moon and back for your kind words about my photos! That moment of the lady with the balloons was pure serendipity (and I still have no idea what it was about). The flood photos are pretty easy to get in the spring if you have a good pair of wellies. And those birds … well .. that was one of my favorite moments ever. It really is breathtaking to see so many creatures moving in unison like that, especially in a large city. I don’t feel like a still image can fully capture the magic of such a moment, but it did at least crystallize the memory for me. So glad it spoke to you too.


  13. Hello Heide.

    My heart started to bleed, when I heard about this and I became when sad. I never visited it inside due to long queues, but I have outside photos of course. Your photos praise its beauty. Thank You showing it outside and inside.

    Have a good day!

    • Hello Matti! I’m sorry you didn’t get to go inside — the beautiful windows alone were worth the queue. But with a bit of luck Macron’s vision will become reality and within a few years we’ll be able to go inside again. In the meantime I’m glad these images brought back some good memories for you. Have a wonderful day as well!

  14. I feel your sadness and despair, particularly since I know how much you love Paris and her secrets. Surprisingly much remains and it will be rebuilt. Sure, it won’t be the same but that is the condition upon which many old and restored buildings exist. Still, this was a unique and much loved building.

    I’m in the process of packing currently and will have the chance to see Notre Dame again soon, but from the outside only. It will still be the heart of Paris.

    BTW, absolutely gorgeous photos. I wish I’d taken them. 🙂

    • Thank you very much for your kind words, Mr. Draco. You are right that even the Notre Dame we knew and loved was a greatly evolved version of the original — and no doubt it will continue to change in future centuries, too. I’m just grateful the ancient stone structure was saved, after that terrible Monday on which it all seemed like a total loss.

      As for the near future … what’s this about a trip to Paris? Might our visits finally coincide?! (Check your blog’s email for my dates, and fingers crossed the answer is “yes.”)

  15. A lovely collection of photos and memories of Notre Dame. I visited twice, in 1989 and again on Easter in 1994. You feel the history in your bones when you’re inside. Like many, I’m amazed at what survived and impressed (and sometimes stunned) at the risk made on behalf of some of the relics. I’m grateful for no lives lost, and for all that still stands. I no your heart is full. xo

    • How wonderful that you were able to visit twice — and on Easter the second time, no less! As you say, you feel the history in your bones. Which is why I’m not surprised people risked their lives to save some of the relics that have been revered for generations. It does seem miraculous that no on was killed, doesn’t it — just as it seems miraculous that the structure of the building still stands tall. Thank you for stopping by and for sharing you own memories here, dear Alys. xoxo

    • Beautifully said, Otto. Thank goodness it wasn’t a total loss, as I feared on the night of the fire. I have hope that in a few years we will again be able to walk among those ancient stone pillars and gaze up in wonder at the beautiful rose windows.

  16. Magnificent shots. You have seen far more of it than I ever have. Actually, as my Mother is from Amiens and I kept hearing all my life that Amiens was a far nicer Cathedral I’ve never paid much attention to ND. It is true that Amiens is by far bigger (the statuary is also the work of Viollet Le Duc so most of those cathedrals have either been rebuilt or heavily altered in the 19th century or even later for Rouen and Reims).

    • Thank you for your generous compliment! I took a “Great Courses” class on cathedrals a couple of years ago, and even Professor William R. Cook raved about the Amiens cathedral — so your mother is probably not wrong! But for me Notre Dame has special meaning because it was where I first felt a deep connection with Paris and her centuries of history. And speaking of Viollet-le-Duc: If you should have an hour or two of leisure time, I highly recommend the interactive exhibit on his restoration of Notre Dame at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. It’s a simple kiosk among all the portals and statues, but it gave me a whole new appreciation for his work. And hope also that Our Lady will once again be restored to her full glory (though probably not in five years). 🙂

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