The flying buttresses were the first thing that attracted me to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They were a nearly perfect example of an architectural feature that allowed buildings to be built with soaring ceilings before the invention of iron beams.
I always wanted to be an architect while I was growing up. I had inherited a great-great uncle’s drafting tools and wanted to follow in his footsteps. I spent countless hours as a child drawing houses, famous buildings, and churches with flying buttresses.
Long after my career path moved away from architecture, I finally saw the flying buttress at the magnificent cathedral. It was like I had known the building all my life. I walked all the way around the building, taking in all the angles and curves, understanding that this was more than just a place of worship.
Mary Lou first visited Notre Dame in 1974. We took our children in the 1990s and then again in 2001. It ranks as one of the top 10 buildings I have ever visited, not just because of its age or architectural elements, but because it was part of the heart and soul of Paris.
The cathedral took almost 200 years to build after it was started in the 12th century. Like most buildings that age, it has been remodeled and changed numerous times over the centuries.
The flying buttresses themselves are designed to prevent the exterior walls of the building from being pushed outward by the force of the ceiling above. This permits the walls to be higher, but also thinner which allows for the large stained glass windows which are such a beautiful part of the church.
Mary Lou and I were lucky enough to have taken a tour of the ceilings and roofs of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. That tour gave us a good understanding of the way these early Gothic cathedrals were built and helped me understand what was happening during the fire yesterday.
Ironically, it may be the old architecture that saved the parts of the building that did not collapse. It would be accurate to say that a modern building of the same size would have been totally destroyed with this type of intense fire.
Notre Dame has seen so much history in its 900 years. It was where Napoleon seized the Emperor’s Crown from the Pope. It survived being looted during the French Revolution when it was briefly used as a storage place for wine. It survived four years of Nazi rule during World War II.
The cathedral is the home of one of the most precious relics of Christianity, the Crown of Thorns, which Roman soldiers put upon the head of Jesus before He was crucified. It is also the home to a fragment of the True Cross, which is believed to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. One of the Holy Nails, believed to have been used in the crucifixion, is also at Notre Dame.
There are three organs in the cathedral, which early reports indicate were saved from the fire. Hopefully, the three massive stained glass windows will be able to be salvaged.
This morning has given new hope to those who thought all was lost as they watched the fire last evening. Two prominent families have pledged $300 million dollars to the restoration. The French President has pledged that the Cathedral will be restored to its former glory.
It seems fitting that as Christianity prepares for Easter and remembers the resurrection of Jesus Christ that one its most famous places of worship which was thought to be lost forever will now be saved. Praise be to God.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]