Campus News

Notre Dame’s fire, restoration illustrative of its history, faculty say

The world watched as the April 15 fire destroyed the spire and two-thirds of the roof of Paris landmark Notre Dame Cathedral. Carolina faculty discuss the building, its significance and what comes next.

A photo of Notre Dame burning
The world watched as the April 15 fire destroyed the spire and two-thirds of the roof of Paris landmark Notre Dame Cathedral. Carolina faculty discuss the building, its significance and what comes next. Photo by Olivier Mabelly, licensed through Creative Commons

Notre Dame Cathedral is a “living, breathing site showing layers of time,” according to one Carolina faculty member with firsthand knowledge of the Paris building.

The significance of the 856-year-old structure came into sharp focus when an April 15 fire destroyed the cathedral’s spire and two-thirds of the roof. While investigation of the blaze’s cause continues in France, Carolina’s faculty experts have watched the fire’s aftermath with much interest, while remembering their visits to the cathedral.

Feelings of devastation and relief

Brett Whalen

Days before the fire, associate professor Brett Whalen led his medieval history class through a virtual tour of 13th century Paris that started at the cathedral. “I had literally been showing photos of it in class, then to see the destruction made me feel viscerally devastated,” he said.

Christoph Brachmann, Mary H. Cain Distinguished Professor of Art History and renowned expert on Gothic cathedrals, glimpsed a photo of the burning spire before entering his Gothic art and architecture course. “The students were very moved,” he said. In their previous class meeting, they had discussed how sometimes cathedrals were voluntarily burned or destroyed for different reasons.

Evyatar Marienberg, associate professor in religious studies, includes contemporary Catholicism among his scholarly interests. Marienberg studied Catholic theology for five years while living in Paris and estimates that he visited the cathedral dozens of times.

“When the fire broke out, and I saw the first images online, I was, like many, clearly worried, and a bit sad, but I was not shocked,” Marienberg said. “When they said no one was hurt, no one died, I was relieved. My biggest fear was that someone, a staff member, a tourist, a fire-fighter might die in this inferno.”

Damage assessment

JJ Bauer
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Teaching assistant professor JJ Bauer in the art and art history department thought early on that the stone construction would provide stability and possibly prevent damage to the church’s many artifacts and icons. “It’s a living building with layers of time,” she said.

The timber framing of the cathedral’s roof was one of the oldest structures in Paris, and cannot be restored exactly as it was before the fire. Called the “forest” because of the large number of oak beams, it measured 100 meters long, 13 meters wide in the nave, 40 meters in the transept and 10 meters high. The first frame was built around 1160-70, but its wood was reused in the second frame and covered by 1,326 tiles of five-millimeter-thick lead in the 11th and 12th centuries.

While the cathedral’s organ sustained water damage, most of the relics and even three beehives on a nearby flat roof, with 180,000 bees, survived the fire. According to, four large 17th– and 18th-century paintings depicting the apostles were partly damaged and a fragment of the Crown of Thorns, along with relics of two saints, were destroyed. The Rose Windows did not appear to suffer significant damage.

From his studies of its construction, Brachmann knew the cathedral would not collapse, despite one wall below the spire becoming unstable. “I told students about the advantage of being built with stone,” Brachmann said, “People might expect after 9/11 that, if it burns, then at a certain point everything must collapse. But these buildings are much more stable than any skyscrapers.”

An unusual survivor

During and after the French Revolution, much of Notre Dame’s medieval art and artifacts were destroyed, but the 1831 publication of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” inspired restorations of the cathedral. Between 1844 and 1864, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc supervised the addition of the cathedral’s iconic spire. “He imagined a perfect spire to replace the previous one, which kept falling over in windy conditions,” Bauer said.

Evyatar Marienberg

France is open to proposals of all kinds to rebuild the spire and roof, knowing that the cathedral cannot be restore 100% to its pre-fire state. The faculty foresee a more modern design. In the proposed designs now on architectural websites, Bauer sees “an expression of the continuity of the Gothic tradition of maximizing the potential of light and glass with 21st-century architectural materials.”

“It’s a multilayered site with Roman, medieval and other later changes, but it’s important not to freeze the cathedral in time,” Whalen said. “I hope that people will get creative with the restoration because it’s a living, breathing place, not a relic.”

Marienberg predicted that much of the damaged cathedral will be restored “exactly as it was” but that “some parts will be built in a new style,” he said. “Another stage in the life of this amazing building will take place.”

Personal reflections

Like most who visit Notre Dame, the faculty have their recollections and thoughts.

Christoph Brachmann

“Notre Dame de Paris is a building. Stunning. Impressive, but a building. Not a human,” said Marienberg. “I definitely like it very much and have many memories from there. It’s an old building that’s undergone renovations, demolitions, additions and changes. Old churches, like many other ancient buildings, are patchworks.”

Bauer visited during a college tour of European architecture, remembering it as a place where light and acoustics enhance worship.

Brachmann last saw Notre Dame in 2014, realizing that the more than 12 million tourists visiting annually had made the cathedral far less accessible without a lot of planning.

Exhausted after an overnight flight in 2017, Whalen decided to visit Notre Dame after breakfast and found a side chapel where he nodded off while listening to Gregorian chants. “I awoke and felt loved and cared for, and sort of fell in love with it all over again.”