The devastating fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris has caused immense damage to the historic 12th century building.

Charles McClendon, a professor of the history of art at Brandeis University, discusses the Notre Dame’s past and future, the repair, restoration and renovation of the damaged structure, the need for continuous maintenance of historic buildings, and the Notre Dame’s cultural significance.

Describing the impact of the fire, McClendon says the most significant damage happened to the forest or the ‘foret’ near the spire – the hundreds of massive beams and timbers dating back to the 12th century. The timber construction made the church a tinderbox, he said.

On the way forward, McClendon says restoration will be contingent on the condition of the vaulting or stone masonry of the ceiling. If the vaults are in reasonably good shape, the damaged sections can be repaired.

Citing an example from early 20th century when the cathedral in Reims near the heart of France’s Champagne region caught fire following bombardment during World War I, McClendon said the heavily damaged vaults were successfully repaired. The timber beams were also destroyed in the fire but were replaced and reconstructed with metal.

The Notre Dame fire has also damaged the masonry and the stained glass windows.

According to McClendon, the restoration will depend on the techniques that will be employed to repair the cathedral. Describing modern restoration techniques as very subtle, he says the final outcome may not look dramatically different from a distance; however, up close, the original and new elements can be identified quite clearly.

Though the Notre Dame has been at the receiving end of attacks and neglect over the centuries, the cathedral did go through extensive renovation in the 19th century – the spire that fell in the recent fire was, in fact, created during this period.

Calling for better care of historical buildings, McClendon says intervention is imperative whenever any sign of damage is noticed such as a leaky roof, loose masonry or sculpture falling apart. Additionally, air pollution not only causes dirt build-up on facades but is also a major risk factor for these buildings; carbon monoxide, for instance, can dissolve marble and limestone structures.

Elaborating on the cultural significance of Notre Dame, McClendon says the cathedral started the age of gigantism, being the first to break the 100-foot mark in height. Considered the most famous gothic church, Notre Dame was created at the time of the birth and expansion of the first international university – The University of Paris, where some of the best minds taught and also started the first curriculum of the liberal arts.

Based on the interview published on the Brandeis University website.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons