Why The Cathedral of Notre Dame Matters

It's a French national treasure, but Caroline Bruzelius says its value belongs to all of us

The Cathedral of Notre Dame on fire, Monday. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame on fire, Monday. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Few American scholars know the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris as well as Duke art historian Caroline Bruzelius. She knows every statue, every gargoyle, is familiar “with every nook and cranny” of the 800-year-old structure. She once strapped her three-week-old son to her and climbed up the scaffolding to reach the top of the cathedral.

So, it’s not surprising that Monday’s devastating fire at the cathedral left her “heartbroken,” as she told NBC News. But because she knows the history of the place, she also spoke about the cathedral’s resilience.

Caroline Bruzelius “Seeing that fire was heart-chilling, and it extended the entire length of the roof structure,” Bruzelius told National Public Radio. “The cathedral has been changed and damaged many, many times, especially after the French Revolution, which, as you know, was as much against the church as it was against the state. And a sculpture was torn off the facade. Many portals were damaged, and the stained glass windows had already partially been changed in the 18th century. A lot of change has happened at this building, but this is a kind of cataclysmic change way beyond anything we've ever seen.”

In the aftermath of the fire, Bruzelius, who retired to emeriti status in 2018, spoke to numerous media outlets about the history of the cathedral and its importance. On Monday she appeared on NPR and NBC. This morning, she appeared on CNN.

She also said how the fire wasn’t entirely unexpected.  While most visitors focus and the extraordinary stone structure, she said they may not see “the forest” of wooden beams that are essential to holding up the roof.

“People like myself who work on them and metaphorically crawl up and down the walls know, however, that even monumental architecture is very vulnerable and that maintenance and restoration is critical,” she told NPR. “Here, I don't really know what kind of anti-fire provisions they had up above the vaults, but clearly, as I said, this was - in some ways, that kind of wooden roof is an accident waiting to happen.”

For decades following the French Revolution, the cathedral fell into a period of decay and under the rule of revolutionary governments.  Important works of art were destroyed or collapsed from neglect. Some ended up in the gutters of Paris. A number found their way into private collections.

It wasn’t until novelist Victor Hugo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and other writings called out the country’s indifference to what he considered a “national treasure.” His writings resulted in a resurgence of national interest and attention in the place.


“And the myriad statues that thronged the bays of the nave and the choir, kneeling, standing, mounted on horseback, men, women, children, bishops, men-at-arms, in stone, marble, gold, silver, bronze, even wax; who swept them brutally away? It was not time.”
-- Victor Hugo


The Notre Dame head in Duke's Brummer collection. Courtesy the Nasher Museum of Art Some of that history is stored here at Duke, in the Brummer Collection of Medieval Art, housed at the Nasher Museum. The collection includes a sculptured head that came to Duke dirty and covered with lichen before a visiting art historian from Germany proposed that it came from Notre Dame. The theory was confirmed by nuclear physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The global outpouring of shock and sympathy also underscored how while the cathedral is a symbol of French national pride, it is also a global icon whose power resonates beyond national power.

"Why do tourists flock to it? Why do people come from around the world? Because it is just one of those monuments that is simply transcendental," Bruzelius told NBC.

Duke paid tribute to the cathedral Monday, as “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, was performed at 5 p.m. on the carillon.




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