Like so many people around the world, USC experts watched with horror as flames swept through the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday, causing extensive damage to the 850-year-old building. They agreed that the fire would have a deep and long-lasting impact far beyond the City of Lights.
“The cathedral has been a symbol of the heart of Paris since the Middle Ages,” said Lisa Bitel, professor of history and Dean’s Professor of Religion at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “It represents 10 centuries of French history.
Losing Notre Dame is like the Washington Monument or something even more crucial just suddenly disappearing.
“Losing Notre Dame is like the Washington Monument or something even more crucial just suddenly disappearing.”
Bitel noted that the cathedral is iconic in the literature, architecture, religion and culture of France. And while the cathedral — one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture — has been damaged, restored and upgraded many times through the centuries, it has not been on a scale that will be required now.
“I can’t think of anything more precious that could burn in Paris”
Carolyn Malone, USC Dornsife professor of medieval art and archaeology, agreed that the building is one of the major Gothic cathedrals in the world. With its interior height of 102 feet, it was the tallest building in France when it was built.
“It’s extremely important to the city, and I can’t think of anything more precious that could burn in Paris,” Malone said.
She noted that while cathedrals bombed in World War II were rebuilt, it’s difficult to imagine how long that would take or what it would cost to rebuild Notre Dame.
Remembering many visits
The Rev. James Heft, USC Dornsife professor of religion and an expert in Catholic history, has visited Notre Dame Cathedral many times.
“It’s an awesome experience to stand inside of it. The rose windows, the flying buttresses, the silence in there is deafening,” he said. “It’s inconceivable to see the destruction of such a sacred place, a work of art and a fortress of history.”
Heft noted that while cathedrals are structures, the church is comprised of people of faith, who continue.
Still, Heft couldn’t help but feel impacted by the fire.
“It’s a massive loss and a personal loss,” Heft said. “I feel sick.”