St. Louis historian relieved damage wasn't worse at Notre Dame Cathedral

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral within five years.

Fred Bodimer
April 17, 2019 - 3:42 am

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) — A local historian sighed with relief upon hearing that virtually all of the priceless artifacts kept inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris survived Monday's devastating fire.

"I think everything that was irreplaceable was saved," said Dr. Thomas Madden, a History professor and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. 

Many of the centuries-old artworks and religious artifacts were hustled to safety using a human chain to quickly remove them -- including chalices, crosses and rare relics. 

Related: Notre Dame hailed as monument to the 'best of civilization'

France's culture minister said the cathedral's most precious treasures had been saved including the tunic of St. Louis and the relic Catholics believe to be the crown of thorns that was placed on the head of Jesus during his crucifixion. 

"There's been a lot of talk about the relic of the Crown of Thorns," Madden told KMOX. "That's a fascinating relic. It's had a very long history. There have been a number of occasions where it was almost destroyed and it's always managed to survive. It would have really been a catastrophe if it had been destroyed in an accident like this."

The Cathedral's wooden roof and wooden interior could not be saved. 

"The wood roof, much of it is, in fact, medieval, but you can always build another wood roof," said Madden. "But the things that were within the stone structure, and the stone structure itself, are absolutely irreplaceable."

Construction of Notre Dame Cathedral began in the 12th century and continued for nearly 200 years. The structure is a survivor of wars and revolutions over the centuries. 

"During the French Revolution in 1789, they stormed Notre Dame Cathedral and did a lot of damage -- mostly with statues," Madden said. "They couldn't touch the rose windows because they were too high.  But they did get to a lot of the statues of kings from the Old Testament that were in the Cathedral. They mistakenly thought the statues represented French kings so they chopped off all their heads and buried them. They were discovered later and you can actually now see them in a museum nearby."

"In the revolution of 1830, the Parisians decided to burn down the Archbishop's palace.  The fire spread to the south transept of Notre Dame Cathedral and caused a lot of damage to the walls there and also to the south rose window which had to be reconstructed."

Madden says the fact that so much of the Cathedral could be saved this time is a testament to how well it was constructed back in the 12th century. 

"I really think this is largely due to the skill of the 12th and 13th-century engineers who built this church. That roof with its ribbed vaults at the top of the Gothic cathedral are designed to transfer weight away from the roof and then down within the walls around the windows and then out to those flying buttresses.  And so when the roof collapsed on them, they did exactly as they were designed to do. They pushed the weight out to the flying buttresses and the main stone structure held."

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral within five years.   Experts, tho, say realistically it will take between ten and fifteen years.