Global Kenyon is the Collegian’s recurring international news feature. In order to tie these events back to campus, insights and analysis from members of the Kenyon community are included. Because these pieces will be short, we hope they will inspire readers to conduct research about the global world on their own.
On April 15 and 16, a massive fire consumed two-thirds of the roof of the historic Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in the center of Paris, leading to a global moment of mourning for one of Europe’s most famous pieces of architecture. While there was concern that the entire cathedral would burn to the ground as the blaze continued, firefighters managed to save most of the structure, including the famous bell towers at the front.
Over $1 billion was raised in three days for the cathedral’s restoration, with French President Emmanuel Macron making an ambitious pledge to have Notre-Dame rebuilt in five years, according to the Washington Post on April 18. However, the outpouring of support has faced criticism on multiple fronts. French citizens, who have spent months engaging in Yellow Vest protests concerning a raise in gasoline taxes, feel the French government is prioritizing a building over the needs of its people. Other critics point to the huge amount of funding for Notre-Dame in comparison to non-Western sites, such as the National Museum in Brazil, that have received dramatically less support to rebuild.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Claire Novotny sees the emotional response to the destruction of Notre-Dame as a signifier of the cathedral’s place as an important site of global heritage, even though its original significance was mainly to French Catholics. As a popular tourist destination, millions of people of different backgrounds have experienced a connection to the building through seeing it in person. “That is an interesting phenomenon we embrace, a different culture’s patrimony as our own,” she said.
Comparing the fire of Notre-Dame to the partial destruction of Palmyra by ISIS in January 2017, Novotny noted lack of access to Palmyra as one reason for the quieter outrage at the devastation, despite the deliberateness of the demolition and Palmyra’s importance as a site in the cradle of civilization.
“People don’t feel the same kind of connection to it. It feels like it’s still someone else’s culture or someone else’s history,” said Novotny. Notre-Dame’s place as a monument of Western architecture and intellectual and religious achievement also contributes to this.
This is not the first time Notre-Dame has experienced physical damage. As its Gothic architecture and Catholicism itself fluctuated in popularity in France, it underwent significant changes, from the decapitation of 28 of its statues during the French Revolution to its narrow escape from the demolition many other Gothic buildings in Paris suffered during the 19th century, according to an April 20 BBC article. When the cathedral was crumbling from centuries of neglect, Victor Hugo’s famous novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame prompted the restoration responsible for Notre-Dame’s well-maintained condition before the fire. Even the spire that fell during the conflagration was a 19th-century replacement of the original.
Novotny stressed the damage to Notre-Dame as an example of the changeability of monuments and heritage. “We see these structures as being very fixed … they’re not,” she said. “They’re always ongoing.” Indeed, according to an April 20 article by the Observer, France has already announced a contest to replace the spire, and one of the first submissions proposed building the new roof and spire out of metal and glass. “This will, I think, become another part of Notre-Dame’s story,” Novotny said.