The Current

Notre-Dame fire just another chapter in the life of a historic monument, says medievalist

The fire that ravaged Notre-Dame prompted an outpouring of sadness — as well as billions in funding pledged to restore the iconic structure. We speak to a medievalist about the life cycles of iconic monuments, and the idea that they are never destroyed, but live and change with the ages.

'While things certainly won't be the same, this isn't the end of the line,' Sara Uckelman said

While the devastation is undeniable, Sara Uckelman said, Notre-Dame will recover from the fire and become an evolved version of itself. (Christophe Petit Tesson/Reuters)
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Medievalist Sara Uckelman's initial reaction to Monday's fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral was similar to many felt around the world.

"It's one of the first times that I've sworn in front of my child. I couldn't believe that this was happening, that I was seeing what I was seeing. And it was horrifying," she told Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current.

Her horror, however, was short-lived.

Uckelman, who studies the life cycle of churches and is an assistant professor of logic at Durham University's philosophy department, quickly turned her attention from the devastation to what the monument could become in the future.

She spoke to Tremonti about how the Notre-Dame cathedral, and other historically significant monuments like it, live and change with the ages, and how Monday's fire is just another chapter in its life cycle.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Sara Uckelman, pictured here with her husband at a medieval event in 2016, is a member of the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Durham University. (Rick Williams)

What makes you feel hopeful about the future of Notre-Dame?

One of the things that struck me with everybody's responses as the horror and the tragedy was unfolding was this feeling that "How could we ever come back from this?" That this is so much destruction, how could we ever rebuild, how could things ever be the same?

And while things certainly won't be the same, this isn't the end of the line. If you look at the history of cathedrals and even the history of art itself, this is something that happens.

Cathedrals are built and then they are burned and they are rebuilt or they are ransacked. We have plenty of historical examples of terrible things happening to churches that are still standing and still enjoyed today.

So you're saying that there is a life to these churches that is more about community than about structure?

Yes. There's always something important about the building, but the building without the community ... and without this kind of collective intention behind it — it's just a building. 

No one can dispute the importance that Notre-Dame has to the history of Gothic architecture, but that's not the only value that it has.

If we look at the building and we invest the value in the building, then that's essentially saying that the cathedral was frozen in time ... We prevent the cathedral from being alive, from having a chance to grow and to change.

Remind us how many times Notre-Dame has been damaged and restored.

It was built in the 1160s — well, it was started in the 1160s. It wasn't finished until a century later. It was desecrated during the French Revolution in the 1790s, when a lot of the medieval and historical icons and religious imagery was destroyed. 

The rose windows date from the 13th century. Much of the glass in them is 19th century. They've been restored, they've been reconstructed ... So every part of the cathedral has this multi-layered history to it.

'Much of the glass in [the rose windows] is 19th century. They've been restored; they've been reconstructed' over history, Uckelman explained. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

We see houses of worship being attacked in all parts of the world when there is conflict. And they're done for a reason because they're so symbolic, right?

They are. They're symbolic of not just the religious symbolism that they hold, but something like the cathedral of Notre-Dame is the heart of Paris, which is the heart of France.

So buildings like this can have a very important national and cultural sort of significance that goes beyond their religious importance. 

What do you say to people who say that Notre-Dame will never be the same?

It won't be. But if you want it to be the same, if you want it to go back to how things were, this is forcing it to become this relic of history and not letting it be what it is supposed to be, which is a living monument that can change.

There is space for it to become the Notre-Dame of the 21st century.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Julie Crysler and Ines Colabrese.

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