Professor gives breakdown of Notre Dame Cathedral fire

<p>&nbsp;On April 22, the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built during the 12th century, caught on fire. Laura Weigert, director of Rutgers' Medieval Studies department, attributes the cause of the fire to possibly mechanical issues.&nbsp;</p>

 On April 22, the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built during the 12th century, caught on fire. Laura Weigert, director of Rutgers' Medieval Studies department, attributes the cause of the fire to possibly mechanical issues. 


The Notre-Dame Cathedral, an example of Gothic architecture built in France in the 12th century and the tallest church built at the time, holds layers of history that are incorporated into its structure, said Laura Weigert, the director of Medieval Studies at Rutgers.

“The Notre-Dame Cathedral has a lot of historical significance for people who live and visited Paris, for France and for the entire world,” she said. 

The cathedral was built on the site of an earlier church that had been constructed in the Merovingian period and then reconstructed in the Carolingian period, Weigert said. In the 12th century, the Gothic cathedral was built. It was noted as remarkable for the height of its nave and the use of flying buttresses, which were considered new and innovative constructions at the time.

The 12th-century church was enlarged in the 13th century, making the medieval sections of the cathedral belonging to both of those periods. The process of renovation and reconstruction in the 19th century transformed the church and the spire that were in the news today, Weigert said.

The cause of the fire that partially damaged the cathedral on April 22 was possibly due to some mechanical issues that were ironically connected to a renovation project, and the wood timber in the roof burned extremely quickly, making the response time longer for the firefighters to recognize what was actually happening, she said.

“Any fire alarm in the cathedral had to be verified first by an individual before the firefighters are called in. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but they are looking into whether or not the notification of the fire was part of the problem,” Weigert said. 

When being asked if it was possible to restore or replace the structure, she said this brings up a lot of questions about what restoration means and whether those things are different from the reconstruction. These are questions that really need to be thought out carefully.

The wood roof, that is referred to as “the forest,” was essentially 100 meters of wood beams and would be extremely difficult to replace in the same form, Weigert said. There are conversations about reconstructing with a metal frame, but that certainly is not considered as restoration even though it is reconstructing the roof.

There are various problems with reconstructing with wood such as finding the sufficient amount of timber to reconstruct and the environmental issues that are related to finding and using that amount of timber, she said.

The information that is provided with these 12th and 13th-century wood timbers, is about medieval engineering and information that is now lost, Weigert said. Since the roof is not visible, it is something that at this point, in her opinion, would not make sense to reconstruct because it might not be beneficial for environmental, practical or economic reasons.

The extent of the damage of Notre-Dame is something that we still do not know, Weigert said. What we do know is that the roof structure with the 12,000 oak beams was destroyed,  as well as the spier, or pointed tower, that had been reconstructed in the 19th century. 

“There’s a lot of information that we still don’t know, and we also don’t know the extent of the damage of the structural walls of the cathedral,” she said. “Overall, many elements of the architecture were destroyed and for people who have studied Gothic architecture, it was particularly difficult to see the cathedral burning.” 


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