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Laura Weigert, professor in Art History and director of the Program in Medieval Studies offers insight into the significance of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Weigert

"This building at the heart of Paris is a testimony to medieval ingenuity, technological sophistication, craftsmanship and daring architecture." - Laura Weigert

A massive fire devastated the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this week, an 856-year-old structure that survived wars, riots and revolutions.

While the cause of the fire is undetermined, more than $1 billion in donations have already been pledged to restore the cathedral. As police, fire officials and architects determine the extent of the damage, Laura Weigert, a professor of art history in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and director of the Program in Medieval Studies, discussed the historical value of the renowned structure. 

Weigert, who teaches a course in gothic art and architecture, offered insight into the significance of the cathedral and what it means in history and architectural ingenuity.

What areas of the cathedral sustained the most damage during the fire?  
We’re still waiting to learn the full extent of the damage, but we know the structure sustained major damage to its central spire, a large portion of its roof and parts of its vaulted interior. It seems that the disaster we had feared, watching the flames and smoke spew from the east end of the building, was averted in that the main structure of the cathedral is still intact.

Are there parts of the structure that may be too difficult to restore or impossible to replace?
Photos circulating of the interior seem reassuring that the damage to the vaults, stained glass rose windows and interior furnishings was relatively contained. What we don't know is how much damage was caused by smoke and water. Smoke damage to the medieval stained-glass windows is of particular concern since it will be difficult if not impossible to restore their colors.

We do know that the loss is already inestimable. The wooden frame, below the roof and above the vaults, is gone. This is a material loss of medieval timber dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, but also a loss of the information the frame provided about medieval engineering and artisans.

While we have technology today that can help build large structures, at almost 900 years old, what does the cathedral represent in architectural history?
The spire, which is now gone, was restored in the nineteenth century under Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, as well as significant aspects of the cathedral. It attests to a 19th-century vision of the medieval past and to 19th-century engineering and restoration practice. Notre Dame provides a window into different historical periods. Each one contributing to how it is seen, each one valuable for understanding the building. We might also remember that to build the 12th century cathedral, the earlier Merovingian and Carolingian church structure was demolished and that the most impressive medieval cathedrals were built after a fire destroyed their predecessor.

What should be taken into account during restorations?
This building at the heart of Paris is a testimony to medieval ingenuity, technological sophistication, craftsmanship and daring architecture. It was the highest church built at the time (measuring about 108 feet from pavement to the crown of the vaults). It displayed the first monumental flying buttresses. Moving forward, we will need to assure that any changes take into account the expertise of scholars of the Middle Ages and appreciate the alterations, reconstructions and additions on the cathedral up to 2019.